My Dodgeball Story: Sean Smith (Towson)

It seems all too common for dodgeball stories to begin with an obscure story about how an individual discovered the sport on their college campus. This story will be no different.

Before moving in to campus as a freshman in Fall 2011, I knew I wanted to play a club sport, but I wasn’t sure which one or how to even get involved. The smart kids went on Towson’s website and researched this type of thing, meanwhile my lazy behind decided to just show up and hope I could figure it out. Little did I know my laziness would actually turn out to be the best thing of my first year at Towson.

Freshman Year

Coming in I had two leading options in my mind, either club lacrosse or frisbee. I knew both were big on Towson’s campus, my brothers had done the club lacrosse thing while they were in undergrad, and I loved playing both of them. However, I had no idea about events going on around campus such as Towson’s Involvement Fair which gives clubs the ability to recruit newcomers. As a result, I completely missed out on it and had no idea. Luckily for me, the other people on my floor did not miss out.

Coming out of a biology lab on a Wednesday night, I step off the elevator on my floor to find a huge group of my floormates waiting for the elevator. I asked where they were headed, and they told me they were going to play dodgeball and asked if I wanted to come.

“Dodgeball? Dude I haven’t played in years, hell yeah I want to play!”

From there I ran into my room, changed, and ran to catch up with them before they got to the gym. When we showed up there was easily over 100 people in the gym all getting ready to play. After an insane night of playing, the current leaders of the club announced they would be holding their first ever tryouts for a travel team.

Travelling to other schools to throw things at random people for fun? How could I resist?

So, they held tryouts and I was fortunate enough to be picked by one of our alumni who had been awarded two exclusive picks as a sort of thank you for being the clubs former President.

As most teams (excluding JMU and GVSU) experience in their first year in the NCDA, we were nothing short of atrocious in our induction season. Not only were we terrible, we were ill prepared. Our leadership at the time had us under the impression that we would be playing with foam balls in the tournament.

Foam. Yeah.

We only played in two NCDA tournaments in my first year, and none of them were even close. I’m not even sure we scored a point in any of the matches. The closest we came was when we were taking on Miami (OH) and I managed to whittle a 4 v 1 down to a 1 v 1, but couldn’t close it out.

Despite all the losses and despite getting waxed by everybody we ran in to, I was hooked. At the end of the first season most of our executive board was leaving and I decided that I wanted to be part of the group that helped the team improve to new levels. After the votes came to a close I looked up and found myself as the club’s new Vice President.

 

Sophomore Year

Our second year in, myself and then President Jon Shaw decided there was a lot we wanted to do.

First order of business, get jerseys. Not really knowing many people around the league, and not knowing how welcoming the league was in particular since we were stuck in what used to be the biggest unknown in the NCDA (thank you west coast for taking that mantle recently) I did not think to reach out to anyone about jersey suggestions or anything of that nature. So, to put it bluntly, I made what ended up being a regrettable decision in getting reversible pinnies instead of jerseys with the all-important addition of sleeves. But hey, better than another year of random t-shirts with duct tape numbers on them right?

Second thing on our checklist was to host our first home tournament. We did not get the chance to our first year, and we knew that having a tournament at home could be a big deal for us; particularly when Jon Shaw and I would be up late trying to figure out how to get consistent attendance. We hit the ground running and had our first home tournament, which went well in every regard except the scoreboard. JMU and UMD wrecked us by a combined score of 16-4 in three matches.

The theme continued into our second tournament until we met league newcomer VCU as our very last match of the day. Knowing the struggles we went through, and knowing the Rams were brand new, we knew this was our chance to break through and get our first league win; we couldn’t pass this opportunity by. Our leadership knew it, our players knew it, and I think that despite just meeting us, the guys and gals of VCU knew what it meant for us too.

We were up 11 – 0 towards the end of the match and down to one player with VCU on the doorstep of taking their first ever point. They were amped, but so were we. What was there to be so jacked up over when we were up by 11 with the match in hand though? Knowing how we struggled, we wanted to close out our first match with a shut out. We didn’t want to be the team that gave a first-year team their first points. We wanted someone else to feel the same kind of struggle and frustrations as we had. Probably a poor way to look at things, but what can I can say, we were more than ready to have something positive come out of over a year’s worth of being the East Coast doormat.

I’d like to take this moment to thank Jordan Haxton for making his first of many clutch catches over the course of his career to seal a 12-0 shutout. This was a big turning point for us.

Next up, a spring semester with a tournament starting up before we even got out of syllabus week. Maryland wanted to host another tournament but could only secure Towson and VCU to participate.

Again, major opportunity.

We knew we could handle VCU, but the question was could we take out a Maryland team that we really thought we were catching up to. If we could leapfrog the Terrapins then not only could we win our first tournament, but we could see things continuing to build into the future into what we wanted our team to actually be capable of.

Somehow we squeaked out a 4-2 victory, which I don’t remember much of, other than a frenetic finish with the Terps trying to tie things up and us managing to outlast them in a nail biter. After winning that tournament at the beginning of the spring, losing to teams such as JMU and Miami (OH) at BEAST II didn’t seem so bad.

Just kidding, for anyone who has ever experienced JMU’s fans on their home court, you know how much it sucks to lose to them there.

Sophomore year was also my first experience with the NCDA national tournament and the experience was absolutely unforgettable. From Saturday play where I got more exposure to some teams that I otherwise would have never played against to seeing what it looks like on elimination day, and also making the decision to join the NCDA content team for the website. I can’t deny when I started writing for the league I was rough. It took a while to get into a good flow and see my writing progress, but I never regretted a moment of it because the league gave me the chance to reignite my passion for writing while giving me a great subject to work with.

Sophomore year did not end on a personal high note however, and I almost walked away from the league shortly after returning to Towson. We had started to have a lot of issues with attendance and commitment from our players, and I had spent most of the season taking on the brunt of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into maintaining a club team at Towson. After spending the year burning myself out with everything the position had me taking care of, the team held an executive board election where I had not been voted in to any of the positions available, including ones on a lower level from Vice President.

That night was almost the end of my dodgeball career because I thought to myself, “why bust my ass for a group of guys that don’t even notice or care that the reason there even is a club is because of the work I did?” Short sited and fairly ego-centric? Definitely. But, in that moment I didn’t feel as if I was going to get back an equal amount to what I was giving, and thankfully Jon Shaw kept me from making my decision final.

After the election, the guys who had been selected decided to open up a fourth position and award it to me. I was still pretty deep in my feelings at the time, so I had accepted the position a bit begrudgingly. However, given the summer to cool off, including a road trip to Kent State for what I believe was their first Summer Dodgeball event, and I was right back where I needed to be.

At this point in the story, if you as the reader have not been to Kent State for Summer Dodgeball, I implore you to go. Even if it’s just to experience the breakfast served at Mike’s. Best. Breakfast. Ever.

 

Junior Year

My third year in the league was by far our toughest. Club participation was at an all-time low for a majority of the season. We were struggling to get consistent commitment from anyone, and if I remember correctly this was the year I had to break in to someone’s apartment just to wake him up for a tournament. There was a good amount of tension with everybody during the year, and I can’t hide that I was a part of a lot of it.

After what had happened at the end of the previous year, I adopted the attitude of no longer caring whether people enjoyed me being around or not, things were going to get done, and I would ensure that if people were flaking that they would at least get an earful from me. Didn’t do much to help myself in the sense of being popular, but I feel comfortable in saying that my approach was the primary reason why the club didn’t end up folding due to lack of members. I wish I was joking when I say that Jon and I had to broach the topic of what happens if we have to shut the club down on more than one occasion.

And then came Nationals at Ohio State.

I don’t care who it is reading this, if you’re an alumni, if you’re brand new to the league, whatever age, you probably remember more about the NCDA’s 2014 Nationals than I do. That national tournament happened to fall on the same weekend that I turned 21 and… well…. Let your imagination run on how that went.

What I do remember of that weekend though was the best time I had spent in an NCDA tournament. Our bus driver to and from the tournament was utterly insane. On our first night there he enjoyed himself a bit too much at one of the bars some of the guys had gone to and ended up driving the bus down a one-way road the wrong way. Somehow, nobody got arrested and they all got home safe.

The next day, during pool play one of our lesser known guys Nick Coates put Towson into the NCDA history books by shattering the glass covering 90% of one of the doors to the rec center with a throw. We spent the rest of the weekend playing tough, close matches, hanging out with the boys from SVSU and ultimately losing to UMD in elimination play for the second year in a row. A poor way to end the year, losing to our rival, but having a vague idea what happened on Saturday night when I officially turned 21, I could care less. I may not remember much, but I’ll never truly forget that weekend in Ohio.

Then we come back to Towson, again we hold an election for executive board. This time however, the hard work I had put in getting everything from rosters to community service was rewarded by being elected President of the club. Knowing the position that we were in with our roster, I made a promise that the next season was going to be different, and we would completely revamp the club.

 

Senior Year

I knew going into my fourth year that we had no time to waste with anything. Even before the year was starting I was getting everything set up and ready to go. I knew we had to hit recruitment hard, particularly at our involvement fair. I also knew we had to have our other requirements taken care of, including community service events, fundraisers and tournaments. On top of all of this, I was juggling the addition of being on Towson’s Student Government Association, a part time job, a full course load, and two internships. Don’t ask me how it all worked out, I’m still confused about it to this day.

When we hit the involvement fair I came in with the attitude of anyone who even looked our way was going to join our club. We had guys out in the crowd as well as at our main table talking to everyone and anyone that we could. We also put a big focus on recruiting anyone and everyone because knew that if our doors were open to everyone that we could get a good crowd to work with.

In years past we had been holding tryouts for the team and selecting a group based on who performed best on those specific nights. It became painfully obvious however that after those nights we would lose a lot of people who did not make our initial roster, and that not everyone who made it would stay committed. I made the decision to scrap tryout nights and when the captains noticed a good player, we would pull them aside and talk to them about joining the team. We had a lot more people stick around throughout the year as a result.

The regular season was full of a lot of bumps that year. We had turned over at least 80% of our roster, with the cornerstones remaining as: myself, Jon Shaw, Joe Tobin, and TJ Givens. The majority of our roster after us four were rookies ranging from freshman to upperclassman. We took a lot of Ls as a result, particularly to JMU and UMD. Our matches against JMU were never really in doubt, as the Dukes loved to remind us, and particularly me. I had disgruntled a fair amount of people on their team due to the content I was producing for the league. In fairness to them however, I loved all of them off the court, just hated that I could never beat them.

I have little doubt in my mind though that the NCDA website was a large catalyst in everyone on JMU wanting to take every opportunity to shut us up and remind us who really ran the east. Despite that, the progress that I saw our young guys make in those matches was incredible, and gave me all the motivation I needed to say positive throughout the season.

Enter Nationals at WKU.

This was the first Nationals that we thought that we had finally put together our best roster. Everyone was committed and bought in to what we were trying to accomplish. There was one last speed bump to get over though.

Due to the length of the drive, Joe Tobin, our best and most important player, was originally unable to go because of a biology test that Friday. Knowing what Joe had meant to the team, and to me personally as a friend and teammate, I decided that there was no way I could let him miss out on what would be his last shot at Nationals. Thanks to several good weekends at my job as a restaurant server, I had enough extra cash to purchase Joe a plane ticket to Nashville and secure him a ride from the airport up to Western’s campus. I’m fairly certain that Joe still thinks I used extra club money for the ticket to this day.

Western Kentucky was a phenomenal weekend for the team. We hung tough with Michigan State in group play, despite a 3-1 score. We slapped around Bowling Green before players like Tyler Wickham started getting mouthy and overestimating their abilities. Most importantly, we had what many would consider a top 10 match in Elimination Day history with an absolutely brutal 2-1 victory of Ohio State. Personally, I played like garbage in that match, but I had never seen our team play so well together from communication, to crosses, to catches to Tobin hitting a guy in the chest so hard the ball went nearly to the rec center ceiling.

We may have lost to JMU in the next round, but I think all of us were satisfied with the end result because we had put all of our chips into getting out of the first round, and we did so in dramatic fashion.

The only regret I have is that we couldn’t get Joe a win against JMU before his graduation.

 

Final Season

My last year at Towson was not nearly as smooth as my fourth. I had chosen to step down from the executive board, in favor of a younger generation taking over, and it was not as smooth of a transition as it could have been.

Now I’ve rambled on forever so the short of it is that our new executive board had missed a few things they needed to take care of on campus and we were suspended for about half a semester as a result. We did not miss any NCDA matches, but it did bring back a certain level of tension within the team. However, a change was made at the start of the spring semester, and the majority of the roster was still in tact, and it was much easier to pick things up where we had left them.

The regular season brought a lot of the same results, except for a few breakthrough moments that helped us recapture some momentum that we had lost. After years of torment, frustration and heartbreak, we finally broke through and took down JMU. It felt as if a weight had finally lifted off our shoulders, and even though the loss meant nothing to the Dukes, it meant everything to us.

On top of what was easily our most significant victory in club history, we had another major breakthrough when we defeated Michigan State and took down our first Michigan school. Things looked as if we were primed for a deep run at Nationals.

Or so we thought.

We went through a grueling day of group play. CMU reasonably did not expect much from us, having never really given them a reason to take us seriously. We jumped out to a 1-0 lead on them in the first half, grinding out an extremely tough point. The Chippewas refocused during halftime, played much tougher in the second half, grabbed a point from us, and then nabbed an OT victory to escape with a W. After a rough loss, we did some refocusing of our own, and knocked out BGSU, where players like the aforementioned Wickham made the mistake of talking a lot of trash about how they thought they would beat us. Finally, we grinded out a very strange 1-0 OT victory against Kentucky in our last round robin game. I don’t remember much about that game other than thinking it was really odd how nobody had scored once in regulation.

On Elimination Day, we would ultimately be pitted back against the Wildcats, and the tables would be turned. We blew a 2-0 halftime lead when Kentucky came out playing like they had nothing to lose, and we played like we knew we couldn’t hold it together. Much to my chagrin, I had to sit on the sidelines and watch our OT 6 battle it out, hoping that they would give me the chance to play for one more match.

Ultimately, we came up short, and my NCDA career came to a very anti-climactic close.

 

Closing thoughts

There were way too many things about my time in the NCDA to get into all of them. From the shenanigans that went on to Kent State in the summer, to various trips across the country, and all of the friends I made along the way, I can hardly remember everything that happened.

What I will always remember, no matter what, is Towson’s Original Three. We were the only guys who lasted a full college career from Towson’s very first roster. Through all of the ups and downs, Joe Tobin, Jon Shaw and I stuck through it all to see Towson become a household name across the league.

And I wouldn’t change a thing.  Except maybe a few choices in hair cut.

Author: Kevin Bailey

Current NCDA Chief of Content. Former Captain for Grand Valley State University (#4).

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