The Making of a Championship Team

Polytechnic Institute of New York University has advanced its athletics program in the last few years. There is a new gym, for example, and varsity teams have been added. But what the women’s volleyball team did on the court — becoming the first team in the institute’s 155-year history to make the NCAA Tournament — dwarfed every incremental improvement.

“It was like a dream come true,” said setter/libero Jacqueline Johnson after the NCAA finals game played against New York University.

Johnson had just played the last volleyball match of her career, a straight-set loss. By the smile etched across her face and glow emanating from her cheeks, one would’ve thought she was en route to an NCAA championship.

For Johnson, playing in the NCAA Tournament — the first for the Blue Jays in any sport — was the equivalent of a final.

Johnson, who comes from Houston, was instrumental in the evolution of the program. She changed majors three times to fit in volleyball. She was part of the team’s first winning season three years ago. She convinced childhood friend Meredith Shipman to follow her to New York City to strengthen the Blue Jays. She went on to win Rookie of the Year and, this year, Skyline Conference Player of the Year.

Reaching the NCAA Tournament, with a five-set victory over rival Sage Colleges in the Skyline Conference final, wasn’t just a seminal moment for the volleyball program, but for the entire NYU-Poly athletic department.

“Nobody ever likes losing the last game, but the girls have done something no other team here ever has,” Coach Marc Solondz said. “People are starting to look at us and say we’re not the same Poly.”

The growth in athletics at NYU-Poly can be traced in part to new dormitories that attracted a wider range of students, and to a new gymnasium that enabled them to practice and play on campus. Then the athletic program expanded from seven to 16 varsity teams. The men’s soccer team made the Skyline Conference playoffs, a first in school history, and advanced to the semi-finals. Now the volleyball program has broken through.

“The culture has changed,” athletic director Maureen Braziel said, “It brings pride to the school.”

Braziel gave plenty of credit to Solondz, the second-year coach. He spent a year as an assistant and was hired because of his ability to lure players such as Kalvert, a talented middle.

“I thought it would be good to bring him in as coach – and I was right,” Braziel said. “He has done a great job recruiting.”

Solondz said the players’ work ethic, in addition to their obvious talent, is what created the memorable season. During the preseason, they went through twice-a-day workouts, three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening.

“That wasn’t happening before,” he said. “The girls began to understand what it takes to be winners and work hard.”

Solondz, in turn, credited his coaching staff — assistants Jasmine McDavid and Jacqueline Tsenovoy. In his first year, he didn’t have any help. This season, when he missed two weeks because of pneumonia, the Blue Jays (11-0 in regular Skyline play) didn’t miss a beat. The team also had a depth it lacked in previous years. Instead of relying predominantly on starters, Solondz could give much-needed breathers to his stars by going deep into his bench.

“I told the girls at the start they were the most talented team in the conference,” he said.

The student body noticed the success. The home volleyball matches were packed, drawing standing-only crowds. The match against NYU was one-sided, in favor of the Violets, but the Blue Jays enjoyed the advantage between crowds. “Let’s go Poly” chants were heard early and often.

Kalvert, the Skyline Conference Player of the year, said professors and students often approach the Blue Jays about upcoming matches. A team poster hangs in the school’s hallway.

“Athletics in general seem to be moving up our school,” Shipman, the outside hitter, said. “I’m excited for our future.”

What is there not to look forward to? Johnson is the only starter graduating. Kalvert, Shipman, and Rookie of the Year Corey Loupee, who finished first, second, and ninth, respectively, in the Skyline Conference in kill percentage, will return. So will able freshman libero/setter Nicole Breitbart, who earned a second team all-conference nod.

Reaching the NCAA Tournament isn’t the goal any longer.

“Hopefully we can get out of the first round next time,” Kalvert said.