It was the fifth set of the Penn State men's volleyball team's match with then-No. 12 Hawaii at the season-opening Outrigger Hotels Invitation-al in Honolulu this past Friday, and the Stan Sheriff Center was rocking with 3,233 rowdy fans cheering on the home team.
The Warriors called a timeout after a 5-2 Penn State run, and coach Mark Pavlik had one thing on his mind: Keep freshman Tom Comfort -- who already had 18 kills -- focused.
"I wanted to go over and tell Tommy he was off to a phenomenal first start," Pavlik said. "And that he should just relax and keep doing what he was doing. But I couldn't find him. I searched all over, but I had no idea where he was."
It seems Penn State's 6-foot-6 opposite hitter was already in the comfort zone.
Pavlik finally looked to the very end of the bench where he found Comfort sitting by himself, twiddling his thumbs and singing along to the music blasting from the court's loudspeakers.
"Once I saw how relaxed he was, I just laughed to myself," Pavlik said. "I didn't screw up what he had going."
What Comfort has going is an impressive start to his collegiate
career. The Orchard Park, N.Y., product has made an immediate impact on the court, while his affable personality has allowed him to easily assimilate to the team.
"He came in here as a pretty big recruit," junior captain Jesse Wagner said. "But I don't think any of us expected him to make such a big impact so early here. He really stepped up."
Comfort made serious contributions for the Nittany Lions in his first three career matches. Pavlik gave Comfort a start in the Hawaii match, and the newcomer from suburban Buffalo did not disappoint. He exploded for 21 kills on a game-high .548 hitting percentage en route to the Lions' 3-2 (26-30, 30-26, 30-23, 28-30, 15-9) victory.
Comfort's poise on the court coincides with his seamless transition to the team. Wagner said Comfort has a subtle, youthful charm that brings a light-hearted attitude to the locker room.
Comfort stayed at Wagner's apartment while the team practiced for a few days during winter break. Wagner remembers walking downstairs one morning to find Comfort sitting on his couch, wrapped in a Buffalo Bills Snuggie.
"That's just the type of kid he is," Wagner said. "A total goofball who everybody likes. And a really good volleyball player."
Comfort was a three-sport athlete at Orchard Park High School. In his senior year, he was a Second Team All-ECIC 1 selection in basketball and First Team All-ECIC 1 in baseball. But his passion was always in volleyball, where he was a Second Team AVCA Boy's Senior High School All-American.
Mike Stefani, who co-captained the Quakers' 2009 State Championship season with Comfort, describes Penn State's opposite hitter as the ideal teammate, but also "your typical momma's boy."
"Tom's a really nice, innocent kid who works hard," Stefani said. "He's an all-around good guy who almost everyone likes."
And it's easy to see where Comfort -- winner of the 2009 New York State Sportsmanship Award -- gets his polite demeanor. His parents are humble, especially when it comes to their son's achievements. Walt Stefani, Mike's father and the boys' volleyball coach at Orchard Park, ran into Tom's mother, Ann, last month, where they began talking about her son's early career at Penn State.
"She said, 'Oh, Tom's doing well, but we wonder if he'll make the travel team,' " the elder Stefani recalled. "Obviously she was being modest. I told her, 'Trust me, not only will he make the team, but he'll make a serious impact.' "
Stefani's prophecy proved to be true as Comfort has earned a permanent starting position for the Lions after his stellar play in Hawaii.
"I was a little surprised that he got as much playing time as he did," said Mike Stefani, now an outside hitter for No. 11 Ohio State. Stefani faced his old teammate in Penn State's final match at the Outrigger Invitational, where Comfort picked up four service aces. "But I can't say he didn't deserve it. Tom works really hard."
Comfort's strong work ethic has quickly made an impact on his new teammates at Penn State.
Wagner said the transition from high school volleyball to D-I volleyball is difficult for most freshmen because they are not used to the intense training regimens.
"But Tommy always put in 100 percent at practice and worked extra hard in the weight room to get stronger and make sure he was ready," Wagner said.
Pavlik said that Comfort sweats more than anyone else on the team, joking one day there will be a Lake Comfort on the floor of Rec Hall.
"But," Pavlik said. "That's one of the reasons we love him."