Penn State Altoona's Justin Bannister Honored with NEAC Inspirational Award

Penn State Altoona's Justin Bannister made two remarkable comebacks in 2017 to lead his team in a record-setting season.
Penn State Altoona's Justin Bannister made two remarkable comebacks in 2017 to lead his team in a record-setting season.

Excerpts and quotes provided by Penn State Altoona Sports Information Director Conner Gilbert

GANSEVOORT, N.Y. – Penn State Altoona’s Justin Bannister has been selected as the final recipient of the 2016-17 North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) Inspirational Award.

Each year, the NEAC honors student-athletes within the conference that have endured personal hardships leading to bravery or dedication within athletics through participation, volunteerism, coaching or administration. Bannister is one of five student-athletes to receive a NEAC Inspirational Award this year.

Bannister’s story begins long before this season when he enlisted in the Army in April of 2011 as a combat medic. When faced with the high cost of attending a good college to pursue a career in the health field, Bannister decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father by serving to gain health experience. Shortly after reporting for duty, Bannister learned he would be deployed to Afghanistan.

After serving overseas from September 2012 – May 2013, Bannister returned to Fort Campbell in Kentucky where he was honored for his outstanding service. He received the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with a Campaign Star, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, an Army Service Ribbon, the NATO Medal, and an Air Assault Badge.

Bannister was accepted to the Army Green to Gold Program, which allows a soldier to have his or her tuition and fees covered by the Army in exchange for meeting specific criteria, including serving in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). The Willow Hill, Pa. native decided to attend Penn State Altoona in the fall of 2014 as it would allow Bannister an opportunity to complete a Penn State degree closer to home while joining the ROTC.

Despite not playing club or high school volleyball, Bannister attended an informational meeting for the men’s volleyball program shortly after the start of the semester and decided to join the team. He quickly made an impact on the Lions’ squad, playing in all 24 matches with 47 blocks and 89 kills in his first season. In the 2016 season, Bannister recorded 63 blocks and helped his team to a 10-win improvement.

Ready to help lead Penn State Altoona in 2016-17, Bannister returned for his junior season but his plans were put on hold when he received a diagnosis of testicular cancer in September. The Lions’ middle hitter had surgery in November and underwent chemotherapy in December, all while balancing his studies. Perseverance paid off as Bannister was declared cancer-free in January of this year and he started the Lions’ first match of the season on Jan. 20.

Bannister was faced with another setback in February when he suffered a severe dislocation of his left ankle during warmups of a home match and was taken off the court on a stretcher. At the hospital, Bannister instructed the doctor to not use anesthesia when resetting his ankle so that he could return to the gym to cheer on his teammates.

After over a month of physical therapy, Bannister returned to the starting lineup on April 1 and led his team to one of the best seasons in school history. Penn State Altoona won its first-ever NEAC Championship and became the first NEAC team to receive an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Men’s Volleyball Tournament. The Lions finished the year with a 26-7 overall record while Bannister compiled 68 total blocks, 101 kills and led the league with 0.88 blocks per set.

“Justin is the heart and soul of my team,” said Phil Peterman, Penn State Altoona men’s volleyball head coach. “He puts in the work every day, leading by example. Justin is a born leader and I could never ask for a more effective and respected team captain.”

“When Justin came out of chemotherapy, he had even more drive to savor life and squeeze out every opportunity to make those around him better,” added Penn State Altoona Athletic Trainer Jessica Welsh. “He views obstacles not as insurmountable feats, but as just another step to achieving his goals. In each scenario, he had no choice but to find a way to beat the odds, and each time, he did just that.”

Bannister’s story was part of an in-depth feature by Penn State Altoona Sports Information Director Conner Gilbert, which was published in May 2017.

Bannister joins Lawjen Ashmore (Gallaudet University), Faye Frez-Albrecht (Gallaudet University), Elizabeth Leva (Morrisville State) and Ryan Houghtalen (Morrisville State) as the 2016-17 honorees for the NEAC Inspirational Award. Features on all five recipients can be found at neacsports.com.

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The North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) has fourteen NCAA Division III member institutions which include: Bryn Athyn College, Cazenovia College, College of St. Elizabeth, Gallaudet University, Keuka College, Lancaster Bible College, Pennsylvania College of Technology, Pennsylvania State University – Abington, Pennsylvania State University – Berks, SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Morrisville State College, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Wells College, and Wilson College.  Associate members are: Cedar Crest College (W Swimming), D’Youville College (M Volleyball), Hilbert College (M&W Lacrosse, M Volleyball), Medaille College (M&W Lacrosse, M Volleyball), Pennsylvania State University – Altoona (M Volleyball), and Rutgers University – Camden (M Golf).  The NEAC has partnered with the North Atlantic Conference in the sports of field hockey and men’s and women’s tennis.  For more information, please visit: www.neacsports.com.