Fab Four Strikes Championship Chord

The Beatles took their final bow the same year Carmine Cortazzo took his final snap as an IUP quarterback. 

But mention the Fab Four to Cortazzo and the IUP volleyball coach might assume the reference is not to four mop-topped lads from Liverpool but to his first recruiting class. The one that elevated to national prominence a program so pathetic through much of the 1990s that a conference winless streak once reached four. As in four years. That decade of despair was marked by abysmal records (3-24, 4-20, 4-22) that drove away recruits and fans.

Laura Hall and Carmine Cortazzo

Laura Hall and Carmine Cortazzo

The Indians buried the memory of those wretched times, along with most of their opponents, in 2002. Laura Hall, Karla Raczkowski, Leah Kostelnik, and Sarah McCombie, who sparked a glorious revival, capped their careers by orchestrating the best season in school history. IUP won its first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title, captured the PSAC West crown for the first time since 1986, and posted a 33-4 record to set school standards for victories and winning percentage.

The Indians’ Fab Four, like the musical one, broke new ground and left a lasting legacy. They put IUP volleyball on the map.

“I knew we had a chance to have a very good season,” said Cortazzo, who repeated as both the PSAC West and Atlantic Region Division II Coach of the Year. “But to win thirty-three matches—wow. I didn’t expect that, especially playing one of the toughest schedules IUP’s ever had.”

The Indians advanced to the regional final for the second year in a row before rival Edinboro ended their dream season. The seniors took part in 102 victories during their four years in uniform, a sharp contrast to the total in the four-year period preceding their arrival (25). Not only did they right a listing ship, they provided a fresh outlook. Where the Indians once hoped to win, now they expected to win. And did.

“My freshman season we won the Westminster tournament, which was like the first tournament IUP had won in a long time,” Hall said. “I remember our only senior was Amy Shoemaker and how she was so excited and crying. As freshmen we didn’t know what the big deal was. We had come from high school programs where you won tournaments. It wasn’t that big a deal to us.”

The Fab Four resuscitated IUP’s woebegone program almost from the instant the new recruits arrived on campus. The Indians ended an eight-year run of losing seasons with a 19-9 record in 1999, then finished 25-11 in 2000 and 25-12 in 2001. The team was expected to improve in 2002, but only a clairvoyant could have predicted the resulting breakthrough performance. Of course, there were early clues that something extraordinary was brewing. For example, the Indians opened some eyes—including their own—at the season-opening Wheeling Jesuit tournament.

“Last year we went to Wheeling and lost all four matches,” Raczkowski recalled. “This year we came out of there with a 4-0 record. And we beat Findlay, which was nationally ranked. I was like, what’s going on? I didn’t think we could play that well.”

The Indians bolted from the starting gate with six consecutive victories and later won twenty-three of twenty-four matches in one stretch. On occasion they battled back from the brink of defeat by calling on some reserve of will to win a match seemingly lost.

“There were times our team just wouldn’t let it happen,” Cortazzo said. “They just found a way to win. We were down 0-2 to Lake Superior State and came back and won three straight games. Same thing at Edinboro in the last regular-season match against them. These players had that extra gear it took to kick in and pull together to win tough matches.”

The catalyst invariably was Hall, who is as soft-spoken and unassuming as a librarian. On the court, though, the senior outside hitter was transformed into an intimidator, hammering balls to the floor and foes into submission. She finished her career with a staggering 2,348 kills and ranked second in the PSAC and tenth nationally in kills per game (4.98).

“She’s the franchise,” said Cortazzo. “Laura has that ability to bring everyone else’s game up. She’s always positive. She’s a good person, a good student, and a volleyball player that’s a real credit to the game. She’s the total package. In thirty years of being involved with sports, I’ve coached some really good athletes. She’s the best I’ve been around.”

The most honored, too. Hall earned her third PSAC West Player of the Year award, made the All-PSAC West first team for the fourth time, and was again selected to the American Volleyball Coaches Association Atlantic Region Division II all-star team. What’s more, she repeated as the Verizon College Division Academic All-American of the Year on the strength of her play and a perfect 4.0 grade-point average through six semesters.

Cortazzo surrounded Hall with a stellar supporting cast. Sophomore setter Lacey George ranked second in the conference in assists (12.57 per game) and joined Hall as a first-team PSAC West and AVCA regional selection. Raczkowski and sophomore Lindsey Behne were AVCA picks as middle blockers, and freshman outside hitter Brittany Gates was named the PSAC West and AVCA Atlantic Region Rookie of the Year.

Their collective efforts brought IUP its first conference title, the highlight of a landmark season. Led by Hall, who recorded thirty-two kills against only one error, the Indians deposed defending champion Edinboro 30-22, 19-30, 30-22, 23-30, 15-11 before an enthusiastic crowd at Memorial Field House. Small wonder Cortazzo called it “a giant step for IUP volleyball.” The Indians hadn’t even qualified for the four-team tournament since 1986.

“Winning the PSAC championship for the first time was really special,” said Hall, who was voted the tourney MVP. “There was a long list of names and IUP wasn’t on it. It was nice to change that.”

Hall and the rest of the Fab Four helped change attitudes, too. The Indians no longer hope to win—they expect to. A program long regarded as one of the worst in the conference is now one of the best in the nation.

IUP’s Fab Four made quite an impact. Just like the musical Fab Four, they broke new ground and left a lasting legacy.