History in the Making: Volleyball wins first SUNYAC title, moves on to NCAAs

Buffalo State volleyball celebrates after defeating top seed and host New Paltz in the SUNYAC championship game Saturday to earn the programs first NCAA tournament berth in school history.

Robin Weinstein/SUNY New Paltz

Buffalo State volleyball celebrates after defeating top seed and host New Paltz in the SUNYAC championship game Saturday to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in school history.

Ten minutes to 11 a.m. on a windy and rainy Veteran’s Day, the Buffalo State women’s volleyball team was waiting in a dimly lit classroom on the first floor of Buckham Hall.

Wearing grey t-shirts that read “SUNYAC CHAMPIONS, 2013,” the girls sat in the dark as the white light from the projector screen reflected off the clean desktops.

Projected on the screen was the NCAA website, a video counting down to the start of the NCAA Tournament selection show.

Six minutes to go. Athletic director Jerry Boyes walks in to a chorus of “Hey, Coach Boyes!”

“Ladies, congratulations!” Boyes says. “How do you like making history?”

They like it.

Boyes makes his way over to the front of the room to look at a trophy resting on the desk. “SUNYAC” is etched into a glass oval on top of a brown base with “Volleyball Champions 2013” engraved on a black plate.

That’s the trophy the Bengals earned after beating top-seeded New Paltz on Sunday in four sets in the SUNYAC finals, 26-28, 25-23, 25-22 and 25-21, the first time ever that a Buffalo State volleyball team won the league title and the automatic NCAA Tournament bid that comes with it.

Two minutes left. In walks associate athletic director Tom Koller, carrying a sky-high stack of square pizza boxes, and the room explodes with cheers and clapping.

“Guy with the food always gets the applause,” Koller says.

The video on the screen counts down. 5 … 4 … 3 …

The players scramble back to their seats with full plates of pizza.

2 … 1 …


After suffering two losing seasons in her freshman and sophomore season, senior libero Chelsea Moore didn’t think she’d win a championship until last year, when the Bengals won 26 matches but lost to Cortland in the SUNYAC finals in straight sets.

Even after the loss, there was still a chance that the Bengals would get an at-large bid. So they sat in Buckham in front of the projector screen, waiting, hoping, praying that one of the 64 spots would be filled by Buffalo State.

But the host never called Buffalo State’s name. Moore and the rest of the Bengals would have to wait until next season.

“It was pretty devastating,” Moore said later.

For Moore, last season’s sour end made the New Paltz win even sweeter.

“It’s literally incredible,” Moore said. “I feel like I’ve been here so long, and every single year we get closer and closer, and this was just the perfect time to finally win it.”

For senior outside hitter Sarah Horvath, Sunday was one of the best days of her life. She landed at Buffalo State as a transfer last season after playing one season each for Division I Siena College and the University at Buffalo.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s such a high,” Horvath said. “It’s so important to me, one of the best days of my life. It just makes me feel even better about the fact that I decided to keep my career alive and play again. It makes everything worth it, all the bumps along the way.”

For senior setter Kelsey Bashore, who also transferred to Buffalo State after spending one season at DI Louisiana-Lafayette, winning the championship was a dream come true.

“It was an overjoyed feeling,” Bashore said. “I’ve never experienced a moment like that. It was a proud moment. I could not explain a better feeling in the world.”

And for coach Maria DePeters, whose arrival in 2010 signaled the program’s rise, seeing this group of seniors was the most rewarding part of winning the title.

“Especially Chelsea, because Chelsea played for this program when it was under different leadership … and I don’t think in her freshman year she had an inkling in her mind that she would ever win SUNYACs,” DePeters said. “So for my seniors, it means the world to me. I’m really happy that (this is) the senior class that made history in Buffalo State volleyball.”


Before the championship match, DePeters was nervous.

“I had a lot of confidence in the girls,” she said, “but you never know how games like that are going to go, with so much emotion involved, and whether they’re going to show up or not.”

In the locker room before the game, the Bengals were doing their part to make sure they would show up to play.

“Everyone was going around the room, just saying what we need to do to win, how we needed to stay calm, and the team that wants it more is going to win,” Moore said.

They talked about winning, what that moment would mean to each player and what it would feel like.

“It was an overwhelming moment because we had a lot on the line,” Horvath said. “But we wanted it so bad.”

Toward the end of a back-and-forth first set, New Paltz took a 24-20 lead. But the Bengals stormed back with five straight points — including three kills from tournament MVP Sam Parente — before eventually dropping the set, 28-26.

The Bengals came out strong in the second, scoring the first six points. Their largest lead in the second set was 20-10.

“It was kind of like a revenge situation,” Bashore said. “We were like: we deserved to win that first (set), and since we didn’t we’re going to get you, and we’re not losing.”

New Paltz was just as resilient. The Hawks went on a furious run, coming to within just one point of tying the match at 24. But a New Paltz service error allowed the Bengals to escape with a win in the second set.

Then came the crucial third set. Despite finding themselves in an 18-13 hole, the Bengals stormed back to win after 14 ties and 6 lead changes. New Paltz, which hadn’t lost to a SUNYAC opponent all year and was playing on its home court, was shell-shocked.

“They didn’t know what to do, I think,” DePeters said. “They were really off. They didn’t play their best game, and (their coach) made a lot of substitutions because people weren’t getting the job done. We just attacked the people we knew we had to attack, and the girls stayed very confident the whole entire time, where New Paltz’s emotions seemed to fluctuate.”

The fourth set was much of the same: tight for the first part before one team pulled away. This time, it was Buffalo State who took an 18-13 lead. But, once again, New Paltz didn’t lie down, clawing back to take a 20-19 lead.

Buffalo State stayed focused, and scored the set’s next five points to take a 24-20 lead. Now, the Bengals were just one point away from winning SUNYACs, one point away from making the NCAA tournament, and one point away from making history.


Back in Buckham, the selection show had started. On the screen, host Kyle Binder, dressed in a neat suit and tie, gave a quick welcome before revealing the first bracket.

“We are set to reveal 64 teams that will be competing for the ultimate goal,” he said.

The room is quiet.

“Let’s not keep you waiting any longer.”

“No, let’s not,” DePeters said.

The first eight teams were announced. No Buffalo State. Then the second eight teams, the third eight teams, and the fourth group of eight teams. Still no Buffalo State.

“Half of the bracket is filled,” the host said. “Stick around after the break for the rest of the bracket.”

The room erupted in a collective groan. “After the break? Come on.” Since the inaugural season in 1979, no Bengals volleyball team has ever made the NCAA tournament. After 34 years, what’s another five minutes?

Shortly after the break, the Bengals found out their opponent and destination. On Thursday, they’ll play the University of Chicago in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Late in the fourth set against New Paltz, the Bengals could feel it.

Before the last two points, Moore couldn’t keep herself from looking at Horvath. They were both so close.

Then, a set from Bashore, a kill from Horvath, and — “everyone was freaking out,” Moore said. “Everyone was crying, jumping up and down … it’s hard to even remember what even happened.”

When the final whistle blew, Horvath turned around and saw her teammates storming the court, piling on each other in a heap of joy and exhilaration.

“It’s almost like a blackout,” Horvath said. “The point ended but I didn’t even know, didn’t even look at the ref. All I remember is that I turned around, and everyone was going insane. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground, we’re screaming, crying.”

When the team finally got up, they formed a circle on the court around DePeters.

“I didn’t really say too much,” DePeters said. “I think I might have said to them five times, ‘I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless.’ But I told them I was very proud of them.”

“I just don’t think I could ever duplicate that moment in my life,” Horvath said. “It was awesome.”

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Twitter: @LeifReigstad