A Seat in the Bleachers: Bynon has rewritten the book

Sunday, November 17, 2013
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— Gary Bynon was 22 years old in 1988, fresh out of college, with a part-time phys ed job in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District.

Leslie Archer was leaving to go to Shaker, so Burnt Hills suddenly needed a girls’ volleyball coach.

Bynon had never played the sport, much less coached it, but “they had enough confidence in me to say, ‘You start in two weeks,’ ” he said with a laugh on Saturday at the Civic Center.

So Bynon cracked open a book on volleyball and started reading.

His reading material these days, 26 seasons later, is profoundly different.

There are inspirational letters from former players that he reads to his current team before matches, and he’s been getting daily text messages from two players reminding him that Saturday marked the 11-year anniversary of the day Burnt Hills won its first state championship.

The Spartans will be the underdog when they take on Pittsford Sutherland today for the Class A state championship, but the fact that they made it this far — again — reinforces the notion that Burnt Hills girls’ volleyball is one of the most consistent programs in the state in any sport over the last two decades.

“It’s unbelievable, and nobody really understands the pressure that the kids play under every week,” assistant coach Sue Gestwick said. “We don’t talk about the record, but the kids want to get through the program and leave the record

intact, really.”

Gestwick knows, because she was one of those kids, graduating in 2000 after four years with the team.

So does Bynon’s other assistant, Caitlin Ross, who graduated in 2005 and played on state championship teams in 2002 and 2004.

“We want to teach them lessons about what we went through and how they should share pride in not just what they’re doing but in players that came before them and players in the future,” she said.

The record is staggering.

In 1997, Burnt Hills’ streak of Suburban Council victories reached 100.

It was still going strong in 2004, when it reached 200, and the next milestone, 300, came in 2011. The string of victories that reached 345 this season began in 1990, well before any of the current Spartans was born.

On a higher level, Burnt Hills has won 12 straight Section II champ­ionships, and has also reached the state final four by getting through the regional round in each of those years.

The state championships in 2002 and 2004 were followed by three more, in 2005, 2011 and 2012.

It’s a far cry from 1988, when Bynon’s first team didn’t even make it to the Section II final.

“I know a little bit more now than I did then,” he said, in a massive understatement. “I got out a book and read. And I’m a great thief of stealing things from other coaches. It’s evolved.”

There was nothing about Bynon’s athletic pedigree that indicated he’d someday be one of the most accomplished girls’ volleyball coaches in the state.

His grandfather, Bill Bynon, was such a legendary figure in Dolgeville football that the field there is named after him, and Bynon was a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and baseball at West Canada Valley, near Herkimer.

In fact, he was the boys’ basketball coach at Burnt Hills until he decided in 1997 to devote his full attention to one or the other, and picked volleyball because “I love to watch these kids compete. It’s addictive. It’s an addicting sport.”

Considering his background, he can only shake his head over the turn his career path took.

“Never had a thought,” he said. “Never had a thought … didn’t take volleyball in college because the coach used computers. And I was never going to coach it.”

One of the most important components behind Burnt Hills’ consistency is the fact that Bynon teaches at O’Rourke Middle School and has been able to develop the Junior Diggers program that takes in kids as young as fourth grade.

At some schools, it can be a more difficult task convincing kids to choose volleyball over some of the more so-called mainstream sports.

Not so at Burnt Hills, where Bynon gets them young and doesn’t have to go fishing later to fill a varsity roster.

“Anyone who’s tall, he says, ‘Hey, do you play a sport?’ ” Ross said. “So he’s constantly thinking about it, and we do a lot of work with these young kids because we know they’re the future. They’re learning the basics right from the get-go.”

Bynon’s program also creates versatility among the players so that it can absorb losses due to graduation.

Roster turnover is a constant problem in every sport from year to year, but the beauty of the Spartans is that they don’t reload so much as they reconfigure.

That was illustrated on Saturday when Burnt Hills had one more game to play but had already clinched a spot in today’s final.

What would be considered the second team fell behind to Kings Park, 16-1, but scrapped back to within 22-14 before losing.

Bynon was more fired up during that meaningless game than any other.

“He makes players so well rounded that maybe you’re a middle one year, and then you’re an outside the next,” Gestwick said. “He develops his players so they can fill the gaps.”

“If you were in one of our practices, you wouldn’t know who was the first or second team,” Ross said. “You wouldn’t know who the starters were, who are the ones who go in at game point just to make a serve.”

Bynon is intense, but walks around with a certain gleam in his eye, and can be quick to crack a grin at any moment, as if he’s in on some joke that no one else gets.

After all, he’s a guy who had to get a book just to learn the rules of the sport he was hired to coach.

“He’s relentless,” Gestwick said.

“When I look at our record, I am so blessed to be a part of that, and that’s all I can think,” Bynon said. “I think about the kids, how they grew and what they do today. It’s mothers, it’s people in their jobs, and it’s fun how it all works out.”

 

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