When the season came to a close for the State College boys’ volleyball team last spring, Aaron Cymbor thought his official, organized volleyball career was done.
He was headed to college to study music, worrying about harmonies and melodies, not spikes and serves.
But a chance email and some good fortune brought him back to the sport and a surprising opportunity.
It’s the first week of May, and Cymbor is on one of the six teams still alive and in the hunt for a national championship — in his hometown, no less.
Cymbor is an outside hitter at George Mason, a surprise conference champion last week. The Patriots (18-11) carry the No. 6 seed into the tournament’s play-in matches Tuesday night at Rec Hall. They are set to face No. 3 seed Ohio State (28-2) at 8 p.m. Erskine (20-6) and Long Beach State (24-7) meet at 6 p.m.
The winners head to the national semifinals Thursday, with either the Patriots or Buckeyes meeting No. 2 seed UCLA (25-6), and No. 1 seed Brigham Young (26-3) awaiting either the Flying Fleet or 49ers. Matches are at 6 and 8 p.m. Thursday, and the finals are at 8 p.m. Saturday.
It’s the first time since 1998 a team other than Penn State had won the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title. St. Francis upset the Nittany Lions in the conference tournament semifinals before the Red Flash fell to the Patriots in the finals, also in Rec Hall, sending the team to the national tournament for the first time since 1988.
“Growing up, watching games here, I never thought I’d be down on this court where I am today,” Cymbor said after the win over St. Francis. “Winning that championship, that was just incredible. There are no other words to describe it.”
Growing up, watching games here, I never thought I’d be down on this court where I am today.
At 6-foot-3, undersized for big-time Division I volleyball, Cymbor thought he was done with the sport on May 27, 2015. State College lost in the PIAA first round to Bethel Park in a heartbreaker, falling 15-13 in the fifth set. He had already been accepted into George Mason, auditioning for the music program the previous December, and was committed to the school despite his athletic talents. He figured he would play for the club team to feed the competitive needs.
“Six or seven months ago, he had no idea he was going to play in college,” said his father, Mike Cymbor. “He wanted to play but there are so many variables associated with this.”
“I was thinking I might get down for some club tournaments,” added his mother, Autumn, with the family hosting the team for dinner during the EIVA tournament.
But in August, Jay Hosack was hired as the Patriots’ new head coach after serving as an assistant at Penn State. Cymbor didn’t know Hosack well, but they had met a few times at Penn State camps, and Cymbor also worked at Skytop Mountain Golf Club, where Hosack occasionally played a round. Cymbor sent the new coach an email reminding Hosack of the State College connection and asking for a tryout.
When Hosack looked in his gym for fall practices, he saw only 16 players, and only four of them were outside hitters, with one, Jack Wilson, to be moved to a right-side spot. They didn’t even have a full complement of players for practice. Assistant coach Joe Norton participated in some practices, but Hosack wanted his coaches to be coaching and not playing. A few others had also expressed interest in joining the team, but the coaches didn’t like what they saw — until Cymbor came along.
“Aaron walked up to me and said, ‘I don’t expect playing time, I just want to be part of the team. Give me a tryout for a week and if you like what you see, can I stay?’” Hosack recalled. “We gave him a few days, and to be honest, Joe and I talked about it and we said, ‘You know what? We need another body in the gym, let’s give him a shot and see what he does.’”
Cymbor had no delusions about playing, and he hasn’t been racking up the huge stats like he was as a Little Lion, when he was regularly registering double digits in kills. He’s appeared in just three matches and taken just one swing — a kill, to give him a 1.000 hitting percentage.
But Hosack said Cymbor is popular among the Patriot players and is doing what the team needs.
“He’s always working hard,” Hosack said. “He never complains, never shows up late, he’s a good student — those are all things that you want out of your kids that are on your team — and the guys like him.”
The musical roots run a little deeper than the volleyball roots for Cymbor, who played a number of organized sports growing up but didn’t give volleyball a try until eighth grade. He’s been playing piano since first grade, and lately added guitar and bass guitar. He mostly plays classical, but wants to learn some jazz and write his own music.
The Patriots’ success this week likely won’t ride on what Cymbor does on the court, but he’s just fine with that.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the rest of the team,” Cymbor said. “I’m just working hard in practice, and hopefully I’ll get there one day, but I’m just so proud of what everybody else is doing.”
It will be hard to beat the experiences he’s had in his freshman year.
“Pretty fired up for that kid,” Hosack said. “He’s got a pretty cool memory to have.”
What: National Collegiate Championships
Where: Rec Hall
Play-in matches, Tuesday: No. 5 Erskine (20-6) vs. No. 4 Long Beach State (24-7), 6 p.m.; No. 6 George Mason (18-11) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (28-2), 8 p.m.
Semifinals, Thursday: Erskine-LBSU winner vs. No. 1 BYU (26-3); George Mason-Ohio State winner vs. No. 2 UCLA (25-6)
Semifinals: 6, 8 p.m. Thursday
Finals: 8 p.m. Saturday
TV: Thursday matches on ESPN.com; Saturday match on ESPN2