AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — Don Gleason called it a “perfect storm,” a confluence of opportunity and need for a college athlete and a coach.
Last spring, the Daemen College men’s volleyball team was coming off its inaugural season. Competing in Division II — in what was then the only men’s scholarship program in New York State, the Wildcats had finished 6-17 with a roster of raw first-year players.
Gleason, a Hamburg native, was excited about the 2020 season. He had eight promising freshmen and a challenging schedule that included home games with Harvard, Pepperdine and UCLA, which was led by the U.S. Olympic men’s head coach, John Speraw.
One day last May, Gleason got a call in his office in Amherst. It was a familiar voice, fellow Hamburg native Zach Yerington. He had known Yerington since Zach was a teen-ager, playing club volleyball with Don’s little brother.
Yerington had just graduated from Ohio State, where he played two seasons on a national championship team before moving to club volleyball for his last two years to devote more time to academics and escape the withering grind of major Division I sports.
During his time in Columbus, Yerington had decided he wanted to be a coach. So who better to call for advice than Gleason, who had earned a Masters in engineering from RIT, with a 4.0 GPA, then given it up to pursue his passion for volleyball coaching?
“I talked to him on the phone for about an hour about what I should be doing differently, what emails I should be writing, what I should be saying,” Yerington recalled.
Gleason, who had traveled the country with a dwindling bank account to visit volleyball clinics and make contacts early in his career, gave Yerington career advice. Then he made his pitch.
“You have a year of eligibility left,” he said. “We’d be happy to see if one of our graduate programs fits you. If it does, we would love to have you on the team.”
Yerington said he hadn’t thought of using his extra year of eligibility. But it was a perfect opportunity. He had made a mature decision to leave the national title team at Ohio State for his academics. Here was a chance to play the sport he loved for one more season in his hometown, and to work toward his coaching dream in graduate school.
It didn’t take him long to say yes.
“I can’t tell you how many athletes I know look back and wish they could play again,” Gleason said. “So when we offered him the opportunity, it was a good fit. I don’t want to bring in guys — even if they can play at a high level like he can — if it’s not a good fit for one year, if it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to sell guys on something I don’t genuinely think is right for them.
“So it was really fortunate for us that everything fell into place for it.”
Yerington entered a masters program called “Leadership for Innovation and Change,” with an emphasis in higher education. It put him on track for a career in coaching, which he had pursued as a part-time assistant for the women’s team at Ohio State.
As for the volleyball, it was a great fit. Yerington, who is 6-5, was the best player on the team, with the lift and athletic skill of a high-level volleyball player. He led Daemen in kills and had 36 against Lincoln Memorial, the most of any DI-II player in the country in a single match this past season. He also lifted his teammates, who were much younger and earlier in their careers.
“A lot of guys on our team flew under the radar on the recruiting trail for one reason or another,” Gleason said. “They have a ton of potential. Seeing Zach’s level of physicality every single day was huge for their growth.”
The Wildcats made a big leap in their second season of existence. They went 12-7 and held their own in losses to UCLA, Pepperdine and Harvard before large home crowds at Lumsden Gymnasium. They were rolling in mid-March, having won eight of their last 10.
Then the NCAA canceled the spring sports season on March 12 due to the coronavirus crisis. Just like that, it was over.
“The way the season ended so abruptly was unfortunate,” Gleason said. “It felt like we were getting in a pretty good rhythm. We are so young, we’re getting better every day.”
But a few weeks later, there was another stroke of good fortune. The NCAA ruled that all spring athletes would be granted an extra year of eligibility. Men’s volleyball, despite starting in January, is classified as a spring sport. So everyone got an extra year. The freshmen would be freshmen again.
“It was a pretty good silver lining,” Gleason said. “It was almost like a good runway teaser year for the freshmen on what college volleyball is all about and they still get their four years after this.”
He had one upperclassmen who was affected: Yerington, who had been dubbed the “team dad” in his graduate senior season and been the MVP of the team. He had a chance for another senior year, a sixth season.
Yerington took some time to think about it in recent weeks while sheltering in place with his parents, Joe and Wendy Carparco, in Hamburg, and keeping in shape.
“I’ve been talking with my parents, my girlfriend and other coaches and players to get an unbiased opinion,” Yerington said. “It’s a big decision, eight more months of collegiate volleyball. I’m guessing not many athletes are deciding to proceed on a sixth year.
“But I don’t know how I could say no to playing a second year here at Daemen.”
He said yes again. A big factor was the assurance from Gleason that an assistant coaching job would be waiting after next season. So Yerington gets to play another year of college volleyball while working as a volunteer assistant coach for the Daemen women’s program, and finishing his masters.
Yerington can’t do actual hands-on coaching with the women’s team, but he’ll be involved in the ancillary tasks that are so critical for assistant coaches: Video, scouting, stats, even the administrative necessities of college team travel.
“So short-term it’s a great fit, helping us improve as a team,” Gleason said. “Long-term, I want to make sure we get him ready for a coaching role — not just on the court, but in the office.”
Yerington has the best role model in Gleason, a guy he looked up to as a kid and who made all the sacrifices necessary to achieve his dream as a college volleyball coach.
“And he’s a role model for my younger guys,” Gleason said. “I can’t overstate how fortunate we are. There’s a talented local base of men’s volleyball at the high school and club level that will allow this program to thrive long-term.”
“The more we show that we can compete at the higher level, the more interested higher level players will be, right? The rich getting richer idea. Zach really helped us take a big step from year one to year two, to show that we can compete at a high level and that we’re a solid option for some of these local guys to stick around and play at a high level.”
When Gleason took the job in 2017, some 18 months before it played its first game, he said he wanted the build the kind of volleyball program that could be a viable option for Western New York kids who, lacking a local college team, had to go elsewhere to play.
It came in a roundabout way, but a kid from Hamburg became the signature recruit in Gleason’s young program. Yerington has said yes to him twice now. He says if the option had been there five years ago, he might have said yes then, too.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.