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Jungle Rules: The Powerful Mentality of New Paltz Volleyball

Foreword

“We roll the dice with each new generation, hoping our example was enough as they claim the torch of leadership”. I wrote those words to myself in a journal the day I graduated from New Paltz. I reread them every now and then, to remember why setting the standard matters.

I knew for the longest time I wanted to write an article focused on New Paltz, but finding the inspiration was incredibly difficult when there were so many angles to choose from. I was only able to narrow down my scope when I recalled a moment from one of my club practices (pre-covid).

My girls were playing 6-on-6 and I was the up-ref for the drill. During the game there was a joust between two players which resulted in the ball going out of bounds, it was a gray area call with no clear correct choice. My team was arguing over who would get the point until I blew my whistle and said, “Come on girls, it’s Jungle Rules”. Within moments I was doubled over, laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe as my team looked at me like I was a crazy person.

While this story may seem innocuous to you as a reader, to me it means everything, serving as the very foundation of this whole article. If there was ever a phrase that could summarize my time in the New Paltz program, it was “Jungle Rules” … words Coach Petrus used so often throughout my athletic career they have been ingrained into my very soul as a Volleyball Coach.

“Come on guys… it’s Jungle Rules”. I first heard this phrase during winter intersession my freshmen year. Radu had lined us up for 6-on-6, and “Jungle Rules” was the expectation. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I do remember the upperclassmen on the team chuckling to each other, as if they were in on an inside joke. The game started and the upperclassmen brought the energy, getting after it with each point, letting loose and playing hard… daring the rest of the team to match their effort.

At first, I simply thought Jungle Rules was Radu’s way of saying “I’m the only ref guys so you have to call your own violations because I can’t see everything”, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, it acted like a switch, and over the next four years I watched this phrase trigger an intensity and passion in our practices I can only ever hope to replicate as a coach now. It was a phrase that reminded us of how powerful we could be, it was a phrase that pushed us to play above our self-imposed ceilings. It brought out the best in us as athletes, and I’m not the only one who thought so.

I knew my own story would not be enough to adequately cover the totality of what it means to be a New Paltz Hawk. I was not the only player to experience the “Jungle Rules”. So, over the last year I’ve interviewed former alumni of the SUNY New Paltz Men’s Volleyball Program. We talked about their time in the program, their experiences as players, how the New Paltz culture affected them, and continues to stay with them to this day. I’m beyond grateful to them all for speaking with me, and beyond proud to know we are brothers bonded by the greatest sport in the world. We all went through the same program, we all played for the same coach, and our collective stories created a narrative worth writing about it.

I am a proud New Paltz alumnus. While I often try to temper my New Paltz bias in the articles I write for FrogJump, I have no intention of doing that in this piece. I have such pride in my former program it can be a tad nauseating, and so it’s only fair to let you (reader) know now. This piece looks into the culture of New Paltz volleyball, based on the experiences of several proud alumni.

There’s a reason why we say “There’s only one …” when we refer to New Paltz; there’s a reason why we proudly sing the song before every match. So let’s dive in.

“We go with Jump”

Radu first took over in 2006, and in that time has built a program which has produced numerous all-Americans, won three UVC Championships, and two NCAA Championships. I joined the team in 2008, his third year at the helm, and a very different New Paltz.

Russ Rose once said, “tradition takes time, culture takes time”, they don’t just happen overnight. He’s beyond correct; while I was new to the program in 2008, I am by no means unknown anymore even to the youngest hawk (yeah, I’m one of THOSE alumni). But it’s amazing to have watched the program flourish over the years, especially considering where we started.

From 2008-2012, I would largely classify these years as the time we were in the “bubble” of D3VB. We were a talented group, but by no means a powerhouse. We weren’t as skilled as any of the top teams in the division, but that didn’t matter to Radu. We needed to close the gap because we weren’t anything special. The question remains, how does one close the gap when you aren’t as skilled as the teams you are trying to beat?

“Our style requires a physical base of play…”

Of all the conversations I’ve had with alumni and people familiar with our program, they all say the same thing. The Hawks are known for intense plyometric training. This is our way… and has been our way going as far back as 2006. This is where it all starts for New Paltz, the physical base of play, the actual foundation of any athletic program. While we weren’t as good as the top teams back then, I would argue we were just as strong and jumped just as high.

While the rest of the D3VB community often asks me, “Why is it called FrogJump?”, any New Paltz Hawk from 2006 to present would instantly know why. For the last 15 years each Hawk has done upwards of several thousand “Frog Jumps” (also known as standing broad jumps) during their time in the program. It is the plyometric exercise that forms the very foundation of our physical training and ethos. Regardless of the time of year, how much time we spend in the weight room, or who we might be playing the next day… Frog Jumps are always present, and never optional.

While we may not have been “good” during those years, we were never going to lose a game because we were tired. We were never going to lose a match because we couldn’t jump anymore. Because our style requires the physical endurance to jump as high as possible, as long as possible, without fear of fatigue or weakness. Because you can’t attack the ball when you’re tired, and our mentality is to get after the ball from every part of the court.

This was my biggest takeaway freshman year, and one of the lessons I recall most when I reminisce about the glory days. We weren’t the best team in 2009, but we didn’t let it dictate our will to fight. We finished the year 21-14, but that’s not the record that means the most to me.

We were 5-1 in five set matches that season. We were so confident in our ability to play deep into a match that if it ever went to set 5, we knew we’d win. A belief like that is incredibly powerful for any team, especially ours at the time; all because of our physical base of play.

Volleyball is equal parts mental and physical. One of the funniest misconceptions I see each year as I watch match after match is coaches and players using “mental lapses” as the reason why they lost a crucial point in a big match. I agree that mental lapses occur in a game, but a good portion of the “mental lapses” I see are strictly caused by a player’s individual fatigue. They tipped the ball because they didn’t get a full approach, they didn’t jump as hard as they could, they couldn’t take the extra step to cover their spot, the list goes on.

Simply put, a team’s physical base of play is intrinsically important when it comes to covering “mental lapses”. It’s a lot easier to play optimally deep into a rally when your body is not fighting you each step of the way. At New Paltz, “Physical” is “Mental”, and if you don’t have good “physical”, you will not have good “mental”. The Jungle Rules require both. 

Come on guys… believe in your power!”

Strength comes in many forms; physical, mental, spiritual, etc. But I think one of the core foundations of strength begins with belief, and belief can be influenced by an individual’s will to succeed in those three areas. I’m not a social scientist, I’m not a famous author, I’m not a sports psychologist… but one of the most distinct memories I have from my time at New Paltz was the 2009 Nazareth Tournament, which centered a lot around belief.

It was our first big tournament of the year, and back then it had the prestige of being one of the premier tournaments of the season. Every team present was strong, and we were expected to go 0-4 in games by most of the landscape; we were scheduled to play #2 UCSC, #4 Stevens Tech, #8 Nazareth, and #13 Medaille (rankings are reflective of their position in the AVCA poll that week).

Radu brought us all together the first day as we were about to warm up for our match against UCSC, and he said “Guys, this weekend is Jungle Rules… I hope you brought your helmets”. The team laughed, but the second we took the floor for our dynamic warm-up I distinctly remember the look on the faces of the upperclassmen to this day. They were locked in, they were focused, several of them staring through the net at the other team with such an intent I found it scary. Many of our guys were from Rochester back then, this was their home, they wanted to make a show.

Looking back, we played way above our talent level that weekend. UCSC and Nazareth were two of the top five teams in the nation that year, and despite our losses (3-0 to UCSC/ 3-1 to Nazareth), we lost most of our sets by 2 points. We were not an easy out, we were not rabbits being fed to lions, but a team strong enough to fight.

The next day, we defeated Stevens Tech 3-2… arguably the second-best team in the country in 2009. The losses from the day before had only made our team sharper on the court, and it was one of those victories that made waves across the landscape. As we were riding our own hype after the match, Radu pulled us together and said “Guys… this is what I’m saying… C’mon… believe in your power!”. We swept #13 Medaille in the afternoon, it wasn’t close.   

Of all the Radu quotes and sayings I’ve heard, this is the one that sticks out to me the most, “Believe in your power”. You see… I sat next to Radu every match that weekend, and at no point did he believe we couldn’t beat every team there. In fact, throughout my career I don’t think I ever saw a match where he didn’t believe in the strength of our players to win the game. He’ll joke, he’ll make us laugh, he’ll say “We’ll lose 3-0” “we’ll lose in four guys, come on”, but he doesn’t mean it. He’s pushing us, challenging us, giving us something to fight for.

In my interviews with Hawk alumni this type of belief is omnipresent, if never explicitly stated. There’s a profound confidence in each Hawk after their time in the program, an almost blind faith in their ability to “win the game” regardless of the obstacles in front of them. It doesn’t matter if they make a ton of errors, it doesn’t matter if their opponent is #1 in the country, it doesn’t matter if they’ve lost to a team already… they believe they can win the game; and belief like that is powerful.

“This is the Way”

How is it that several generations of Hawks can all speak so similarly and believe so strongly in their ability to fight despite an obstacle. Well, my friend Bradley (2017-2019) says it best.

“So, what did it take to go the distance? It took a culture. It took the guys that came before us that built up a way of life that we had to buy into … It took individual effort. Each person on the team (and coaches) had to do their job. Without each guy being aware of and striving for the same goal, we would not have been able to get it done… Lastly, it took grit — not giving up in the moments where it can seem so easy to.” – Bradley Schneider

Culture is the crucial foundation to any team’s success. A team cannot stand atop the mountain without a strong culture, and it is arguably harder to achieve than a championship. In the 10 NCAA D3VB Men’s Championships to occur, only 4 teams have been able to claim the ultimate prize. Springfield, New Paltz, Stevens and Carthage… all programs with rich, storied histories in D3VB with strong team cultures.

Culture is built in the trenches, it’s enforced in the locker room, and it’s passed down from one generation to another. It’s intentional, it’s focused, it’s repetitive, and for New Paltz it all begins in the Hawk Center; or as we know it, “The Colosseum”.

“This is Colosseum”

It’s a cold walk to the gym at 0700 during a New Paltz Winter. We’re greeted by Radu, who starts the season with our toes on the line. “Welcome guys … this is Colosseum” he gestures to the surrounding facility. “Like Romans, we are looking for survivors here” he jokes.

We all laugh because Radu is hilarious, but I look back and see how culturally significant this introduction is 13 years later. Each class, each January, is met with “Welcome to the Colosseum”. Every alumnus I spoke with remembers it vividly, smiles at the nostalgia, and reflects on how crucial those January practices are. Because being good is one thing, but to be competitive is another. It doesn’t matter how good you are in the Colosseum if you don’t know how to fight, if you don’t know how to compete, if you don’t know how to win.  

In our interviews, each Hawk shared how they came away from the program with a similar mindset. They developed a strong will to compete, a desire to prove themselves, and a stronger will to win. I asked what stood out the most in hindsight, and they all shared stories revolving around the concepts of grit and resilience.

Grit is an individual’s ability to persist in an activity in the face of obstacles, while resilience is the ability of an individual to bounce back from failure. We develop both in the colosseum because our culture demands it. For fourteen days in January we are introduced to a style of play where we’re pushed, where we’re challenged, and ultimately where we’ll fail … several times.

Because in our gym, “loser gets prize” … and the prize is a chance to get stronger. That’s the mentality because the bar of success is high. It was high in 2009 before New Paltz won anything, and it’s high now with two national championships. It’s only through failure that we get stronger as people, as athletes, as competitors.

“What makes the colosseum so special?” I asked. Each generation of Hawk remembered similar stories, and their answers reminded me of a lesson which continues to shape my coaching philosophy to this day.  

“The atmosphere was just so competitive”

“We got after each other on the court”

“Playing ourselves was harder than playing anyone else”

“We wanted to kill each other on the court, but we were always family afterwards”

“Loser gets prize Ramius, you know that”

“Nothing like killing each other in Big Point and getting Hasbrouck after” (Hasbrouck was a dining hall, the building has since been renamed).

Just a few of the responses I received, but each made my heart warm. Because if you want your team to be able to compete in big moments, you need to make your practices more competitive than games during the season to prepare them. As a coach, I always try to emulate how competitive my college practices were with my own teams. I want my teams to fight like that, I want them to develop that mentality.

I asked some of the alumni if they would go back given the chance. They all said “in a heartbeat”.

“You have one shot, Keel Dat Bol”

There’s a coaching maxim that goes “coach the team you have, not the team you want”. Simply put, from a tactical standpoint you need to be able to design your offensive/defensive schemes based on the capabilities of the athletes that are on your roster. “Execute tactically, what you can do technically” as John Kessel would say.

While the rosters have certainly changed over the last ten years, it’s remarkable how New Paltz has kept its style of play consistent since I graduated. To be clear the “Monster Generation” 2013-2017, the Schneider-Smith tandem (2018-2019), and the triple threat of Grace-O’Malley-Carrk (2019-2021) all did unique things based on their personnel, but the similarities were still there.

We have an aggressive playstyle. Whether it’s from the service line, the attack line, or front row… we’re getting after the ball. We apply pressure everywhere we can, because an intrinsic truth that came out in most of the interviews I did can be boiled down to this. If we can swing at the ball, we can win the game.

A mentor of mine once said the “men’s game is about power”. Simply put, rallies in men’s volleyball do not last nearly as long or happen nearly as often as they do in the women’s game. We hit the ball harder, we hit it faster, and points end relatively quickly. We’ve embraced this concept as Hawks, and we know that if there’s ever a chance for us to swing at the ball, we’re going to take it. Because if we can swing, we can win.

“Go win the game”

Russ Rose openly tells his team “it’s better to be on the court at the end of the game, as opposed to the beginning”. In “Jungle Rules”, we have the same philosophy. Being the first six guys on the court doesn’t mean anything in our gym for a variety of reasons. I sat next to Radu for a long period of time, and he’s not afraid to hold players accountable in game; he’s not afraid to go to the bench. Because at the end of the day he’s looking to see who will step up, who wants to create magic on the court, who will spark a run to victory. Because in our gym, if you win the game, you start. That’s been our way forever, and it hasn’t changed once.

It says a lot about Radu’s trust in his players, and it comes out in each interview. Every alumnus knew each guy wearing the jersey fought just as hard as they did in practice, each alumnus knew they were only better players because of the guys on the team who kicked them around in the colosseum. Each alumnus knew if they got pulled from a match, the guy going in was going in to win the game.

One of the most legendary stories in New Paltz history revolves around this very principle, during the 2016 NCAA Tournament. It was the season the program had been building towards for six years. It was easily the best New Paltz team to ever exist, with monsters at every position and a deep bench. They were undefeated in D3 matches for the year, had just won the UVC Championship, and were the number 1 overall seed in the tournament. It was their year to win it all; their opening round match was against Wentworth.

One practice before the tournament, Radu split the team for a big point game of six-on-six, the regular starting eight on one side and the bench on the other. Before the game begins, he goes “Guys, Jungle Rules. Winners start against Wentworth”. The declaration elevated the atmosphere, and one of the most vicious big-point games to ever be played ended in extra points, with the bench squad victorious. It’s a story we pass down for emphasis to this day. The squad who won that game in practice did indeed start against Wentworth in the quarterfinals, and they held their own until about halfway through the first set. They ultimately lost the set, but the team won the match 3-1. 

It’s an astounding move; what coach works so hard for so long, to come so close to a title, to purposely start at a disadvantage? Anyone who knows Radu could answer that question for you because the answer is very simple. The coach who does that is a man of his word, and every Hawk knows Radu is a man of his word. Of all his great qualities, it’s easily his best, something we can rely on at any point in our careers. Because in our gym, our way of doing things matters, and our way is emulated by Radu. I can only hope to be as strong when my coaching philosophy is tested by the chance for glory.

A Powerful Mentality

In my interviews with Hawk alumni, a constant theme emerges regardless of the year they graduated, and it revolves around “Olders” and “Youngers”. You’ll know these terms to mean upperclassmen and underclassmen respectively.

In New Paltz, the job of the “youngers” is to come in, play hard, and learn how to win the game. They are new, and therefore won’t be used to how things are done just yet. The “olders”, their job is harder. Their job is to show the “youngers” how to wear the jersey the right way, their job is to emulate the right behaviors, their job is to win the game. They’re the ones who must forge a proper path, so the “youngers” may take the mantle of leadership when it’s their turn.

Each Hawk spoke of trying to leave the program better off than how they received it, each alumnus emphasized the importance of the “olders” they had before them. Each alumnus wanted their “youngers” to be set up for success after they were gone; this is our way. This is a feature of our culture that I am beyond grateful for.

I was never a great volleyball player. You won’t find my name in the record books, on an All-American list, or anywhere of note outside the FrogJump information page. I wasn’t a captain, I wasn’t a starter, I was a bench player throughout my career. But volleyball is a sport I’ve been in love with since my first club practice, and this passion is what fueled me during my time in the program. It’s what kept me going when my legs were too sore to move, it’s what focused me when the days were hard. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it all without the “olders” I had my freshmen year.  

Mark Blair, Ryan Huberty, Mike Fink, Eric Rothbard … four “olders” I was privileged to call teammates for a brief period. They kept me in line, looked out for me at school and helped me survive the colosseum. Nothing I’ve done till now happens without the influence of those four men in my life all those years ago. They showed me how strong I could be, they showed me how to wear the jersey with honor, and I could only hope to emulate their example when it was my turn to be an “older”.

That’s what drives our success at New Paltz, a constant urge to make the next class of Hawks better than the current. It’s why we don’t take it easy in the colosseum, it’s why we get after each other in six-on-six. Because you can only prepare your guys for tough opponents by giving them 110 percent, and you don’t do them any favors by accepting less than their best effort every day. Because the mistakes are magnified when you realize how you act affects those after you.

There’s a reason why we say “there’s only one…”, there’s a reason why we sing the song. Because there’s no other place in the world where you’ll learn half as much about yourself as you will at New Paltz. You’ll be pushed more than you’ve ever been pushed in your life, you’ll learn how strong you really are … and you’ll walk away with a brotherhood that lasts forever.

That’s the mentality. There’s only one.  

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