Friday, May 06, 2005

Mitty Invitational Volleyball 2004

I am in the Archbishop Mitty main gym. One side of the gym is covered end to end with volleyball championship banners. On the far court, K.C. Walsh, a six foot left-handed setter who hits and blocks as efficiently as she sets, is helping her top-seeded and national No. 2 Mitty team methodically take apart the No. 11 Nevada Union Miners, aka the Hicks from the Sticks.
To be frank, this semifinal looks like a physical mismatch. The Nevada Union players are solid volleyball players, but look distinctly younger and less powerful than their Mitty counterparts. The one exception is Long Beach State-bound Ali Daley, a dark-haired, powerfully-built senior who is her team's primary defender, hitter and jump server.
If you close your eyes and try to tell where the big hits are coming from, you’ll hear three or four different kinds of pops from the Mitty side of the net and just one from Nevada Union. The other thing that’s apparent is that the Mitty block has gotten into Nevada Union’s heads. After being blocked four or five times, the Miners’ left side has taken to trying to pop the ball over the top of the block where it generally turns into an easy pass for Mitty’s steady and precise back row.
One simple rule of volleyball is that if you can consistently send the ball back over the net faster than it got to you, you usually control the match. I think of this as the “Special Theory of Volleyball Relativity,” the equations that Einstein worked on before he gave up his career on the Swiss Beach Volleyball circuit for his job in the patent office. As a result, we may never know if the cosmos’ best alignment to deal with entropy is a 5-1 or a modified 6-2. Mitty wins the first game 25-8.
The more volleyball I watch, the easier it is to feel that I'm bouncing through time on Bill and Ted's Excellent Jumpserving Adventure. Most people know that Walsh is Kerri’s youngest volleyball playing sister and that there has been a more or less uninterrupted run of Walshes at Mitty from Kerri’s three state volleyball championship teams, through Kelly, and on through K.C.
The first high school playoff match I ever saw was Mitty vs. El Molino in NorCals many years ago. El Molino actually had the higher seed so the match was in Sonoma County. Our older daughter was starting to show an interest in a sport that I knew so little about that I had to ask the guy next to me if the block counted as one of the three touches. A very tall, thin, Mitty sophomore with a remarkable combination of hands, timing and court vision utterly dominated that match. Even though I knew almost nothing about volleyball at the time, it wasn’t hard to see that Kerri Walsh was as close as you get to a sure thing in the sport.
Back to the Mitty Invite. On the near court, 37th ranked Torrey Pines is in the midst of what will turn out to be the match of the tournament with 39th ranked Los Gatos. The teams are near mirror images of one another. Neither team is very tall and both prefer to hit from the left. More important, both teams are notably exacting, graceful, and even telepathic in the way they all seem to not only know their own roles on any play but where and how their teammates are moving to the ball. On one point in the second game, a hard Los Gatos hit is partly dug by a Torrey Pines player at the ten foot line. The ball arcs backwards towards the Mitty wall of championship banners. Most of us in the stands assume that the point is over until the ball mysteriously reappears as a free ball on the Los Gatos side of the net. Rather than admiring their good work at the beginning of the point, Los Gatos is ready and calmly swats the miracle free ball back to the Torrey Pines side of the floor to complete the point.
6-1 Los Gatos junior Nina Sevastopoulos hammers two balls from the left in the first game. In between impressive swings, however, she’s a little tentative. I find myself engrossed in the quick-eyed intensity of Kiana Alzate, Torrey Pines’ very fine lithe left who started the first game with a flurry of tips, angles, and low hard swings that made it look like Torrey Pines would run away with the match. Even when not in the play I find myself watching the way her eyes scan the court as her body prepares to pounce to the ball. I can hear some club coach say that Alzate, with her athleticism, competitive toughness, and court vision, might be an ideal college setter, but at the high school level it’s simply fun to watch her play as her team’s main hitting option. It would also mean that Ellen Scott wouldn't be playing. She's one of those setters who just does her job so well that you barely notice her until it occurs to you that the third ball keeps appearing in just the right spot for her hitters. Torrey Pines won the first game 25-23, but the match is far from over.
My elite club coach acquaintances like to tell me that “High School volleyball isn't real volleyball.”
If JO 18s open teams are your reference, they’re probably right. Still, Los Gatos/Torrey Pines is as compelling a match as I’ve seen at any level. I’m reminded of an old Roger Angell article in the New Yorker where he watches a college baseball game between St. John’s and Yale in the company of long ago Red Sox ace Joe Wood. As it turns out, the pitchers were Frank Viola and Ron Darling who both went on to stardom in the major leagues, but Angell used his article to argue that baseball’s greatness as a sport isn’t about exploding scoreboards, big contract players, and egomaniac owners as much as what happens when two teams get together anywhere, execute the game cleanly, and the players on both teams keep passing the game's unending test of nerves vs. execution until one side fails to answer the last time.
One of the saddest things about the world is that we spend far too much time arguing about what it means when No. 37 beats No. 39 or who should really be No. 1 according to JTawa and far too little time simply enjoying the many great moments that occur during any these tournaments. It honestly shouldn’t matter that JTawa, as hard as he works at this, thinks that your kid’s team is in the top 100 of the nation. It’s far more important that you remember all the times your kid’s team negotiated numerous tests that a year’s worth of high school volleyball can present and that you both savor and enjoy each success. (Of course I say that as the parent of a kid whose team finished dead last at the Mitty Invitational and is currently 3-8 on the season).
Still, if you watch a match like Torrey Pines/Los Gatos and obsess about whether it makes the winner No. 15 in the PrepVolleyball poll or if they should simply hold their ranking, you’re missing something essential about the sport and pleasures of volleyparenthood. When we die, I would bet our national debt that God does not use the BCS or look at PrepVolleyball rankings to determine whether or not we are worthy souls: there is however a rumor that God does use something called the “Pablo.” If your kid’s team doesn’t make the century club even once, I swear that it’s not going to end her life or even leave her volleyball career on the bubble. If you have any sort of reasonable argument that your team belongs near the top 100, you should be enjoying what has to be a great season. Think about this: for every 33-0 team in the country, there is a team or group of teams that is 33 games below .500.
My attention shifts back to the second game of Mitty/Nevada Union. The score is much closer this time. Where Mitty’s “A” game seems to run the offense from middle to right with Erin Downey, Lacey Gera, et. al., this second game they hit more from the left and take a few risky shots at the corners of the ten foot line, a handful of which land out. In the meantime, Nevada Union is serving tough and showing that they play very good defense. With the score tied in the teens, Mitty reasserts control and finishes off the game 25-19.
My mind slips back to the first time I ever saw KC Walsh. I was at a club volleyball tournament at an over-ambitious volleyball center in North East San Jose. The place housed something like 36 sport courts and for one club season all the age groups would show up at this single site. It also marked a turning point in the relationship of the high school game to its club counterpart. Up to then, many clubs saw their club season as a way to improve their high school team. The clubs often were associated closely with a single high school program and its feeder junior highs and there were a lot of different clubs. In fact, it was still unusual for a NorCal club to have more than two teams at any age level. That year, Trent Dilfer, the NFL quarterback, agreed to sponsor a team for his sister, Teagan Lynch, through Mizuno. The result was a South Bay all star team that drew the best players from high schools all over the south bay and from clubs like Bay Club, Central Coast, Griffin, etc.
One clear goal for this team was to win JO’s rather than the Davis festival. Kerri Walsh was one of the building blocks of that team. Between matches, the thing to do was to wander over and watch Club Mizuno dominate its competition. I was going to do exactly that when my younger daughter who was about 4 at the time insisted on going to play in the sand outside.
“What sand?” I asked.
“The sand with the net in it?”
I had little choice. We wandered outside and she found another kid to dig with, the kind where you make holes in the sand not the kind that covers holes on the court. A few feet away, there were two older girls trying to jump serve on the sand court. One of them, who couldn’t have been much more than seven, was coming surprisingly close to getting her jump serve in. The mom of the other digging kid informed me, “That’s Kerri Walsh’s youngest sister.”
"Well, if she grows as tall as her sister, I doubt that she'll ever have the right game for the beach," I thought to myself.
Although the overt all star team approach to club didn’t last that long, the NorCal club scene changed in certain ways. Club hopping became more the norm and some of the commutes were mind boggling. UCLA's Erika Selsor went from Linden to City Beach. USC's Kashi Cormeier came up from Fresno to play for Griffin one year. UOP's Joanna Rentz went from Sonoma to City Beach. Most recently, Daley commuted from Nevada County to City Beach. Club volleyball went from being high school team driven to something that was more like the mergers and acquisitions that were helping to fuel the dotcom bubble in Silicon Valley. City Beach emerged as a dominant club in NorCal and while the club clearly fed a run of a dozen combined state championships between Mitty and St. Francis of Mountain View, it became increasingly clear that club drove high school rather than the other way around and JOs became at least as important if not more important than the CIF playoffs.
Yesterday, my youngest daughter set against KC Walsh’s team for the second time this year. For the second time, El Molino was overmatched by Mitty. While Kerri Walsh was last seen joking with Jay Leno, one of her Club Mizuno teammates retired from playing and now is teaching and coaching at El Molino. If her playing career was built around being an undersized left who overcame a serious knee injury to have a great college career, she has taken on a similar challenge as a coach. El Molino is a public school in a middle class community with one of the smallest enrollments in division 3. While the high school still has a very close relationship with the Empire Volleyball Club, the club itself has changed. Where the club’s best players once automatically seemed to come from El Molino, it now draws its athletes from almost all the high schools not just in Sonoma County but also from Napa to Southern Marin. The current El Molino team has no players from Empire's 18-1 team. Their DS is the only El Molino junior or senior who plays on any of the club's number 1 teams.
One result: rather than being in the part of the draw where parents fantasize about all tournament teams and national rankings, my daughter’s El Molino team landed in the Invitational’s “Failed Four”. Not surprisingly, three of the four teams in that group are public schools. The really surprising thing is that two public schools Torrey Pines and Los Gatos, albeit from two of the wealthiest towns in the state, made it the tournament’s final four in a sport that remains overwhelmingly upper middle class and for the most part much more monochromatic than the state itself. I don't blame club for this, but it's certainly part of the picture.
The bottom quarter of the tournament are really pretty good teams. In fact University of San Diego may be a very good team. When everything went right, things looked surprisingly similar to the top teams in the tournament. It’s just that these teams will make runs of mistakes for more than a couple points in a row. Donna Lafever, a left-handed outside hitter for Aptos, hits as hard as anyone in the tournament. K.C. Fox, headed to Portland from Aptos is very solid. USDHS has Brooke Buringrud, a 6-3 outside committed to Arizona who clearly had drawn the interest of a couple college coaches watching from the back wall of the gym.
One measure of the Mitty tournament’s relative prestige is that it’s one of the few places you’ll see more than a handful of college coaches during the high school season. The fact that they were watching these bottom quarter matches is a measure of how strong the field really is. (Either that, or no one told the college dudes when the top teams were playing).
Ashton Rossi, the Uni setter, is also noticeably poised and consistent. Santa Barbara has strong hitting middles and a generally steady back row, but clearly was having some problems running what looked to be a modified 4-2. Aptos, down 0-2 in its match with University, fought back to take an 18-6 lead in its third game only to see University then turn it on and take the game and the match. El Molino started very slowly against Santa Barbara. In the first game, they were hampered by 4 straight hitting errors to open the game. In the second game, they missed 3 serves in a row. El Molino came alive to take the third game with Santa Barbara having serious problems hitting from the right side, Santa Barbara won the fourth by playing some spectacular defense to keep the score tied 19-19 and showed more poise down the stretch and took advantage of El Molino’s difficulties covering tips. Aptos then took El Molino in 5 and University handled Santa Barbara easily.
As I sit in the stands, one of the Los Gatos dads chats with me about the match below between his trips to fetch water bottles and food for his kid. We talk about Joe Ripp, who won a state title at Las Gatos almost eleven years ago; Katie Eldridge Ripp, who was a UOP All American; and the re-emergence of Los Gatos as a South Bay power because of the school's ties to Vision. Down below, Los Gatos is asserting itself in the match. Alexa Anderson, a very complete leftside who is still working her way back from a serious knee injury, has hit well from the left. Bryte Nielson, a tall left handed Setter/Rightside, is starting to hit more and opening up Los Vision's offense. The second game between Gatos and Torrey ends with the identical 25-23 score as the first but with the result switched.
On the far court, the third game of the Mitty/Nevada Union match looks a lot like the first. Each time I glance over, Mitty's block, with 6-5 freshman Amanda Gil, appears to have Nevada Union frustrated. Most high school teams are happy to have one strong middle. With Downey, Gil, and Shannon Lowell, Mitty has 3. In addition, they have 3 players who set the ball well, and what feels like an endless supply of backrow players like Katie Glomb who are so effective that the other team's hitters often look less capable than they really are. The match ends with Mitty winning 25-12.
As much as I admire Mitty, I'm a little sad. I remember nine years ago when my older daughter's team ventured into D1 in Norcals on Mitty's side of the draw. Mitty sent someone to videotape a playoff match in Sonoma County. Nevada Union's rise has offered hope for the public school teams not on the peninsula. Without ties to an established national club program, Nevada Union has emerged as a volleyball power in a part of the state that some think of as the middle of nowhere. Even though, they have a bigger enrollment than Mitty, it would have been fun to see them do the David and Goliath thing. While they got put back in their place a bit at this tournament, they had a very solid showing.
I expect that the Hicks will be back. Although Daley graduates, they have two very good freshmen who already contribute to the varsity in Sarah McAtee and Christian Woodruff. One good thing about the no division shopping rule in CIF volleyball, it's given the public schools one division where they can dominate the privates: D1. Nevada Union and Aptos are both Division 1 CIF schools.
I take a break between games two and three to search the Mitty campus for statues of Brandi Chastain and Kerri Walsh, its two most famous female athletic alumni. Instead I find a football game, a Thomas Kinkade art gallery, and rows of neatly kept classrooms. The odd thing about Silicon Valley in general is that despite the billions that have run through the valley, almost none of the architecture is especially memorable. San Jose may also be the wealthiest city ever to not be able to support a symphony orchestra. I don't find any statues though I have this goofy vision of a bronze of Chastain in a sport bra and Walsh in a bikini as two products of a Catholic School. This year's Miss America and Sports Illustrated Swimwear model Marissa Miller are both former volleyball players. As someone who remembers the feminism of the 60s and 70s, it's easy for me to make some snarky comment about women's sports taking an odd turn when it came to feminine empowerment. After some thought, I realize that the echo-boomers who grew up with Title 9 simply see the world differently than their parents and understand that you can be feminine while still kicking butt on the court or in the field. In other words, they may actually be healthier than their SUV driving-Vietnam-Watergate haunted parents who argued that Title 9 was the path to medical school and the board room (something that's also been true).
The third game between Gatos and Torrey Pines is not point for point as Torrey Pines breaks out to a sizeable lead much to the delight of the group of Torrey Pines dads near me. You can tell because they're all wearing burgundy colored polo shirts to match their daughters' jerseys. Torrey Pines has started to hit more from the middle with Laura Eck and Katie Mann. In addition, Los Gatos is having a rough time with one rotation where TP's Courtney Hall hits one of those left corner serpentine approach serves. At one point, Ripp calls a timeout to tell his players to stop thinking and start playing. The talk gets Los Gatos to rally but it falls short on point 19.
It does occur to me that most any team in this tournament would have beaten the El Molino team that played Mitty eleven years ago One of El Mo's lefts was 5-4 back then and that wasn't all that odd. The Los Gatos dad tells me that his own daughter at 5-9 is going to be a college libero because she's just not tall enough to play high level D1. She already mostly plays back row on her high school team. Similarly, there were good high school teams back then where not all of the front row players could hit hard and down. Almost all the teams here have bench players who do that. As I talk to the Los Gatos dad, I also find myself pondering the odd way volleyball gossip flies through a gym. Within hours sometimes, almost anyone there who cares to will know the latest recruiting story, club scandal, etc. through this early form of wi-fi.
In the fourth game, Torrey Pines jumps to a lead and it seems inevitable that Los Gatos is going to give in. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Los Gatos came very close to beating Mitty in a three game match at an early season tournament. Perhaps it's this hope that keeps them fighting here. For the first time in the match, Los Gatos’ bigger block starts to assert itself. There are almost no swing points in this game. Each point is fiercely contested as players on both teams dig balls that they couldn't possibly have seen.
With Torrey Pines up by four and closing in on 20, Alzate takes a full swing from the left. LG soft blocks it and just barely picks up the ball before it falls to the sideline, the setter somehow transforms that desperate dig into a perfect four and a commanding lead for TP becomes a Los Gatos point and a tighter match. After that, it's point for point. Alzate tools the block. At 22-23, Anderson has her hard four dug by a TP back row hand before it finds the floor. The next point, Anderson hits a four that looks like it may sail out but then catches the endline to get to 23-24. This is the sort of match that deserves to end on yet another great rally or some floor rattling kill. It doesn't. It ends instead on a ball landing well past the backline and a very relieved Torrey Pines celebration on their side of the court with the 3rd 25-23 score of the match. The Los Gatos dad disappears quietly as he goes to console his daughter and her team.
If I were a real reporter, I would have stayed for the third place and championship matches. I also would have caught the name of every player I saw who played well and I would get all the names exactly right. I certainly would have covered the middle eight teams in this tournament some. All these things take considerable commitment, attention to detail, etc. and the people who normally do this for you take on a lot. Instead, I'm just a volleyparent, which means that I watch my own kid's games with rapt attention no matter how big or exciting the match in the other gym may be. I generally don't talk to coaches or players from other teams, ‘cause it would embarrass the heck out of my kid. Instead I sit there, thinking that rally scoring makes time go far too quickly.
At the end of her last match, we go home so we can get something to eat and she can get back to the two days of homework that accumulates from missing classes to play volleyball in San Jose. Many years ago, I learned that the finals of high school and club tournaments can be very anti-climactic, not because they aren't great matches, more because the vast majority of the spectators are parents who simply go home as soon as their own kid's matches are done. The Mitty tournament is extremely well run. The schedule and format are clearly laid out. There's a coach's break room. The level of sportsmanship among the teams is high. They have an appropriate number of bathrooms. Even if all the lights went out in Cupertino the night before and a couple teams had a rough Friday night, that wasn't Mitty's fault unless you really do believe in the Touchdown Jesus thing in South Bend. In any case, Mitty takes the time to put up a single court for the last two matches and roll out the bleachers so the final feels like a final.
This year's Mitty Invitational wasn't the big shootout of national powers a la Durango. In some ways, it was really more about continuity and tradition. The conventional lead would be that Mitty, clearly the strongest team in its own tournament, kept alive its bid for a national championship. My less standard view is that it's the last year of its run of Walshes, who is doing her bit for volleyball younger sisters everywhere, and there's Mitty's shift from all City Beach to Vision and Yahoo and Golden Bear. Los Gatos and Torrey Pines are re-establishing themselves as state powers. Nevada Union is working to build its own volleyball tradition. St. Francis (Mountain View) and El Molino are coached by coaches who were great players in their own time who are struggling to keep winning traditions alive while they try to teach talented teams how to compete as their school's feeder clubs shift the way they do things.
If you're around long enough you get a feel for each of these stories and the ongoing interaction between the club and high school versions of the sport and their relationship to that big scholarship in the sky, as opposed to that scholarship in the Big Sky Conference. Who knows, maybe your kid will be joking around with Jay Leno after the Beijing games, maybe she'll be coaching and teaching at some obscure high school, maybe she'll be serving her country in the Middle East or North Korea, or maybe she'll be doing stem cell research or running against Jenna Bush for the presidency. I, personally, can't think that far ahead.
In three years, which will most certainly come at rally speed, my kid will hopefully be playing (if they're still invited after this year) in her final Mitty Invitational, making it our final one as well. The contenders are bound to be different, but I suspect that the Mitty Invitational will still be the high school tournament to go to in Northern California, it'll still be well run, college coaches will still be lined up on the back wall to watch the teams there, and it'll be as good a proof as any that "High School volleyball can very much be worth paying attention to" and that even the losers there can take some pride in just being in the field.



At 12/09/2010 10:23:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Amazing fact about to took El Molino in 5 and University handled Santa Barbara,also the post is excellent to examine.

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