Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Far Western (2004) part 2 volleyball

Part 2

We got my daughter settled into her team's casino hotel. I like the fact that Reno is such a wholesome place for holding youth events. For instance, the slot machine in her room even had a warning on it that said minors shouldn't play the machine without a parent. More important, they take care to make sure that the warning is less than 100 words.

It's been well established since August 6, 2001 that a 500 words is too verbose and likely will contain too much already known historical information for such a message to be an effective warning. This 100 word warning had very specific information about how, when, and where, children would turn into delinquents if they played that particular slot machine. After all, no children have PHDs in political science or degrees from both Yale and Harvard. We were also especially happy to spot Trish from the Bachelor walking out after her shift at one of the many gentlemen's clubs that line the road to the convention center. Unlike the folks who met Jesse Palmer in the airport on their way back from the MEQ, we didn't stop for autographs.

My daughter's team came to Reno as the number 31 team in Norcal 16 and unders. I say this fully aware that admitting to this here is the equivalent of driving to your high school reunion in a 1994 Hyundai. Her relatively successful 14's team of a year ago was split in two. Five of the players jumped to the 16 one team, the rest were grouped with some less experienced, but able, players as the 15's team. Playing 16's teams almost excluslively, this group has had an up and down year where one game runs of what they might do alternate with stretches of shanked passes, doubled sets, and free balls turned treacherous . For some reason, we were still given the 10th seed out of 22 teams in 15 open.

As it happened, our first match didn't start until five o'clock in the evening. For an hour, the team warmed up for an opponent who never showed which unexpectedly turned a four team pool into a three team pool. Encinitas, the very strong first seed in our pool, had already easily won its first match with 3 seed Northern Colorado (NORCO). This meant that our first match would determine whether we had a succesful weekend in Reno. Lose, and we were locked into a bottom half finish.

In the morning, I had watched a Northern Colorado (Noco) 16's team take the Empire 16's to three. Noco compensated for offensive inconsistency and a comparative lack of size with very tenacious defense and strong transition play that used quick counterattacks to negate the size disadvantage. It's an effective style of play that tends to make opponents look bad without drawing attention to the fact that the other team is the reason they're looking bad.

The Noco 15' are similar but maybe less polished than their 16's. Noco's overcame an early deficit by playing more consistent volleyball and wound up pulling away at the end to take the first game 25-20. The second game also saw Noco build a steady lead at 19-14. At this point, in the search for excuses, you do things like ask the Noco parents what actual town they're from ( Fort Collins) and which kid is theirs, etc.

It doesn't matter what they actually say, your mind starts finding reasons that fall beyond your control. So they'll say things like "My daughter just started playing last week" which you process as "My daughter and all her team have their own personal trainers who used to work for BALCO, they practice seven days a week instead of attending school, none of them are likeable as individuals, and one player got seven years to life for going to prom instead of a tournament."

After numerous balls had landed in the seats, our coach called a time out and we could hear her say "When you hit, get the ball in. No more hitting errors."
While this might seem a bit like saying "win the next seven points", it worked. The team dialed back its swings and let NOCO make its own mistakes. 19-14 became 23-21 and eventually the score was tied at 25. For the next 12 points neither team could win the three points in a row it took to come back from one down. It wasn't scintilliating volleyball, but it was definitely dramatic.

Finally, one of our two left-handed leftsides gathered the confidence to take a full swing on the ball and put the ball cross court about two feet beyond the 10 foot line and Empire survived to the rally game. The third game followed form. Once again Norco went out to a lead at 14-11. For the parents on the sideline, this was a scary moment. We had assumed that the third game would be to 15 as was happening on the 69 other courts at Far Westerns.

When NOCO scored its fifteenth point of the game, I was not the only one who shook my head in resignation as I assumed that the match was over and that we had been locked into bottom half shame. Just as I was about to do my routine of stand up, grunt, shake a spastic fist in the air, and mutter "So frustrating," when I saw a Norco player was still serving. Well to be honest, I did it first, then saw the Norco player still serving.

Due to the 3 team pool, all matches were a minimum of 3 games and all games would be to 25, just no one announced it. The third game proved a near clone of the second. At 25-24, one of our DS's made a running dive at a ball dropped at the ten foot line, the NOCO front line was so surprised they let it fly over their head and fall on their left side ten foot line. We had survived, but I wouldn't guarantee the same result had we played best of five. Noco looked like a well coached club with good athletes and as it turned out they finished near the top of the second division.

Encinitas is the embodiment of nightmares about good Southern California teams. All their players look like they live on the beach, all but one are blonde, all look like they could model for soloflex ads. They wear these white tank-top style uniforms possibly just to underscore this. They also brought only one sub, probably because all of them can play any position and none of them ever get hurt or tired. No one on the team is gigantic, as in taller than 6'1" but most seem to be 5'8" and up.

This may have been the strongest team we had seen yet this year. The first game was surprisingly even, we even pulled ahead 9-8 when Encinitas called time out. Our server missed, then a left-handed Encinitas player who was slightly shorter than their average but made up for it with a tremendous arm started jump serving. Eleven balls in a row crossed the net at the same height, had impressive topspin, and landed middle back. It's not an easy thing to execute the same skill five times in a row the same way, much less eleven. After two timeouts and about eight aces, the score was 19-9 and the game and for that matter the match was effectively over.

We were lucky to average 15 points in the next two games. One reason you go to a qualifier is that the Aqua division doesn't have many really good jump servers to push your serve/receive stability. Skillwise, there was little to separate Encinitas from the top 16's team. The one clear difference would likely be the number of unforced errors, a factor that kept us in the games early. Otherwise, I don't think there was any phase of the game where Empire had a competitive edge. Encinitas ultimately finished 8th.

Logic would suggest that Encinitas had won the pool and since NOCO had lost all its matches, Noco would be third. Apparently logic doesn't have a lot to do with how they figure a 3 team pool at JO's, so they're was a long delay after to figure out whether or not we had really finished second. This may have been complicated by the fact that Noco played a two game match with Encinitas, but after 2.5 hours of play and 1.75 hours of waiting around we got good news.

I was watching, Colorado Juniors, the three seed in our Saturday pool, and eventual qualifier pull away 15-3 in its match with Number 1 overall seed Vision 15's, when it occured to me that we landed in what coaches call the pool from hell. It's sort of like how you feel when you go to get your back pain prescription filled and you see Rush Limbaugh's maid ahead of you in the pharmacy line. Colorado Juniors had a very tall middle who could hit, block, and move. A setter who distributed soft hittable balls to all her hitters , and strong players at all the other positions. I then learned that Yahoo 15's were the second seed in the pool.

You know that first game of the NCAA tournament when the winner of the 64 vs. 65 game goes on to play the number one seed? It seemed like it was less a question of whether or not we would win a game in this pool, it was really more a matter of if we could get 20 points in any single game. The Yahoo 15's are not identical to last year's Yahoo 14's who won the region. They added a little height, but remain a team that has depended on skill and mental toughness to win. Each year it seems that people whisper that the height and lack of JNT type athletes will catch up with them soon, it actually hasn't.

Yahoo 15's remains one of the strongest 15 teams in Northern California. I believe they came to Far Westerns to make a serious run at qualifying in open. Their very good 14's team had a relatively disappointing finish in 14 clubs a year ago. Much to my shock, we won the first game of this match relatively easily. One of the odd things about volleyball is that if you pass well, the team generally looks good. The next game was similarly well played, but we didn't hit as consistently and perhaps Yahoo began to take us more seriously. The third game made it to 11-11.

For Empire, this was a game that essentially would make our season. For Yahoo, this would end their chance to qualify in open. In many rally games, one team simply gets too cautious while the other finds the nerve to swing. This time, both teams played all out.
The Yahoo left who apparently is in her first year of club swung on a four, the ball hit the top of the net.

These, of course, are the moments on which matches turn. You swear to yourself that you recall seeing the ball hang on the net. In this case, the ball dropped over for a Yahoo point. On the next point, Empire executed a quick one and the middle dropped the ball just behind the Yahoo left. The only thing between the ball, the floor, and and a tie score was the hand of Yahoo's acrobatic setter who got just enough on it to keep the ball from touching the floor. The second touch also didn't seem to get more than a foot off the ground.

Somehow they freeballed it back and then won the point. It wasn't so much that the previous point had the ball hit the net and choose to land on our side. It was the fact that, Yahoo made a great play when it mattered most, something our team has yet to prove it can do this season. This was as good as we had played all season, but you need to do more than just play well to beat a good team.

Before the Vision match, one of their parents was nice enough to turn to me and say "Where have you guys been all year? Last year, we had a bunch of tough matches with you."

I shrugged, said something like "Just bad luck," then watched our team get demolished by Vision which is simply a solid team that appears to have no missing parts. They have size, ball control, etc. and we were reminded that being able to play for one match with a good team now and then is not yet the same thing as being serious contender at a qualifier which Vision clearly is.

The Colorado Juniors match went only slightly better. The last match of the pool was probably the most interesting with Vision playing Yahoo for second place in the pool and the chance to stay in the qualifiers bracket. Vision and Yahoo draw from the same pool of players as does City Beach. Last year, the regional final was a terrific three game match between the 14's versions of these teams with my daughter's team reffing. Vision seemed to overpower Yahoo for a game and a half, then Vision lost a setter to injury. One sign of how intertwined these clubs are, some of the Yahoo players came over to Vision's injured setter as they crossed over for the third game.

The Yahoo coach, a highly competitive hitter at San Jose State in her time, screamed across the net "You're playing a match against this team. This is not the time to socialize."

Yahoo then appeared to will its way to come from behind in each of the last two games and win the 14 Regionals. While both teams had significant turnover in their 15's incarnation and Vision has been somewhat more successful this year as perhaps the size has mattered more in 16's, this year's match once again went three fierce games and was once again reffed by my daughter's team.

Oddly it wasn't size that Yahoo in, their customary mental toughness poise broke down ever so slightly in the form of missed passes just as Vision was executing cleanly on the crucial points. Their chance to qualify in open in Reno gone, several of the Yahoo players spontaneously broke into tears with parents, teammates, and coaches comforting them on the court. They hadn't quite done it and there was a palpable sense that the time for this team to prove itself in JO Opens was running out.

It brought home how good some of the teams that don't qualify are, how hard they work, and how much it means to them. I'm sure variations of this were played out across the convention center that day and these moments set the qualifiers apart from other big spring tournaments.

By coincidence that Saturday, three Empire Number 1 teams played three Vision Number 1 teams in critical matches. Vision won all three including a very tight match in the 18's. My daughter's club directors and maybe some parents will kill me for saying this, but the difference for middle weight clubs like Empire is depth. The top players on the floor match up okay even with the heavyweight clubs, but the 5th through 9th players are trading something off, whether it's height, athleticism, or skill and experience. In the meantime, I also happened to see a very good quick San Gabriel 18's team, some guy dressed as a Captain Morgan's label with the TCA 17's, and very steady Delta Valley 14's.

The next day, we finished eleventh after a three game match with WPVA (Seattle area). WPVA came into the tournament seeded 20th and at the moment the three game match loss added to our frustration since we were tentative and they were swinging (regardless of the score in the rally score, if one team is swinging and getting the ball in, that team almost always wins.

My other hypothesis is that the team that misses the most serves in the game also almost always loses, something that also happened). WPVA had a very good middle and rock steady serve receive. Because the team the older one coaches was still playing, we wound up watching the subsequent match between WPVA and the very strong Orlando Volleyball Academy 15's which also went three. That erased any thoughts that we had simply not played well against WPVA.

Both teams hit hard, blocked well, and played really inspired defense. At one point, an OVA player went after what looked to be a badly shanked pass off a hard hit ball across the back line. The OVA player went to the floor fully horizontal arms stretched out at least four feet beyond the back line and drew a gasp from the sidelines when she got the ball back in play to save the point for OVA.

These were clearly very good teams and while we went three with WPVA, I don't know that we could have gone three with OVA.
Somehow, the Empire 15's had gone 1-5 and finished 11th in a 22 team field, yet it made perfect sense. The teams we went three with finished 9th and 10th. The team we narrowly beat finished 14th. The teams that pounded us finished 2nd and 3rd. I guess this adds to the mystique of the qualifier format.

(Descent into corny stuff starts here)
So, the sum total was three days of play going 1-5 against good teams, buying an eighty dollar t-shirt from USVA, and the discovery of a good Italian restaurant on Virginia St (La Vecchia). The petty volleyball parent in me will perseverate on the couple points that might have changed losses into wins with Yahoo and WPVA while remembering our equally close match with NOCO 15 as a well deserved win.

Still, my petty volleyball self has one of those Jungian shadows that will also remember the four days in Reno differently. I'll remember the latest Vision-Yahoo 15's match and aftermath as one of those, "This is what junior volleyball is all about" things.

I also take away the smiles on my older kid's team's faces as they ordered t-shirts at the front desk for having won their flight in the loser's bracket of 16 Club. When this daughter played, she was so insanely competitive that she led the NCVA in yellow cards three years running (referees still remember her). By her admission, she could be very demanding ( substitute your own words here ) on her teammates as she pushed (feel free to choose synonym) them to compete as hard as she did.

It was hard for her to understand that other players just didn't see all the angles or have the same level of intensity as she. As a coach, she has taken a low 16's team and gotten them to play intelligent, competitive volleyball through a combination of patience, attention to detail, and well timed controlled scoldings. Winning their flight was a barely noticed blip in the JO scene, but clear progress for her team.

Poise and mental toughness are the same skill at the bottom of club division or the top of open. She had clearly helped this group develop those things to the point where they could be displayed in a significant match. Instead of paying eighty dollars for t-shirts, they got theirs for free :}.

Finally, during one of the matches, I had happened to talk to the parent of a new player on our team who happens to play my daughter's position. More or less out of the blue, he told me, "You know, your daughter went out of the way to welcome my daughter to this team and to encourage her. That really impressed me."

For whatever reason, my daughter in a significant way is a much better person than my petty volleyball parent self. While her mother and coaches can take credit for this, I honestly have little to nothing to do with it. What she did is the kind of things that thousands of volleyball players do across the country on a daily basis. It's just that we parents seldom notice these things or give them the same props we would for making a great dig or getting a spectacular kill.

It's something that shouldn't be and probably isn't extraoridnary, yet it matters and one shouldn't be any less proud just because it isn't as rare as a thirty six inch vertical.

Somehow, this ties into the death of Pat Tillman. Although, I am opposed to the war, I greatly admire Pat Tillman for who he was and what he did. Pat Tillman was a very good football player who left his team the Cardinals for our real national team, the army. As a soldier, he refused interviews about why he turned down a 3.6 million dollar NFL contract to serve his country apparently because he didn't want to be celebrated for serving his country while so many other less famous soldiers already were. The sad thing is that too many more kids know Terrell Owens, Jeremy Shockey, and even O.J. because they made the pro bowl, something I don't think Pat Tillman ever did, and say or do things that make good talk show fodder.

In a month, I wouldn't be surprised if more kids know who Jesse Palmer is than Pat Tillman, though I do have to say it takes a kind of courage to make out with three different women on the same nationally televised date though I'm not sure what kind it is (does anyone out there get, if these ladies are so grossed out by Trish who's kissing Jesse, why the heck do they want to kiss Jesse right afterwards? Isn't that like kissing Trish?).

There are things it takes to make a National Volleyball Camp just as there are certain physical things that matter in making it to the NFL. Anyone who does either, has something to be proud of. The odds of having what it takes to do these thing are higher than the odds for winning consistently at the black jack table in Reno. There are are other things that matter more and they matter more because they are not part of who we are or what we can do at a physical level. They matter because we choose to do them.

Any of us can make those choices, it's just that not all of us do. The athletic world will always celebrate those who jump the highest, hit the hardest, etc. and those teams that qualify for open will always get and possibly deserve the most attention and reap the most obvious rewards. In the meantime, we happen to live in an Extreme Makeover culture where steroids already offer the athletic version of cosmetic surgery. Soon there will be even easier ways to buy ourselves the beauty or athletic prowess that so many of us crave. As volleyball parents, we stick our daughters with the fast twitch muscles and height genes they get. If we measure our own success in those terms, by definition almost all of us will be disappointed.

As volleyball parents we also have an opportunity to praise our kids for the choices they make and to be proud of what they accomplish on their own terms either athletically or personally to let them know that these things matter more to us and that parents notice them even if the greater world can't or won't, even when the greater world is particular teenaged boys. Perhaps if we let them know it matters to us, it will matter to their children too, long after anyone remembers who qualified at what tournament.

This volleyball parent drives away from the black volleyball hole of the Reno Convention Center pulled by the thing built into all of us that confuses us into acting as if we do all this to brag about ourselves because of who our daughters beat in a game.

Maybe that's a way to let us forget what he haven't accomplished in our regular lives. I certainly feel it as we drive away in our station wagon with manual windows and no cd player. (my daughter won't let us drop her off in front of her school) My daughter's team was 1-5 at this tournament. She tried very hard at this big tryout, but I don't think anybody who wasn't related to her gave her a second glance. We've still never beaten Yahoo. So, I wonder. Why is the thing that I'll drive away with this weekend the fact that I have more to be proud of this weekend just about any parent there? (Well that and this eighty dollar t-shirt).


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