Glenside, PENN. – Four years ago, Arcadia University kickstarted their men’s volleyball program. Eli Porr was tabbed as a candidate to lead the newly-formed team and was quickly hired as head coach. At the time, he was also pulling double-duty, serving as head coach of the women’s team. Over those first few months, he poured himself into his job, coaching and recruiting for talent on the local and national levels.
One day, Porr was scouting some high school talent at a national qualifying tournament in Rochester, New York when a player on the Texas Fusion club team caught his eye.
“He wasn’t the biggest guy," Porr recalled. "He didn’t stand out the most, but he was the most passionate player in the gym. He just looked like a lot of potential.”
The player’s name was Angelo Giuffrida. Soon after watching him play, Porr reached out to the Boerne native, who happened to have family living close by Arcadia’s campus in Pennsylvania. A few weeks later, Giuffrida took an official visit and decided to make his mark in the northeast.
“Who doesn’t want to start a first-year program? It’s literally like writing your own storybook," Giuffrida said. "I get to have a say in the culture on campus and what we want this program to look like moving forward.”
As part of the inaugural freshman class, it didn’t take long for Giuffrida to take advantage of the opportunity. Porr remembers a very specific exchange he had early on with the coaching staff.
“He came in right away, met our strength coaches and was like, ‘Listen. I’m going to be the hardest working person in this athletic department. I’m just letting you know right now. I may be a freshman, but I will be the example.'"
“I was all about the weight room," Giuffrida explained. "If you put in work there, you’ll see it out on the court. I just wanted to establish a hard work ethic. We have 6-foot-6 and above players. We have a First-Team All-American on our team. We have some ballers on our team. My role was in the weight room. I was a leader there, I was a leader on the court and got the guys rowdy on the bench.”
Over the course of his four-year career, the Boerne native transformed into a versatile, dynamic spark plug and received numerous awards for his work ethic. Twice he earned Arcadia’s Male Strength & Conditioning Athlete of the Year, and this past season he won the 2020 NCSA All-American Athlete Award.
“Every year, he played a different role for us as a volleyball player, and he would just adapt and get good at it," Porr said. "He was all about the daily grind. That is what he lived for. We needed that to start our volleyball program.”
That first season saw plenty of growing pains, but Porr wasn’t shy about setting a goal for the freshmen: win the National Championship as seniors. Every year since that gauntlet was thrown, the team has taken massive step after massive step, culminating with a dramatic five-set victory over No. 3 Stevenson to claim the program’s first Middle Athletic Conference title in 2019. For the first time in program history -- just three years after the team began varsity play -- the Arcadia Knights were in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
“It was a joyous moment," Giuffrida said. "We all rushed the court and celebrated. To win in the fashion that we did, on an error... I watched the ball sail out of bounds, and in that moment we realized we were conference champions.”
Despite a hard-fought first-round exit in the national tournament, all signs pointed to 2020 as the Knights’ best chance to take home the title. In order to prepare for the level of talent they would face if they qualified for the tournament again, Porr put together the hardest non-conference schedule possible, filled with ranked opponents from all across the nation. Undeterred, Arcadia scrapped their way to an 11-10 record heading into spring break and the start conference play.
That’s when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the remainder of the spring sports schedule and ended the seniors’ dreams of a national title. Their final match was a 3-2 victory over MAC rival Alvernia University on Wednesday, March 11. Initially, the team believed the season might resume, but as the number of postponements and cancellations grew, a harsh reality set in.
“The guys were upset, but it wasn’t news all at once," Porr explained. "By the time we got official word, it was already three weeks after our last match, and the guys were kind of prepared for it.”
“We got a call from Eli, and he said, ‘The season’s canceled boys, so don’t bother coming back to practice,’" Giuffrida recalled. "When we finished our out-of-conference play, we were sitting exactly where we wanted to be. If you win the conference, you go to the tournament. That was always our vision. To be ranked and have all of the national recognition that we did was nice, but there’s not much closure.
"It’s a shame that we didn’t get to finish out the season, but I was out there on the court when we did. It was just a pleasure to play.”
Even though his collegiate career is officially over, Giuffrida wants to keep volleyball in his life after Arcadia. He plans on joining the coaching ranks at the club level in Baltimore, where he’s currently waiting out the remainder of the pandemic with his girlfriend.
“I want to use this as an opportunity to still continue what I love to do, and that’s competition. It’s competition from a different standpoint, but I’m excited. It’ll be fun.”
Regardless of where he ends up and whose lives he touches, there’s no doubt that Giuffrida and his contagious enthusiasm will continue to leave a lasting impact on the sport of volleyball.