Being on the bench was the last place Fay Bakodimou wanted to be as her Towson teammates took part in the 2018 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.
A freshman at the time, Bakodimou had taken a leap of faith, leaving her home in Athens, Greece, to play volleyball at Towson — essentially sight unseen. In just her eighth collegiate match, she sustained an injury that ultimately ended her season and relegated her to watching as her team tried to win a conference title.
In what might have been one of her most frustrating moments as an athlete, Bakodimou was about to get a pick-me-up.
Before the first match of the tournament, coach Don Metil handed each of the players an envelope. Inside were personalized messages. Bakodimou, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter, found the gesture so meaningful, she has kept the message.
“For me, it gave me so much confidence,” she said. “It was so thoughtful … for him to show that he recognizes everyone’s individual talent.”
Metil has been pushing all the right buttons throughout his career as a coach. Now in his ninth year at Towson, he has led the Tigers to back-to-back CAA titles and back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, including a first-round victory over American in 2019.
The Tigers have started the 2021 season to a current NCAA-best 8-0, stretching their streak of regular-season victories to 32, a stretch that started in 2019. (Bakodimou, perhaps not coincidentally, has been a key player during the unbeaten start, ranking among the team leaders in kills, digs, aces and points per set.)
The fourth victory this season was the 400th for Metil in his 20-year coaching career, a career that grew out of a lifelong passion for volleyball.
Latrobe, Pennsylvania, located 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, is most famous for being the home of golf icon Arnold Palmer. Latrobe also is known for its role in the birth of professional football. The Latrobe Athletic Association was the first football team to comprise all professional players (1895). That history gave rise to western Pennsylvania’s deep-rooted love for the sport that is reflected in the current almost cult-like worship of the Steelers.
Don Metil’s interest was neither golf nor football. It was volleyball.
He was part of a close-knit group of boys who spent countless hours on the sand courts at Latrobe’s Legion Keener Park. When they would stay at the beach together, volleyball was their all-consuming activity.
Metil said he and his friends tried to get their high school, Greater Latrobe, to form a boys volleyball team. It wasn’t until after he graduated, however, that the program was added.
“It just turned out that at a very early age I just started hanging around with a bunch of kids who had a passion for the game,” Metil said.
He carried that to California University of Pennsylvania, 40 miles southwest of Latrobe, where he was a setter for the men’s club volleyball team for a year. Most of Metil’s time at Cal was spent working with the athletic training staff.
After getting a dual bachelor’s degree in secondary education and sports medicine, Metil went in search of a job. That search took him to Maryland, where, in 1996, he landed a gig at Dumbarton Middle School in — wait for it — Towson.
It was there he began coaching girls volleyball as well as became a frequent spectator at Towson University women’s matches.
Success at the youth level further stoked his love for the sport and led to his first foray into the college game. He took a job coaching the women’s team at Notre Dame of Maryland, a Division III school north of downtown Baltimore. It was an ideal gig for Metil: The position was part-time, so he could test the waters of college coaching while maintaining “a decent job” teaching at the same time.
In two seasons at NDM (2002-03), Metil went 40-30. His .571 winning percentage remains the best in program history.
Then, the women’s volleyball job opened at Division II Lees-McRae College in the western mountains of North Carolina. Metil decided it was time to throw himself fully into coaching at the collegiate level.
“I guess success continued to breed interest,” Metil said.
This also was about the time Metil met Monica, the lady who would become his wife. She was a Baltimore City girl through and through, and he wasn’t sure how she would adapt to living in the rural setting.
“Lees-McRae couldn’t be any different,” he said. “Am I going to get this city girl to move into the mountains, or am I going to move back home?”
After one season and a 30-9 record at Lees-McRae — Add them up; that’s 70 career college coaching wins — Metil was on the move again. As luck would have it, the women’s volleyball job at Coppin State, a historically Black college back home in Baltimore, was open.
The Coppin State program was, to put it mildly, short on success. From the program’s inception in 1987 through 2004, the Eagles never had more than three victories in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and suffered through six consecutive winless seasons from 1992-97. In four of those years, in fact, Coppin didn’t win any matches out of conference, either.
This was what Metil, who is white, took on when he stepped onto campus in 2005.
“I knew it was going to be a tough gig. I knew it was going to take a lot of lumps,” he said. “But we were able to get the program moving in the right direction. The record didn’t really reflect the success of what we were able to do internally.”
Metil’s first team at Coppin went 5-5 in the MEAC, the first time the program finished .500 in the conference. The Eagles went 4-6 the next year, and, overall, went 15-46 in Metil’s two seasons.
Considering Coppin State managed 23 total wins in the 12 seasons before Metil’s arrival, his two-year total — bringing him to 85 for his career — might have been considered a miracle.
As satisfying as that knowledge might have been, Metil knew it probably was time to move on again.
“Obviously, I think resources are very important,” he said. “That’s probably one of the reasons I have moved strategically. I ask myself if I have accomplished all I can with the resources I have.”
His next stop, at Maryland Eastern Shore, another HBCU, is where Metil’s coaching career really took off. In his six seasons, the Hawks won six consecutive Northern Division titles and had four undefeated seasons in the MEAC. UMES won two conference titles and made NCAA Tournament appearances in 2011 and 2012.
Metil, a three-time MEAC Coach of the Year, went 145-44 with the Hawks (230 career coaching wins, if you’re keeping score).
“During his tenure at Maryland Eastern Shore, Coach Metil was a team player who was well liked by the staff, and he conducted himself with dignity and respect,” said UMES athletic director Keith Davidson via the school’s sports information office. “He really elevated our program. He did all that with sometimes limited resources and set the bar for the success Hawk volleyball can have.”
Said Metil: “I think that UMES crew, if I had stayed, we probably had a few more pieces of the puzzle to win two or three more titles in a row. I didn’t want to leave UMES per se … But I thought we did all we could do with that program with the resources that were provided.”
Which led him back “home,” to Towson. In 2013, Metil moved into the spot at the head of the Tigers’ bench, the seat he had viewed so many times as a fan during his days as a teacher in the area.
In addition to inheriting more resources — he has two full-time assistants for the first time and a budget that even allows a modicum of in-person overseas scouting — Metil inherited a solid program. In the three seasons before his arrival, the Tigers had won 64 matches overall and had an undefeated CAA season (12-0) in 2012.
Those factors enabled Metil to take the program up yet another notch. Towson had only one NCAA Tournament appearance in its history before Metil’s arrival. The Tigers have qualified for each of the past two NCAAs, as well as won the past two CAA Tournament titles.
The 2019 team that moved to the NCAA Round of 32 set a program mark for season winning percentage (.933, 29-3) and also was the first team in CAA history to finish 16-0 in the league. The Tigers beat American in five in that first-round NCAA match before losing in four to Penn State.
Last spring, Towson went 6-1, winning all of its CAA matches before getting swept by Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Through the first eight matches of this season, Metil’s career win total stands at 404 (he is 174-69 at Towson), with win No. 400 coming August 29 against Navy.
“We are proud of his accomplishments at Towson University, a sister school, and have watched him grow as a coach and as a program,” Davidson said. “We wish him continued success.”
At the Division I level, most coaches have mastered X’s and O’s. But the truly successful coaches seem to have tapped into something beyond the dry-erase board.
Metil said he has tried to grow the people as well as the programs he has coached, to make sure his players are striving for greatness in academics, on the court, in serving the community and in their role as alumni.
“Our goal is to develop the athlete holistically and not just on the court,” he said. “I think it reflects not only what our record is on the court but what our kids are doing off the court and in the community.”
Said Bakodimou: “I think a big part of our program is the culture within the team. He likes to set some standards, and he’s really good at making the team realize what the goal is and … making us realize we need to work to achieve certain goals.”
Metil’s ability to connect with players on a personal level also has been important.
Bakodimou said her initial conversations with Metil during the recruiting process were key in her decision to take a chance on Towson. Even though all of her interactions with Metil were virtual, Bakodimou said she felt welcomed and wanted instantly.
But a sales pitch goes only so far. Delivering on promises is another matter. Metil checked that box, too, Bakodimou said.
“For (international students), it’s not always possible to come and visit before we come here to study. Things can turn out the complete opposite of what you expected,” she said. “Everything I knew about Towson before coming turned out to be true, and my experience was even better than I expected.”
The culture is in place. An unbeaten conference record has been achieved. NCAA Tournament berths? Check. NCAA Tournament victory? Yes.
And this season’s Towson crew — led by Bakodimou, sophomore and 2020 CAA Tournament MVP Nina Cajic, junior defensive specialist Rachel Hess and grad student setter Megan Wilson — looks as though it has the potential to make even more program history.
But what if Towson has reached its ceiling? What if Metil has achieved all he can with the program?
Is it time to move on?
“I think I’m still kind of evaluating that,” he said. “This team continues to surprise me in very pleasant ways. When we got the program ranked as one of the top 30 programs in RPI (2019) … I did ask myself that question. I talked to my staff, and I talked to my girls and everybody felt we could do more.
“Can we get this team to be a top-25 program? I’m not sure, but I think this season will answer that question for me, whether we have reached the end game or not. I’m not looking to move. Towson takes care of me and the program very well. I’m not in a rush.”
When and if Metil decides it’s time to leave, he said it might not be for another volleyball post. Part of what has made him a successful coach is his desire to help young people, so, to that end, Metil said he might try to enhance his career as an administrator.
As a coach, he said, he can influence 15 or 20 lives. As an administrator, he would have a chance to impact many more.
Until that time comes — if it comes — he will continue to throw all his energy into the Tigers. They have given him plenty of reasons to stay enthusiastic.
“We have a lot of offensive weapons,” he said. “This team is going to live and die by its ability to stay in system and serve receive and play a decent ball up. If we can shore up that part of our game, this could be the best team I have ever been associated with.”
The sand volleyball courts are still there at Legion Keener Park. The Greater Latrobe boys volleyball team is a perennial district playoff participant.
Metil said he often thinks about those times with his band of friends: spending hours smacking a volleyball back and forth at the park, stumping for a boys team at the high school.
He also thinks about where their paths have gone.
The rest of his group, he said, drifted away from volleyball. Metil, meanwhile, has built his life around the sport he loves.
Regardless of how much more time that journey has left, he has savored every moment.
“I don’t think I was the most athletic of my friends,” he said, “but I’m glad the passion stayed in me to follow this dream. I can’t thank the universities I’ve worked for enough for trusting me.”
Towson puts its perfect record on the line again Friday when it plays host to Lehigh and Florida Atlantic before playing Temple and Norfolk State on Saturday. Among those first eight victories are wins over Navy and Princeton.
Nina Cajic, a 6-foot sophomore outside from Serbia, leads the team with 77 kills (2.75/set), is hitting .415, and is second with 21 blocks. Bakodimou is second with 75 kills (2.68/set), she leads with 15 aces, and she has 17 blocks.
Lydia Weirs, a 6-2 junior middle from Willard, Ohio, leads with 39 blocks and had 61 kills. Emily Jarome, a senior outside from Wilmington, Delaware, has 63 kills, is hitting .359, and has 12 blocks. Rachel Hess, a junior libero from Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, leads with 126 digs (4.50/set).