There is an island in the Niagara River that is inhabited by 20,000 people. Grand Island is a typical Western New York town. There isn’t much that differentiates Grand Island from the rest of Western New York other than it’s bridges at each end and it’s love for volleyball. Volleyball is one of the most well attended sports at Grand Island High School, and it’s the sport that everyone gets excited for in gym class. Volleyball is ingrained in this town’s culture.
Don Mason is a member of Trinity Church on the Island. In 1994, as the beautiful new church sat at the back of the parking lot, he and a crew of volunteers began working on the original church in the front of the parking lot. The plan was to convert it into a multi-use gymnasium. There was a Boy Scout troop that could use is for a recreational space to play things like dodgeball and basketball, a baton twirling group that could use it as a practice space, and of course a group of people that wanted to play volleyball.
Working on mostly Saturdays, the crew worked for four years ripping out this and tearing down that. In 1997-1998, they removed out the 2nd story floor to give the gymnasium some needed height. The sport-court flooring was laid down in 1999-2000. Rob Ludwig’s company installed wallboards. Sal DeMarco built shear walls, ramps, and other pieces. Pete Fasolino and K&E Fabricating built steel wall ties, fan guards, ramp railings, window guards, and any other metallic items that were needed. There were scores of people who helped fundraise for all of this. The community rallied together to create something special.
The gym is roughly 30 feet wide by 60 feet long. This presents some logistical challenges for an official volleyball court that measures 30 feet wide by 60 feet long. There is no extra space around the court, which is fairly rare for volleyball. It would eventually become part of the appeal of Trinity. Much of volleyball is played outside the lines of the court, hitters getting off the court and charging back into it…but not at Trinity. If a ball hits the wall, it’s deemed out of play, so having excess court helps limit that…but not at Trinity. A volleyball gym generally has high ceilings…but not at Trinity. The gym essentially forces a tight, faster and more precise style of game play.
With the given dimensions, there isn’t room for poles to hang the net from. Don managed to sidestep this issue by installing vertical metal bars on the walls, and then bought a special net online. The net was outfitted with steel cables that ran through the top and bottom tape and would attach to the bars via a ratchet strap. The metal bar has holes drilled through with I-hooks for the ratchet straps to connect to. This would result in a perfectly taught net every time.
Don started offering open gyms on Monday nights. It was free of charge, and ran from 6:30 – 9 pm. The only rules were “be respectful, don’t be a rummy, and watch the plaque”. The plaque, of course, hangs on a single nail above one of the windows. Many a shanked ball has come close to knocking it down, and some quick hands have saved a falling plaque on other occasions.
Don would usually play the first couple sets, then retire to his famous spot next to the scoreboard. He would serve as the official, the coach, the sport psychologist, the team-maker, the light hearted heckler, the cheerleader, and everyone’s #1 fan. He is truly the master of ceremonies at these open gyms.
News spread about this open gym. Boys and girls from the Grand Island Middle School, JV, and Varsity teams would come to get some reps. The crop of “young bucks” who are trying to figure the sport out would be playing next to the Boy Scouts, who are playing next to parishioners, who would be playing next to someone’s neighbor, who would be playing next to someone’s dog sitter’s best friend’s cousin. It was a cross section of Grand Island’s community on this court.
As the handful of Varsity players graduated high school and went on to college, they would come back and continue to play on Monday nights. This would prove to be a valuable incubator for the young bucks. These younger players had an older player next to them giving them advice between rallies. What more could a young athlete want? Their idol is playing next to them and coaching them?!? That’s as cool as it gets in 8th or 9th grade. The more the older players kept giving advice, the more the younger players grew.
At some point, Don decided the group of loyal young bucks might be amounting to actual volleyball players. They were physically maturing and were figuring the sport out. They wanted to play more than once a week too. Badly. He offered them Wednesday nights. It would be a chance for the young bucks to run a little bit more.
Most of the guys did not play club volleyball. Club, for those who aren’t in the volleyball world, is synonymous with “travel” in other sports. It’s typically an all star team of a given area who will practice together a few times a week and travel to play in tournaments. It’s the easiest and most common way to get recruited to play in college. It’s nice if you’re considered a great high school player, but it carries far more weight to be considered a great club player. In 2004, there were only a couple boys clubs in Western New York, and most of these teams were stacked with Division I talent, and no where close to Grand Island.
The Trinity guys may have been getting better, but Matt Anderson was a gangly high schooler at West Seneca West during this time. He’s currently on the US Olympic team, and widely regarded as one of the best players in the world. Max Lipsitz (Williamsville North) joined Matt at Penn State University, and together they won a national championship in 2008. John Klanac (Orchard Park) would play against them at The Ohio State University alongside Dale Frier (Lancaster), winning a national championship of their own in 2011. During this era of high school boys volleyball in Western New York eight boys would be selected to the VolleyballMag’s Fab 50 List. This is a list of the top 50 boys across the whole country. Understandably, the club scene was very difficult to break into, so the Trinity crew would create their own opportunities through Trinity’s open gyms. With each session on Wednesdays, they would continue to push each other to higher and higher levels.
As this Wednesday group continued to play together, they grew together too. There are stories of late night runs to Mighty Taco or Jim’s Steakout after a session. The tales of going to Adrien’s, the beloved mom-and-pop ice cream shop, before a session. What this group had was so much more than a shared athletic endeavor. It was a hang. They felt guilty if they didn’t show up for a session. They knew all their best friends were going to be there. No one wanted to miss the birth of a new inside joke, no one wanted to hear “Aw man, you should have been there!” To quote Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills Head Coach Marv Levy, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”
One by one, the Wednesday group went off to college to continue their volleyball careers. Some went the NCAA Division III route, others opted for college club. There was one common thread amongst them…they stayed in town. It may have been intentional, it may have been subconscious, but almost everyone stayed within an hour of Trinity. By staying in town, not only could they continue playing at Trinity, but they could also bring their college teammates with them. Sunday nights were quickly added to the schedule purely out of necessity. There was a giant influx of players with an insatiable appetite to play.
After some time, the original Wednesday crew and the new Sunday crew began to graduate from college. Most continued to stay in town, but slowly they began exchanging their summer jobs for actual professions. They wanted to keep playing, but life began to get in the way. Growing up can stink sometimes. Nights that used to have five teams of seven players slowly became nights with three teams of six players. There were still more than enough players to play, but the numbers had dropped. They didn’t have the opportunity to see each other as often. Growing up really began to stink.
The group came up with an idea. Trinity has given them well over a decade of free use of the gym and had never asked for any payment. It was time to give back. On a semi-annual basis, they would organize a tournament. They would charge $20 at the door and the proceeds would go to the church. These tournaments began around 2013 and are still running. In the beginning, the teams what weren’t playing were usually playing cards at the table, ping-pong in the back, and Kan-Jam outside. Now they are trying to stretch out and stay warm, or attempting to utilize ice packs for nagging injuries, or are tending to their toddlers who are scampering around.
It’s not lost on the group how much time has passed. The core group of young bucks began playing volleyball together in 6th or 7th grade, and now they have toddlers at the gym where it all started. Maybe growing up isn’t so bad after all.
Don still holds Monday night open gyms. It’s still free. There is still a new crop of young bucks who are trying to figure the sport out, who are still playing next to the Boy Scouts, who are still playing next to parishioners, who are still playing next to someone’s neighbor, who are still playing next to someone’s dog sitter’s best friend’s cousin. It’s still a cross section of Grand Island’s community on that court. The same rules still apply: be respectful, don’t be a rummy, and watch the plaque. Some things never change.
Trinity gave an opportunity to kids to play volleyball for free. Trinity gave a group of high school athletes an opportunity to play their way into college. Trinity gave a group of college athletes an opportunity to continue playing through their off season and continue growing. Trinity gave former college athletes a vehicle to give back to the next group of kids, a group of kids getting ready for their journey through the volleyball world. Trinity gave us all a community to be a part of.
The following list contains people who have benefited from the generosity of Trinity Church. From it’s parishioners, to Don Mason and the crew of volunteers, to all that helped in the planning, organizing, manual labor, fundraising, and sacrifice of Saturdays off, all to give a group of strangers a chance to meet and have fun playing a sport…thank you. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
The Very Incomplete All-Time Roster of Trinity Athletes
Those who played collegiately are listed with their school
Sheri Ackendorf – Alfred State College
Brytney Annis – Palm Beach Atlantic University
Matt Bain – Niagara County Community College
Trevor Barrett – Medaille College
Bill Beck – SUNY Fredonia Men’s Club
Lindsey “Boom Boom” Boyle
Andrew “Man of” Braun – Niagara County Community College Club
Ryan Buelens – Niagara County Community College Club
Andy Carll – Hilbert College
Matt Catanzaro – Rochester Institute of Technology Men’s Club
Ian Clark – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Sean Clements – Genesee Community College
Dave “Papa Tank” Cole – D’Youville College
Mike Cole – D’Youville College
Zach “MVP” Crittenden
Miko Daluisio – Niagara University
Shawn “Chuck D” DAngelo – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Paul “Diddy” Dhand – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Candace Durkin – Niagara County Community College Club
Bobby “Jeans” Elsaesser
Meg Fahy – Medaille College
Erik Felker – Niagara County Community College Club
Kari Felker – Niagara County Community College
Craig Frier – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Ryan Garby – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Nick Gentile – SUNY Fredonia Men’s Club
Bobby Gerhart – Hilbert College
Billy Gimello – Nazareth College
Donnie Gleason – Rochester Institute of Technology Men’s Club
Jason Gleason – Niagara County Community College Club
Joe Hacherl – Medaille College
Chelsea Hall – Alfred University
Bob Heary – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Chris “Scooter” Heftka – D’Youville College
Hailee Herc – Stony Brook University
Hannah Herc – Kent State University
Marty Hoffman – SUNY Oswego Men’s Club
Paul Holler – Medaille College
Scott Holler – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Jon Horton – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Sarah Horvath – SUNY Buffalo
Doug Hoover – Medaille College
Kevin Hughes – Niagara County Community College Club
Austin Ihle – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Nick Ihle – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Margo “Polo” Jablonski – Niagara County Community College
Dan “Tito” Jackson – Medaille College
Nick Johnson – Medaille College
Jenn Karan – Daemen College
Lauren Kirby – Medaille College
Steve Klein – Medaille College
Tom Klein – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Masha Kolesnikova – St. Lawrence University
Matt Kremer – Medaille College
Matt Kwiatkowski – Niagara County Community College Club
Jordan LeViness – Medaille College
Drew Lewandowski – Medaille College
Taylor Lewandowski – Niagara County Community College
Emily Litwin – Canisius College
Pat Madia – Niagara County Community College Club
Leanne Maloney – SUNY Fredonia
Adam and Beck Mason’s Family
Jill Mason and her Family
Sarah Mason and her Family
Chris Maxwell – Geneseo Men’s Club
Jess Maxwell – Daemen College
Ryan Maxwell – Medaille College
Steve Maxwell – Daemen College Men’s Club
Chris “Corky” McDonald
Denny McDonald – Niagara County Community College Club
Ryan Metz – Medaille College
Chris Miller – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Dan Miranda – Nazareth College
Jamie Leigh Mulligan
Ryan Murdie – Medaille College
Aaron Mycek – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Erik Nowakowski’ and his Family
Andy Nawotka – Medaille College
Megan Nostro – SUNY Geneseo
Kelly Nowak – SUNY Brockport
Lindsey Nowak – Daemen College
Jerry Olmeda – SUNY Fredonia Men’s Club
Alyssa Ostrowski – SUNY Buffalo
Jessica Oyer – Niagara County Community College
“Little” Jon Oyer
Erica Page – Hilbert College
Jessie “Pops” Pettit – Niagara County Community College Club
The Podgorny Family
Bryan Proch – Medaille College
Bridget Pumm – Daemen College
Darek Przybyl – Medaille College
Ed Pyszczynski – Cornell Men’s Club
Shaun Quinn – Niagara County Community College Club
Andrea Reitz – Medaille College
Jill Reitz – Medaille College
Jeff “Beast Master” Rogan – Niagara County Community College Club
Scott Ross – Niagara County Community College Club
Alex Santos – Niagara County Community College Club
Dave Schneggenburger – Daemen College Men’s Club
Hans Schroeder – Nazareth College
Billy Schultz – D’Youville College
Jennifer Simpson Stennerson and her Family
Will Siwy – Nazareth College
Sonia Sloan – Medaille College
Stacey Smith – University of Georgia
Kim Snyder – D’Youville College
Robyn Stanley – Medaille College
Jonas Stalyga – Loyola University Chicago
Mikey “Stex” Steckelberg
Sean “Stex” Steckelberg – Medaille College
Mike Stefani – The Ohio State University
Kim Taberski – Niagara University Women’s Club
Kyle “Bombczak” Tomczak – Niagara County Community College Club
Page Tsai – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Chelsea Turcer – Daemen College
Jordan Tylec – Canisius College
Brian Vitello – Niagara County Community College Club
Aaron Woomer – Medaille College
Jesse Walker – University of Buffalo Men’s Club
Tara Walker – Daemen College
Jordan Windisch – Niagara County Community College Club
Tyler Windisch – Niagara County Community College Club
Dan Wolfe – Hilbert College
RJ Wynn and his Family
Scotty Xie – SUNY Fredonia Men’s Club