A Championship Season

February, 2009

by Christopher M. Williams

sports2

The fall season was abundant with triumphs and honors for a variety of Panther sports, including field hockey and men’s soccer. But the stories behind the recent achievements of the women’s volleyball team and PSU football demonstrate that there’s more to being a champion than winning a game.A mere four years ago, the future of Panther football was uncertain. After suffering numerous devastating losses, the team found itself without a home conference and playing an independent schedule. Since then, under the guidance of head coach Paul Castonia, the team has made a dramatic turnaround that culminated in qualifying for the NCAA Division III Tournament after a 13-year absence.“The expectations were higher this season because of what we did last year,” says Castonia, referring to the team’s strong 2007 season. “We didn’t sneak up on anyone this season, and teams were gunning for us.”And though the team was ultimately defeated by SUNY Cortland in the first round of the NCAA tournament, there was no shortage of accolades for the players and Castonia. Ten players were named to the New England Football Conference All-Star team. Panther running back Jeff Mack, a senior, was named to the New England Football Writers’ All-New England Team for Divisions II/III for the second consecutive year. Mack also ranked in the top 10 in the nation in rushing, running for a school record of 1,779 yards—surpassing PSU Hall of Fame running back Joe Dudek’s single season rushing record of 1,615 yards—and 20 touchdowns. And Castonia was named New England Coach of the Year for Divisions II/III, as voted by the New England Football Writers’ Association, making him the first Plymouth State coach to win the award.

Unlike Panther football, women’s volleyball has enjoyed a consistent record of strong performance for nearly a decade, earning six straight post-season berths (five ECAC and one NCAA), enjoying numerous seasons of 20-plus wins, winning two conference regular season co-championships, and earning a conference tournament championship. However, the fall 2008 season proved to be a struggle for the team. “Although we worked hard each and every day in practice, the hard work was not paying off in matches,” recalls head coach Moira Long. “I had so much confidence in our players’ abilities, but I think they struggled a bit with confidence in themselves and maybe in each other.”

The biggest disappointment came when the team, which was the preseason pick to finish third in the conference, finished fifth.

But the story was far from over for women’s volleyball. Rather than succumb to defeat, the team found a new drive and determination to not let their chance at victory slip away.  “We came into practice doing all the things we had talked about all season,” says Long. “Our defense was great, our blocking was incredible, and our offense clicked on all cylinders. With that, our confidence increased, and we truly believed in ourselves and each other.”

The team’s renewed confidence and cohesion ultimately led them to the 2008 ECAC Division III New England Volleyball Championship, where their stunning victory over top-seeded Colby-Sawyer College earned them their first ECAC championship. And junior Eliza Badeau, a top hitter and blocker for the team, was named to the 2008 Little East Conference All-Star Team—for the third consecutive season.

“The team I saw in the last week of the season was really the team I expected to see all season,” Long notes. “How many teams get to win the last match of their season and be called champions? It has a great ring to it.”


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