It was April 12, 2015, and inside the Preston Center at Western Kentucky University, it had never been louder. A building full of collegiate dodgeball players looked on in confusion trying to figure out why there was so much yelling and screaming going on. As it turns out, Towson University’s dodgeball team was responsible for this ruckus, as they were celebrating an upset victory over Ohio State University in the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association’s final tournament. This moment in time will not soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance, as it will go down as one of the most memorable upsets in NCDA Nationals history.
Rewind the clock just a few years and the thought of Towson making it to the NCDA’s “Elite Eight” was absolutely absurd. Truth is, the dodgeball club that formed at Towson University never seemed destined for success, but thanks to the incredible commitment of the club’s leaders, the Tigers are finally making noise in the NCDA. A program that limped its way through the larger part of their first four seasons as an NCDA team, Towson Dodgeball is no longer an afterthought in the college dodgeball universe.
This is the story of how Towson’s dodgeball team slowly but surely clawed their way to national relevance.
The current TU squad only has a few remaining pieces from that first team. The Tigers joined the NCDA in 2011 along with East Coast foes James Madison and Maryland. Towson made their way to UMD for that initial tournament that included Kent State. The team was excited to start their NCDA journey, as the three teams from the East were introduced to the NCDA.
Well, Towson promptly lost all three games they played that day. Sean Smith was not pleased with the result of that tourney, but he knew they were not set up for much success considering their current situation.
“We were terrible,” Smith said. “We didn’t know how to pinch, we barely knew the rules. Our president that year thought we would be playing with foam so we showed up to our first tournament totally unprepared.”
Current team captain Jonathan Shaw also had some interesting things to say about that first tournament.
“Our first ever NCDA tourney at UMD we borrowed grey shirts from campus rec, and the night before I went out to Wall Mart and bought Red duct tape, and we taped numbers on the back of our shirts.,” Shaw said. “Made us feel pretty gangster. Now we have jerseys, shorts, sweatshirts, socks, headbands, the whole nine yards.”
The first ever showdown between UMD and TU took place at that tournament back in the fall of 2011. It was not much of a showdown as TU lost 13-0. The team actually didn’t score a single point that entire year! The closest they got was at BEAST when they almost got on the board versus now defunct Miami Ohio. Besides that game, every other match in 2011-12 was an absolute drubbing.
The team from Towson unfortunately didn’t have the funds to travel to Saginaw Valley State for Nationals 2012, so they had to stay home for that one. That was year one. Not much to it. A young team that was a far cry from being a contender.
It really is interesting to hear from the players on that roster, what it was like in year one. This team was a long way from where they are now. Even through those tough times, the team was making changes, trying to become relevant in the NCDA.
“When I started we were a club that focused more on having kids from all parts of campus and all walks of life being able to play for fun as long as they wanted within two hours,” Smith said. “Now we still try to do the same thing because we want to keep our original standards and open door policy to everyone on campus, but it’s a lot more competitive. We switched from foam to rubber balls, and promote our travel team as well. We used to have a tryout night for the team but we moved away from that and having “rolling tryouts” where whoever shows up consistently and plays the best will get a spot on the team.”
Year two for Towson was all about improving. Getting the team to take steps in the right direction.
Tood Givens Jr., a current star for the Tigers, was new to the squad that season. He noticed some positives and negatives with what they had at that time.
“My freshman year, that Towson team easily had the most raw talent,” Givens said. “Tons of arms, solid catching, a team that could have made it to the final 4 in my opinion. The problem was that we didn’t get along. Everyone wanted to be the leader and we had no followers. Now, we have the arms, improving catching, and we get along really well. The total package.”
Towson came off an 0-6 showing in year one to go 6-11 the following season. Respectable, but not where they wanted to be ultimately. In their third season they made the breakthrough to a winning record, going 9-8, while last year they made the quarterfinals as previously mentioned. Looking at those facts, this squad has improved immensely over the years.
Well, improvement on the outside is one thing, but it was not always pretty for TU. There were no doubt some low moments for this program as they struggled to become a legitimate contender in the NCDA.
Towson is seen in the league currently as a very enthusiastic and passionate team. That was not always the case according to some leaders for TU. Sean Smith has a lot of stories about his squad, but some include the lack of motivation that sometimes was present.
“The lowest moment for the club was when we were cancelling practices and open nights because we only had 6-8 kids showing up and they weren’t truly motivated to play,” Smith said. “The lowest moment for me personally was when we were so desperate for players that I had to break into a players apartment to wake him up because we needed him to make a full 15 and didn’t have any other options.”
Jon Shaw also noticed the internal issues plaguing the team. He too was concerned with the team’s commitment. It seemed like bad news kept piling on to itself for this squad.
“So many struggles it’s truly hard to pick one,” Shaw said. “There was a time I want to say about one and a half years ago, it was towards the end of the 2nd semester and we had been struggling for a long time that season to keep talent coming back. It was literally the week after we lost to our rivals UMD in the first round of Nationals at OSU, morale was at an all-time low, everyone was still playing the blame game, and the next practice we had a teammate tear her ACL. If that wasn’t bad enough we soon found out we didn’t have one of our “Safety Officers” at that practice. Needless to say, it blew up in our faces, and we were suspended for the rest of the semester. I remember for the first time being generally worried about the future of our program.”
While Smith and Shaw noticed those internal issues, there were also some losses on the court that took a toll on the Tigers roster.
“The worst moment in TU dodgeball history was getting swept by UMD last season,” Givens said. “We were all really mad about that but then we did better in the national tournament so it’s okay.”
Maryland against Towson has developed into one of the more intriguing rivalries in the NCDA. While UMD has had a poor season in 2015-16, they were the “big brother” to TU for a long time.
Jeremy Brown, another current Tiger standout had some things to say regarding that rivalry.
“The lowest moment in my mind would have to be our overtime loss to Maryland in our last tournament before Nationals 2015, Brown said. “This eventually turned into our biggest moment of maturation in hindsight, but at the time it was deflating to be so close but yet again fail to finish the deal. I think it was this heartbreaking loss that showed us we had the talent to compete with anyone, but that we needed to refine a lot of things if we were going to do that. I attribute this loss to helping us keep our composure towards the end of our match against Ohio State.”
Undoubtedly, the team was facing some growing pains. Good leaders are able to bring their team back from adversity, and turn it into future success. Towson was not facing an easy road to success, and they certainly had some bumps in the way both in NCDA matches and behind the scenes. The fact that the Tigers are where they are now is a testament to how much their leaders cared about the team succeeding.
A Historic Breakthrough
Let’s take this back to Nationals 2015. WKU hosted a great tournament, highlighted by none other than the Towson Tigers. Towson was entering the tournament with a losing record overall. The squad seemed destined for another early exit at Nationals, and a sad bus ride back to Maryland.
I personally can tell you that this team deserved the historic success they had that weekend IN April down in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Ohio State has the second most national titles in league history, behind Grand Valley State. They were a powerhouse team in 2015, with aspirations of making it deep in the tourney, possibly to the title game.
With star players like Josh Conner, Jeff Starr, and power arm Chris Stringer. With the Buckeyes paired up with TU in the first round of Sunday’s tournament, it seemed like an easy step to the second round for OSU. Ohio State took mighty JMU to overtime during day 1 of Nationals, which is something TU had never achieved. Clearly they had the upper hand in their day 2 match against the Tigers. Or so it seemed.
Well as you already know, TU pulled the upset in that game. They took the college dodgeball world by surprise and beat the Buckeyes to send them home early. I vividly remember watching the video of the OSU vs. TU match after the fact, and being extremely impressed by what I heard during a post-game interview with Jon Shaw.
Shaw discussed how excited he was about the upset win, and he let the audience in on the reason why they did so well. Apparently the night before the game, his team had their priorities straight. This team was not the uncommitted squad of the past for TU. They had turned the corner in that regard.
Shaw explained how his team decided to spend their night in a hotel room, watching film rather than going out to party. I can just imagine a team huddled into an apartment analyzing their dodgeball games. They watched their match from day 1 versus BGSU where they played well. The point of watching the game again was to see the success that they could have and get positive thoughts in their mind before the game against OSU. Cleary this group was locked in, poised to make history. They did just that when OSU toed the line against them.
This win was monumental for the program, there’s no doubt about that.
“The victory against OSU meant more than we could really quantify,” Smith explained. “We had just witnessed OSU take JMU to OT when we hadn’t even gotten a point from JMU all season. When we beat OSU it meant a few things: the old guys (me, Shaw, Tobin) had finally seen a positive outcome for all the frustration, struggles, and growing pains we’ve had over the last four years. It also meant that our new guys saw what we are capable of, and guaranteed that they were completely bought into our program. And for me it meant a lot more than anyone knows. I had a rough sports career in high school for various reasons and the first few years here were a struggle for me. Nobody, not even Shaw, knows that every year before last I contemplated quitting and playing something else at least 5 times each year. That victory meant that I had finally got more out of the club than I had been putting in. It meant I could leave Nationals smiling for once.”
No doubt all the struggling had finally become worth it. Shaw echoed that same thoughts as Smith when reliving the win over the Buckeyes.
“Easily the biggest win in our program’s history,” Shaw said. “I really can’t put into words what that win meant to me individually. It was like all the sacrifice, adversity, and hard work had finally come together for us after many years of coming up short. Over the course of the summer I want to say I at least watched the entire match against OSU 30 times. I took so many notes from that match, that I literally have 3 pages of loose-leaf paper filled out with comments on the things we did well and the things we need to improve on. Also that win was fuel over the summer for this upcoming season. Can’t tell you how many teammates improved and got bigger, faster and stronger.”
The excitement surrounding Towson’s dodgeball program had never been higher. Todd givens Jr. had a unique way to think about how his team was finally able to execute on a big stage at Nationals.
“Our upset over Ohio State was insanity,” Givens said. “Everything we worked on before Nationals came to fruition during that game. To put it simply, we were in the zone. You saw how Steph Curry started draining 3 after 3 when people doubted him? That’s how we felt. Draining shots over Dellavedova. I hope that makes sense.”
The win over OSU was more than just a step to the next round of the tournament. It was a huge leap forward for a team that had not been taken seriously throughout the NCDA. This group was now officially a force to be reckoned with. Jeremy Brown knows that his team is destined for more success in the future, and it is thanks to that big win back at Nationals 2015.
“To me, the win against Ohio State was the first chapter in our story,” Brown said. “I think we have much bigger things to accomplish as a team, and our win against Ohio State was simply where we got things started.”
The Future is Bright
As most people already know, the OSU was not the only big win this team has had. As we prepare for Nationals, there is another upset on everyone’s mind.
At Towson’s final home tourney of the season they finally got the biggest monkey off their back: James Madison. They historically dominant Dukes fell at the hands of a passionate, loud, and disciplined Towson team by a score of 3-1. It was even more clear after this one that the Tigers were an NCDA team worth noting. The hard work was paying off.
The outlook for the future is finally positive according to Sean Smith.
“The future is bright, there’s finally a positive vibe around Towson Dodgeball,” Smith said. “We got rid of the players that destroyed team chemistry and motivation levels, and replaced them with fresh, young talent full of good attitudes and mindsets.”
Todd Givens Jr. can only add to those strong words about where this team stand now and looking forward.
“The future is more than bright for Towson Dodgeball,” Givens said. “Myself and another teammate Jeremy Brown have stepped into the role of Strength and Conditioning Coaches. We started a program called the “6:30 club.” 6:30 club is basically the team going to the gym at 6:30 in the morning when its empty and Jeremy and I can teach people how to lift properly, spot for them, stuff like that (we don’t skip leg day unlike Mike Riley). Programs like this foster camaraderie and a little competition but best of all you see the team making progress, increasing their overall strength, and wanting to be better players. I’m pretty sure nobody else in the league does this and that’s how we set ourselves apart.”
Jeremy Brown is extremely optimistic for the future of his team.
“I think the evidence is sprinkled all around us,” Brown said. “Whether it was the big win at Nationals last year or the huge influx of talent we are continuously seeing at practice, it is apparent to me that Towson Dodgeball is on the rise. At the moment I believe the confidence surrounding this team and these players is evidence enough to me that we are ready.”
As we look ahead to what should be another fantastic Nationals, I would argue that this is the team to be aware of. Towson has made a habit of getting big upsets. I won’t be surprised at all if they pull off another historic one this year.
It is easy to see that the leaders of this program have really done a lot. They brought the Towson Tigers into national relevance after being the laughing stock of the NCDA only a few short seasons ago. Jeremy Brown put it best when discussing the high expectations this team has as we approach the last tournament of the 2015-16 season.
“My goal is for our team to be the best in the country. Plain and simple.”