“It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” — Albus Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
STATE COLLEGE Sometimes you just don’t get a choice. You do what you have to do.
When you are the only senior on a team, as Joe McCracken is for the State College boys’ volleyball team, it’s your job to be a leader and there are no questions.
“I really did kind of thrust it upon him,” coach Kim-Li Kimel said. “It was never even a question. I started asking him to run things, and he never balked.”
The Little Lions (2-4) are just two weeks into their season, practically starting over with six of the 10 boys on the varsity roster listed as either freshmen or sophomores. And they all look to their senior to show them the way.
“He commands all the players, and he wants the best of you,” said outside hitter Joey Leahey, one of three juniors on the roster. “He’s a really good commanding general on the court. Off the court too — if you’re feeling down he gets you back up and, if you’re doing bad, he encourages everyone to get back up.”
The Little Lion program is a perennial power in District 6 and frequently among the state’s best thanks to what is typically a strong, well-seasoned senior class. This year is different, however, with a lot of inexperience on the court.
But, even if this wasn’t the role he necessarily wanted, McCracken has figured things out.
“I wasn’t too excited about it,” he said. “I think as we’ve gone on, I’ve kind of embraced the leadership role. I enjoy it ... but it’s nice to have the leadership position and lead the guys out there on the court.”
To adjust, he tapped into his classroom experiences. His team duties vary from helping tear down the nets after each practice and match, to leading warm-ups and pregame stretches to picking the pre-match music.
Those leadership skills, and his academic abilities, also got him into Cornell this fall. He thought the Ivy League school was the right size and a good fit for him — plus his sister, Casey, is going to school across town at Ithaca College. He is hoping to continue playing volleyball for the club program on campus.
He is one of eight in his class of close to 600 never to have gotten below an A in any class. He is carrying a 4.6 GPA with loads of honors and Advanced Placement classes, and he is a National Merit finalist. McCracken is also part of the Man to Man mentoring program at the school.
“Joe epitomizes the ‘quiet leader’ ideal,” said Andrew Merritt, who teaches social studies. “He is a go-to guy in any class discussion and easily works with any student. Joe’s goal is always to help in any situation and bring out the best in all with whom he works.”
On the court, he had to adjust to worrying about his teammates. Before, he just had to worry about his game and what was right and wrong with how he was playing.
Kimel is trying not to throw too much on the shoulders of the 6-foot-3 outside hitter, who has 12 kills, two blocks and an ace through six matches this season. Ultimately, she just wants him to be himself — not necessarily strive to be a stat-leader or or go beyond his physical abilities.
“It’s challenging for all of us,” Kimel said. “He takes on things in a very concrete, linear way. He’s able to kind of deconstruct a little bit. When things feel chaotic and our youth is showing and things feel impossible, he does a really good job of saying, ‘Here’s what we need to do,’ and breaking it down into more manageable pieces.”
Perhaps what Kimel likes best is his style as a player and leader.
“He does it with just (being) gracious and happy to be helping the team, which is super refreshing,” Kimel said. “It’s really nice to know when we go out on the court, at a practice or at a game, I never have to consider all that other superfluous ego-driven (attitude).”
He may not have asked for it, he may not have expected it, but he is the Little Lion leader.
It seems to suit him quite well.
“He has this nature about him; he doesn’t get unsettled easily,” Kimel said. “He doesn’t seem uncomfortable in the role at all.”