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Decades in Volleyball

Updated on September 26, 2017
O'Connell, Braun, and Giufre at Cortland in 2007.
O'Connell, Braun, and Giufre at Cortland in 2007.

The Early Years

In 1994 at a small Upstate, NY college called SUNY Cortland, two young men had just enrolled as freshmen. For my part, I was finishing up a ninth semester of college for a dual major, dual minor degree. The freshmen were Geoff Braun from Buffalo, NY and Matt Giufre from Syracuse, NY.

The common thread that caused us to meet was our love of volleyball. All three of us had played in high school, Braun as a setter and defensive specialist while Giufre and myself were outside hitters. Cortland had a fairly competitive club volleyball team and Braun and Giufre had decided to join. I was in my fifth year and had chosen to step away from the club after four years of playing and two years of running the team to coach with the Cortland Women's Volleyball Team. But an occasional practice with the team to keep my skills sharp would facilitate the meeting of Braun and Giufre.

Over the course of the next few years, all three of us would be involved in the Physical Education major at Cortland as I went back for a second degree while being involved with coaching with the women's volleyball team. In 1996, the three of us would play together at the NIRSA Club Volleyball Championships and help the team finish in fifth in the Division II bracket, losing to Washington State out of the PAC10. Braun and I teamed up again in April of 1997 for a ninth place finish, losing to Dartmouth of the Ivy League.

I would go on to graduate in the Winter of 1997 with Braun and Giufre following in the next Spring of 1998.




After graduation, both Braun and I would look to get additional experience outside of Cortland. After applying for around sixty positions and getting one interview, I went on to take an assistant coaching position at Division II Ferris State in Michigan while Braun would return home to Buffalo to be an assistant at SUNY Fredonia. Giufre stayed at Cortland and enrolled in the Master's program in Health Education, taking on the assistant coaching role that I had held for the previous four seasons.

Braun would catch the first big break of the group, being named interim Head Coach at Fredonia just prior to the 1999 season. I finished up a two-year stint at Ferris and then would return to New York as a graduate assistant at SUNY Brockport. Giufre remained at Cortland during this time, putting all three of us in the State University of New York Conference (SUNYAC) coaching against each other for a few years.

In 2002, both Giufre and I began searching for our own head coaching positions. After a few interviews, Giufre was offered the SUNY New Paltz position while I accepted the role of head coach at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Now all three of us had head coaching positions within the New York Region of NCAA Division III Volleyball.


Building Winning Programs

For each of us, we would find success in the coaching ranks. Braun's teams have a won-loss record of 399-229 in his 18 seasons. He has been named SUNYAC Coach of the Year three separate times (2003, 2007, 2008). In 2008, he guided Fredonia to the SUNYAC title and NCAA National Championships, finishing in ninth.

Giufre has been just as successful at New Paltz. He has amassed a career record of 399-175 in his 15 seasons and was the SUNYAC Coach of the Year in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2014. Giufre's teams have made five trips to the NCAA National Championships, finishing as high as fifth in 2008.

I found some success at Stevens putting up a 272-92 record in ten seasons with the Ducks. I was my conference's Coach of the Year in 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Stevens made seven trips to the NCAA from 2004-2010, finishing fifth in 2006 and 2007. In 2012, I returned to the SUNYAC, accepting the head coaching position at SUNY Oswego where I have gone 90-72 in five seasons for an overall head coaching record of 362-164.

Giufre, Braun, and O'Connell at SUNYAC Conference play in 2014.
Giufre, Braun, and O'Connell at SUNYAC Conference play in 2014.

The Clash of 2008

To say that there have been some spirited matches between the three of us would be an understatement. In head-to-head meetings, Giufre currently boasts a winning record against Braun. Braun has the edge over me, and I hold a slight lead over Giufre.

Never was the competitive enjoyment more apparent than the 2008 season. All three coaches took their teams to the Vassar Tournament as a tune up the week before conference playoffs. There, my squad won against both Braun and Giufre's teams. Giufre won the matchup with Braun.

The following week, in the SUNYAC Championship game, Braun's team pulled the upset and knocked off Giufre's Hawks to earn a trip to the NCAA Championships. My squad also won their conference tournament to gain entry into the field. Giufre's team would get an at-large bid to the tournament and all three would be sent to the same Regional Championship site at Union College.

At the Regional, Braun's Blue Devils would take down my top-seeded, and defending Regional Champion, Ducks in a five-set thriller in the Regional Semifinal. Their reward, a meeting with Giufre's Hawks for the third time in three weeks with a chance to go to the Elite 8. In a five-set match that came down to the wire, New Paltz would take the Regional Title to advance to their first Elite 8 in school history.

In 2016, the trio merged at Potsdam for conference play.
In 2016, the trio merged at Potsdam for conference play.

Twenty Years and Counting

It's been just over twenty years since the three of us met and now each coaches a team in the ten-team SUNYAC Conference. Each year, we get to meet up and compete against one another and each time is a fun reunion. The camaraderie we share and laughs about the old days of playing, the trips, and even the nicknames are priceless.

To think back to that initial meeting and imagine that twenty years down the road we, as a group, would combine to have over a thousand wins, a dozen Coach of the Year awards, a dozen National Championship Bids, and two dozen All-America selections would have been pretty improbable. But here we are, year after year, striving to put the best teams on the floor we can.

While I can't speak for the other guys, I certainly appreciate the unique nature of our intertwining volleyball histories. Each of us knows each other as a competitor and through that competition, we have grown to truly respect, admire, and enjoy the achievements when they happen to any one of us.


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      Therese Schlesiger Hans 2 years ago

      Great article, JJ! How great it is to read about all of your success and continued friendship!!