Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Regionals (2004) volleyball

(pun alert)
They made us get here at 7:45 so we could ref a match. My daughter's team played its first match at 11:30. That's a lot of waiting for kids raised on MTV. It did, however, give us some time to bond. After I finished berating her for not being tall enough we got to discuss really cool things like why the Electoral College doesn't give volleyball scholarships. She stared at me sort of blankly when I explained that popularity wasn't everything. I also got to tell her about my time playing beach doubles with my partner Natasha and how we quit after we lost to the same pair like 250 times in a row. The Moose was big and a little on the slow side and I didn't think it was fair that the refs let her block with her antlers, but that squirrel had the most incredible vertical. Add in the fact that the ref kept calling Natasha's cigarette holder in the net and my black trench coat and hat weren't really very comfortable on the beach and this Boris Hadanoff. Finally, we spent a little time talking about Proposition 231 which we're going to get on the California ballot for November. It lets the libero serve in high school matches. Darrell Issa is helping me get the signatures. In the first five days we got two hundred thousand Californians to sign our initiative because we told them it would reduce their taxes and keep immigrants out of the state, especially the ones identified in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Unfortunately, Michael Savage and other conservatives are opposing the proposition as affirmative action for short volleyball players and thus yet another libero entitlement program.

(Boris goes to the movies yet again)
Much to our surprise, we have found ourselves in the City Beach pool of the Silver Division, with City Beach Green and CB 16 1. The Empire 16's team was upset on Saturday so they wound up in silver too which must be really confusing for the other 5 clubs. This is funnier if you happen to have seen the physical differences between Empire 16 and Empire 15. The 16's are very tall. The 15's are noticeably smaller at every position except the defensive specialists. Our last opponent yesterday was City Beach 15 Black, the match we had to win to get here and which may have lost CB its club bid. You know the last scene in the Karate Kid where Ralph Macchio has bouts with an endless succession of mean guys from the bad sensei's dojo? This City Beach thing sort of felt like that, though I don't want to suggest that City Beach has any bad senseis. While were on the topic, does anyone find it interesting that Pat Morita was nominated for an academy award for the first Karate Kid which featured Elizabeth Shue who won one after she moved to Las Vegas (though not to play in the big volleyball tournament there) and that the last Karate Kid was Hillary Swank who made that boy cry after she six packed him in the face and then she won an academy award. Even weirder, Ralph Macchio is in like one other movie as an adult, My Cousin Vinny, which got Marisa Tomei an academy award. So if any of you have kids who want to get into acting, don't push them to be in movies with Ben Kingsley or Meryl Streep, the key is to get that role opposite Ralph Macchio. Maybe forty years from now they'll give Ralph one of those lifetime achievement Oscars for making all his costars look like fantastic actors (I think I said that just the right way :}). I don't really want to think too much about what a 70 year old Ralph Macchio might look like on HDTV though. I did see a 45 year old Mark Hamill once. He was playing a father son grass doubles with Darth Vader. They got into an argument with the referee over whether using the force to dig a ball counts as one of your three contacts. Darth started to grab the referee by the neck, but Mark was able to use a Jedi mind trick to keep them from getting the yellow card. Come to think of it, the death star did look a lot like a big volleyball and that name Skywalker is pretty much made for this sport. Actually, people don't know this but Darth was one of the founders of Empire Volleyball Club.

(uniformed volleyball opinions ahead)
I don't know much about the events that led to the balkanization of penninsula volleyball. A few years later, it does appear that Vision is getting more than its share of tall athletic players. That's not to say that they're the best volleyball players or athletes, I'm talking purely at a superficial level. I would have to say that at least in under 15's City Beach got the short end of it, though they do have the best club backpacks. That said, all the City Beach teams that I've seen are fundamentally sound and tenacious. I think the coaches have done well to keep their teams in the mix. Last year, the three City Beach teams playing in the 14's were the measure of success for the improvement of our 14's. Once we got to the point where we could beat City Beach, we could tell ourselves that we were genuinely pretty good. Because we spent most of this year in like the Walmart division of Norcals, we had very few opportunities to play City Beach teams. We got stomped twice by CB 16 1 at the very beginning of the year. One weekend CB 15 Black kept us out of bronze. A year ago, we played City Beach teams something like 15 times and Delta Valley Blue 8 times.

While I think this year's grouping together of 15-16's in leagues was generally positive, one unfortunate result was that we never played most of the other better 15's teams even though we spent much of the year as one fo the top 10 15's teams. CB black was the only team we played twice. We never played GB 15 1, Delta Valley, Kalani, CB 15 green. We played Vision, Yahoo, Force, and Main Beach once each. The familiarity helped make last year more fun. Given that the Empire 16's have a larger than usual number of 9th graders on their roster too, I would venture to say that the 15's as a group is a stronger and deeper class than the 16's in this region. The one exception would be the Sports City 16's, but otherwise the best of the 15's were more than competitive with the best of the 16's. (though this is skewed by the fact that Golden Bear and Vision''s 16-1 teams played up in the 18's). I'd also mention that there are some very strong 8th graders who compete well or could compete well in the 16's. Nevada County has at least one, Golden Bear 15 has one who's already gotten national attention, Yahoo 14's had a very good left and middle who were 7th graders last year, City Beach 13's from a year ago had a bunch of current 8th graders who were strong players and there were twins on CB14B last year (may still be in 14's for CB or other clubs), Empire 15M also added a good 8th grade middle this year who replaced the 7th grader who moved to San Diego and Epic last summer. Those are just the ones I know about. It should be interesting to see how many sophomores and freshmen have an impact this year on Norcal High School teams.
We managed to catch City Beach Green fresh from playing CB 16 1, an emotionally draining match for most teams. Partly because of that, we won the match in two games. CB16 1 was the only team that we played against as many as three times this year. In fact, they were the first team to beat us this year at the kickoff classic, which they won, with a combination of skill, experience, and just enough hitting. It wasn't close at kickoff. It wasn't close at the qualifier. It wasn't close at regionals. Each time we played them, we found ourselves wondering why we made so many mistakes, why we couldn't hit, and why we couldn't block. In each case, we had just come off a very good match where we seemed to do all those things. Three losses later, I think it has a lot to do with CB 16's simply being that good. Balls that are kills for us against other teams simply aren't against CB16. We also couldn't stop their leftside hitter or their middle. I'm not sure how they slipped down to silver.

Our crossover match was with Quake City, which the last time we had seen them, they were down in the Aqua division blocking our way to bronze. One of the more interesting stories of this qualifier was that two Aqua teams upset silver and gold teams in their pools which made the whole who was gonna get a bid business unexpectedly confusing. I was one of a few people who had complained about the seedings/qualifier system at the beginning of the season. Empire 15M had come into the qualifier seeded 27th. After landing in a pool w/ CB16 and Nevada County, we had to play a bunch of very low seeds to keep our ranking. I had been shocked at how good teams that were supposed to be in the 60's and mid 40's were. Towards the end of the qualifier, we fell into blue by losing a close match against a surprisingly strong Arrowhead team and found ourselves going to league as the number 44 team. At the time, I complained that those teams couldn't possibly have been seeded accurately and Empire 15M had gotten jobbed. Our winding up in silver at regional would logically appear to be proof of that, but I now believe something a little different.

One of the teams we beat at qualifier was Golden Bear 15 2 which started the year in Cobalt or Dusk. That same team won a club bid at Far Westerns. At Stockton we were very lucky to come from behind against a Delta Valley 16 2 team that started the year in the 60's. The truth appears to have been more a matter of the 16's this year being extremely deep. With the exception of Sports City and Nevada County, I suspect that a lot of the teams in the top 50 could have given any other team in the top 50 a very difficult match. Hence a team like Golden Bear 15 1 could spend the year in Bronze then finish fourth at regionals. Southern Oregon, the surprise team of the qualifier which went in seeded 120 and came out third, went from gold to bronze then back to gold.
On the other end of the food chain, Quake City and Empire 15 went from Blue to Silver. In league, whether we were in Blue or Aqua, there were always a couple teams that could beat us. One of those had been Quake City.
We hadn't been cursed with a bad draw in the qualifier (well maybe a little bit),it was more like not all the good teams in under 16's could be in the metal divisions this year.

The match with Quake City was close, but we had a harder time with them than teams further up in the standings. It's easy to take regional rankings as a kind of rigid arbitrer of the order of things. Sports and I suspect life don't really work that way. In other words, just because Main Beach beat SF Juniors, it doesn't mean that a team ranked lower than SF Juniors can't beat Main Beach. You only play one match at a time and the truth is that it's all about matchups. As a small, fairly athletic, but sometimes erratic team, Empire 15M doesn't match up well with Quake City, which has big able middles and an entire team that reads and defends the tip zone as well as any gold team. To beat Quake City, you have to hit well, which means you have to hit over them and you can't rely on tips to break their runs. The second game was actually very close. At 21, the referee who bore a strong resemblance to Bob from the Enzyte commercials they run on ESPN after ten at night, called a phantom touch. He explained that he hadn't really seen it, just heard it. Apparently, Enzyte has some undisclosed side effects: this was one noisy gym. One of our setters got two very gutsy kills on pipes hit to the corner down the stretch to keep it close even at the end. I honestly don't know if we would have won a third game, even if there had been one. By winning the match, Quake City had to play Empire 16 M. The first game was close, but Empire 16 was too big and too quick over Quake City, a team that was too big and too quick to the tip for us.

Between matches, I wandered outside to the spot where our team was camped. A quick thinking father from our team had recognized that sun, black asphalt, limited water, and intense volleyball was about as good for 14 year old girls as locking yourself in your room and listening to rap music at high volume for several hours while talking on your cellphone without anytime minutes. Between matches, he had slipped off to Target and bought one of those portable pavillion now increasingly popular at tournaments in our region. Basically, it's a tarp with a bunch of unmarked metal poles crammed into a package the size of a boombox, which when you think about it is topologically the same thing as a volleyball net and poles. The Nevada County parents next to us had spent the morning sitting under their pavillion which was the kind that comes in one multi-jointed pre-assembled peice. After five of our parents spent the better part of the morning trying to put our Target special up, the Nevada County parents were kind enough to help us instead of laugh at our ineptitude. I guess this is the reason they are in the top three in the region and we were in Aqua before today. Another one of our parents also appeared later that day with a Hefty-Bag sized package of popsicles.
I share these stories so that players can understand that parents do not spend their entire day at tournaments yelling at the peer refs (always someone else's daughters) to pay attention and get the freaking score right or questioning coaches about playing time in the middle of critical matches. Parents do perform many vital duties that ensure a junior team's ultimate success. By the way, if anyone wants to buy one of those pavillions really cheap, I know a guy who has one to sell, though it won't fit back in its original box for some reason. Once the pavillion was up, our team climbed inside away from prying parent eyes and ears to happily read teen magazines and plan ways to get tatoos and piercings without having to tell us. Fwiw, there were even a couple kids around the gym doing homework, something much less common at boys' sports events.

In the interim, I had a chance to see the gold division and muse on questions like, "Why aren't we in gold, they aren't better than my daughter's team, etc." One of the notable things about gold is that there were 3 15's teams already there. Yahoo 15, Delta Valley (which added some taller players and moved their left to libero), and City Beach (a team good enough to qualify in open yet spend much of the year in bronze) wound up defining the middle of the pack. Vision 15, as good as any of the 15's teams (also an open qualifier) had gotten upset and wound up in silver, though by luck of the draw we didn't play them. There was one very good three game match between Yahoo and City Beach. While we might challenge these teams, I have no "might have been or only if" vibes about the 15's teams that wound up clearly ahead of us, one sign that after all the fuss, the whole thing shook out reasonably well, at least from our perspective. The very top of the under 16's Sports City, Nevada County, and Force seemed appeared to have an edge both in size and experience over the more precocious 15's. which I guess is the cliched answer to questions like this, but I honestly didn't see vast differences in coaching, talent, system, etc. at the very top which is I think a good thing unless you're a fan of a particular coach or club or are convinced that someone's an idiot. (of course, none of us talk that way around here)

As the day wore on, coaches started to make deals about either leaving or playing one game matches to finish their pools, one really unfortunate side effect of the court shortage. We eventually finished our day with a very satisfying win against Mother Lode which notably had an extremely tall, rightside/setter who hit, blocked, played back row, and had very good hands.

Oh year, I forgot to talk about Saturday. I've found that a lot of years the difference between a satisfying year and a frustrating one comes down to a couple good days or bad days. So often, the bad day could have easily been a really good day if not for a couple points, which is I guess what makes it all so painful. On Saturday, a day that basically made our season thus far, we played three three game matches all decided by two points in the third game. We started with Players, the silver team, with a great slender left-handed rightside player with a big swing, a really good mobile middle (I've noticed that a lot of teams in under 16s seem to hit harder from the right and middle than the left), and a smart setter. Btw, the Players 16 coach looked strikingly similar to last year's Yahoo 14's coach. I'd also mention that John Stevenson now a guiding light for the Players Club who has a side job as the St. Mary's coach also used to coach for Empire (Players, the club is improving rapidly) (I think he might have played some beach at one time :}). They won the first game easily, then we surprised them in the second (they may have been over confident), but we were also playing as well as we had all year with every player on the team refusing to give up on any ball and the back row playing its best match of the year and one of our middles got a solo block that sent the message that we could play with Players. The third game went to 13-13 and as we had on a few occasions this year tightened up just as we had a chance to win.
Convinced that we might never close this mental toughness gap, I had resigned myself to a tough match with Yahoo 16, the number one team in the pool. We had narrowly lost to Yahoo 15's in Reno in a match where we played at the absolute top of our game. We expected to lose badly. I have no idea why it didn't happen. We won the first game. Yahoo started the second game with a monster kill, putting us back in our place, and went on to win it 25-9. I had a family obligation and missed most of the second game and the entire third game. Much to my shock, I came back to find out that we had won our biggest match of the year and made things very scary for Yahoo 16's expected club bid.

One oddity of upsetting the 1 seed as the four seed in the pool is that it does you no good unless you manage to also beat either the two or three seed. City Beach 15 Black, the third seed, in the pool had gone 3 with Players.
We had some tough calls in the first game, but the match was essentially even with CB 15 winning the first game, the sort of event that had us howling at the Yahoo refs for seemingly refusing to make close line calls (I know we're not supposed to do that and I don't know why parents wind up getting more excited about these matches than the kids do. It's not healthy. All I can say is that Mrs. Boris, who normally keeps me in check, was on a plane for a family matter and as you can tell by now I'm not entirely sane) We stiffened and forced a third game. The CB B coach gets a lot out of his players and also has a very intense style. In close matches, he has a running monologue, part instruction, part sportscast, part fierce advocate on the tight calls. Last year, he just barely lost a club bid in regionals after beating a Golden Bear, a team that ultimately finished well up in JO Open last summer, then losing to Empire 14. This year, their club bid came down once again to a match with Empire 15 at regionals. Fueled by JO visions, CB pulled ahead 14-11. Between 10 and 11 a point mysteriously appeared for CB, it might have been a justified correction, but it was feeling like we would get no breaks in this match.
An Empire player who had missed a key serve or two in previous rally games went to the line and made three good serves. Throughout the match, CB's smaller hitters had had good success hitting low and directly between our block. Somehow, we started getting soft blocks instead and CB seemed ever so slightly nervous. At 13-14, our setter ran a C to our middle who hit full force straight into a double block. The ball popped back, landing several inches out of bounds. The game and match ended with an ace at 17-15 on an Empire ace and so did CB's bid for a club bid, a sad moment for a very valiant tenacious group. In the final match, Players upset a very frustrated Yahoo team in two which assured us silver. Only then did it occur to me that we had missed the gold division by two shanked serves in the Players match. On the other hand, we had missed landing in Aqua again by that one missed block by CB in the rally game. Gold to Aqua, bid or no bid, there was an awful lot at stake for teams which that day were so very close top to bottom.

So much in volleyball hangs on just a couple points. So much of the last four years depended on just a few hanging chads. Perhaps it's not a bad thing for our children to learn that every point might matter and maybe my daughter will get that scholarship to the electoral college after all.


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