Several years ago, during her time as associate athletic director at Monmouth University, Rachelle Paul was making the 15-minute drive to the nearest grocery store — a Wegmans — in ominous winter weather on the north Jersey shore.

Paul had driven a short distance when a policeman pulled her over. She told him she had no idea why. The cop told her there was a severe storm coming and a driving ban was in effect. He asked to see her driver’s license and registration.

“Buffalo, New York?” he said.

“Yeah, that’s where I’m from,” she replied.

“OK, just take it slow and make it home safely,” the cop said, handing Paul’s papers back. “You’re from Buffalo. I know you’ll be fine.”

Rough weather was nothing for a self-described ‘Buffalo girl.’ Dealing with bad conditions and daunting challenges is part of her hometown’s underdog ethos. The locals believe it makes us tougher, more resilient.

That’s how it must have felt when Rachelle was facing her big decision in late 2019 — like she was heading straight into a storm.

It was her dream to become an athletic director in Division l, and Saint Peter’s was ready to hire her. But talk about daunting conditions. Many considered the school an athletic dead-end. Saint Peter’s, located in Jersey City, had the lowest budget in the MAAC and the second-lowest enrollment (ahead of Canisius). People told her it was a bad job. Don’t take it.

Rachelle Paul and husband Tim, a former Canisius assistant coach.

“I heard those things,” Paul said early this week. “‘It’s really hard to be successful there. There aren’t any resources.’ I knew what I was getting into.”

She said the folks at Saint Peter’s were transparent about the limitations. She appreciated that. She talked it over with her husband, Tim Paul, a former Canisius College basketball assistant who had worked in the MAAC and knew what it was like to compete with fewer resources than other schools.

Tim said there was no chance that this ambitious, competitive Buffalo native was going to back down from a challenge.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “This is a person who played two sports in college. One thing I would tell you: You do not tell Rachelle Held Paul that she can’t do anything. That’s the drive: ‘This is where I’m from; don’t tell me I can’t do it.’”

Rachelle took the job in November 2019. Talk about heading right into a storm. Four months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down sports in the country just as the Saint Peter’s men’s team was about to play in the MAAC semifinals.

“Since most of my tenure has been during the global pandemic,” Paul said, “that has been my biggest challenge, because it has so significantly impacted the student-athlete experience.”

The pandemic has affected every season since Paul became AD. The Peacocks didn’t play for nearly a month around the holidays this year due to COVID protocols. The players are still wearing masks to protect from infection.

But Saint Peter’s persevered. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Paul’s 28 months as athletic director have been the most successful stretch in school sports history.

In 2019-20, albeit a truncated sports year, the men’s teams finished second in the MAAC men’s Commissioner’s Cup standings, their second-highest finish ever. They also put 161 student-athletes on the league’s academic honor roll, the most in a decade. Then came the story of a lifetime.

This month, the Peacocks became the darlings of the sports world, everyone’s Cinderella. Last weekend, Saint Peter’s became only the third 15th seed — and the first men’s team in MAAC history — to reach the Sweet 16. On Friday night in Philadelphia, they face Purdue as a 13-point underdog, looking to make more history under the hottest coach in the land, Shaheen Holloway.

Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway talks during practice for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Thursday, March 24, 2022, in Philadelphia. Saint Peter’s plays Purdue in the Sweet 16. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

As you might expect, it’s been a busy, exhilarating week for Paul, 40, who played lacrosse and soccer at Canisius College before earning a master’s in sports administration in 2004.

“The word I would use for it is ‘outrageous,’” she said Tuesday. “It’s been a been a completely wild ride. I’m still sort of back on Friday before the MAAC championship. It still hasn’t hit me that we’ve won a MAAC championship, let alone that we’re in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

“It’s been non-stop. It’s been a great experience. It’s been chaotic. It’s been fun. It has electrified this campus, this Jersey City community, Hudson County and folks across the country and the world who are pulling for little Saint Peter’s!”

Paul said the school’s website crashed last Thursday after the Peacocks beat Kentucky — whose coach, John Calipari, has a salary of $8.5 million, more than the entire Saint Peter’s athletic budget.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari walks off the court after losing to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 85-79 in overtime. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

“People asked, ‘Where is Saint Peter’s? What is Saint Peter’s?’ Since Thursday, we’ve generated more than $19,000 in merchandise sales. Some place named a beer after us with a peacock smashing the face of a Kentucky Wildcat. Some student created a social media account for Doug (Edert)’s mustache.”

“The immediate is just absolutely wild,” she said. “It’s like a perfect storm of excitement that everybody’s holding onto. And we love it. We welcome it.”

The equivalent for a Buffalo fan would be winning the Super Bowl. Oh yes, Rachelle is a big Bills fan. She even managed to convert her husband. Tim grew up on Long Island as a Giants fan but was won over when he went to his first game in Orchard Park in 2006 in his first year on Tom Parrotta’s staff.

“Anybody that knows me knows I’m from Buffalo,” Rachelle said. “Buffalo is near and dear to my heart. I fully planned on volunteering there last weekend, unless of course my team was participating.

“I am a Buffalo girl,” she said. “I’m a diehard Buffalo Bills fans. My family had season tickets to the Sabres. They’re all still up there, I get up there whenever I can. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about Buffalo and I’m absolutely humbled that you would want to talk to me as a Buffalo girl in the Sweet 16.”

The former Rachelle Held was a star athlete and student at Williamsville East. Her father, Gary Held, owns a restaurant, Gertie’s, in Clarence Center with his girlfriend, Beth Gross. Rachelle’s mother, Janis, died in 2007. She has a brother, Greg, who played hockey at Penn State.

At Williamsville East, she played soccer for Chris Durr, who coached the girls’ team at East for 26 years before the school board took his position away last fall without explanation. Paul called Durr “someone who had a tremendous impact on who I am today” and reached out to offer him encouragement last fall.

“She was just a great kid to coach,” Durr said, “one of the best leaders and captains I’ve ever had, a great all-around kid to have in class and one of my all-time favorites. I texted with her last weekend because I was so proud.”

Durr saw great things in Paul, who possessed boundless passion and energy. She starred in lacrosse at Canisius College and was seventh all-time in scoring when she graduated. She also played two years of soccer and at times was busy with both sports at once while working towards a communications degree.

“I would have soccer practice at 6 in the morning, then I’d go to class and typically lacrosse practice was 9 to 11 p.m.,” she said. “So, it was a full day of activity for me. But I wouldn’t have changed anything about it. It was truly a wonderful experience as a student-athlete.”

As a freshman, she wanted to be a news anchor, the next Katie Couric. Then she thought she might want to be a math teacher and coach. But when she served on the student-athlete advisory committee at Canisius, she decided to pursue her master’s in sports administration.

“I was shell-shocked when I went from being a student-athlete,” she recalled. “I would show up at practices and games. I had no comprehension of the ins and outs of an athletics department. I was so ignorant to all that was going on.”

Saint Peter’s KC Ndefo goes up for a dunk against Murray State’s KJ Williams during the second round of the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

But she knew it was her calling. During her graduate year, she worked for Americore’s Athletes in Service program, tutoring students at Riverside High. A woman from UB named Kelly Cruttenden spoke at her graduate class about the importance of compliance in college sports.

Paul was intrigued and got a 10-month compliance fellowship at the MAAC office, where she worked for commissioner Rich Ensor and got to know the key administrators from around the league.

“It was great for me to be a sponge and start my network there,” she said. “Right then and there, in the conference office, I had 11 athletic directors and senior woman administrators. That was my network.

“From there it kind of ballooned. I was really interested in the administrative side of things and that’s when I said, ‘You know what, I want to be an athletics director.’”

Paul spent the next two years at the Northeast Conference as assistant commissioner for compliance and senior women’s administrator. But in June of 2007, her mother died suddenly at 54 and Rachelle moved back home to be director of compliance at Canisius College.

“I wanted to get closer to my family and to be there for my dad,” she said. “A lot of folks saw it as a step down. I think it proved to be a pivotal moment in my career. It provided an experience I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, being on a college campus, doing day-to-day NCAA compliance and interacting with the coaching staff and students and administration and having a team to root for.”

She also met her future husband. Tim Paul was a men’s basketball assistant, which meant frequent interactions with compliance. He was struck by Rachelle’s drive and passion, her commitment to enhancing the athletes’ college lives.

“Taking care of the student-athletes, making sure that they have a great experience, both on and off the playing surface, was always most important,” he said. “I think that held true at every single step and stop she has made. You’re attracted to that, because wow, that’s a person you want to be around.”

Their first date was the day of the NCAA men’s basketball championship in 2008, when Kansas beat Memphis (and John Calipari) for the title. They celebrate it every year on the Monday night of the championship game.

After four years at Canisius, Rachelle went to Monmouth for three years as associate athletic director. Then it was four years at Seton Hall, where she served as associate AD and deputy Title IX coordinator in the Big East. In 2019, she got her dream job as an AD at Saint Peter’s

“I’m humbled by this whole experience, quite honestly,” she said. “But truly, I’m not surprised. I could tell you stories leading up to the Kentucky game, all the weird idiosyncrasies that told me, ‘We’re going to win this game.’

“Sha (Holloway) and i worked together before at Seton Hall. So, I fully knew that he was capable of this sort of success.”

It’s that Buffalo underdog mentality, dusting yourself off from countless disappointments and believing in the improbable. Wouldn’t it be something if Rachelle and Tim got to celebrate their first date with little Saint Peter’s actually in the big game?

“Listen,” Tim said with a big laugh, “one game at a time!”

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.