Saturday, April 22, 2006

NCVA under 16's League 3 (volleyball)

"They Call it the Bladium for a Reason These Days"

It’s the day before Easter and it’s blissfully peaceful on a hill in San Francisco adorned with signs telling me that USF is a Jesuit Institution. I point to an open space on one of the baseball fields next to the gym there and Mrs. Boris makes a perfect landing in our Bell Model 407. I’m a big fan of the Kiowa engine, as smooth and problem free as any commercial helicopter engine on the market, and which makes these precision landings possible. Mrs. Boris has lately been a bit concerned about the Empire colors thing though, we live in Sonoma County and a lot of our neighbors get a little paranoid when they see black helicopters overhead.

Last week, one of them started launching vegan mortar shells at us. It’s more a nuisance than anything else since vegan mortar shells are made from no animal byproducts and by regulation are not allowed to kill any sentient beings on impact. Still, if one of those shells made from soy paste and seaweed were to hit the back rotor, we could have major stability problems and might have to make a forced landing on Highway 101.

At this point, USF is a good site for league tournaments, but I would mention that only a skilled pilot like Mrs. Boris would be able to land between the growing number of other helicopter parents who have landed on the baseball field. One of the problems is that the South Bay helicopter parents are starting to buy down-armored versions of the Apache which simply take more landing space than their civilian counterparts. Anyway, adequate parking is one of those facilities standards that no one’s addressed yet. I told my friends in the NCVA parent group that it’s because none of the club directors or Regional staff have helicopters of their own. “Once you get board members who have helicopters, we’ll see some changes around here.”

My daughter’s team is a second seed in its pool. That means that you try your best to get someone else to drive your kid so you can sleep in the extra hour when they’re reffing that first match. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that luxury this morning and instead have to find other ways to amuse ourselves until Empire actually plays.

We walk by City Beach’s Dave Winn and Chris Crader. Winn, being the business guy, is holding three satchels with City Beach’s logo on them. At first I assume that these are the prizes for this year’s Great America tournament until I hear Crader tell his assistant,”Okay, Dave, listen carefully. We should be able to recruit that middle from Havana for thirty five thousand. So that leaves the hundred thousand left in the other two bags for that outside from Toronto and the Brazilian libero. Got that?”

Winn nods then says “But just want to be sure here, this is for the 2008 team not 2007 right?”

CC: Right, we’re done recruiting for 2007.

The two high five one another and head to the gym as I look up to see some guy up on the top of the gym with a parabolic mike and a pair of binoculars. I happen to pull out my PDA w/ wireless connection to the Internet and find that someone is already posting to Prepvolleyball to complain about Dave Winn’s recruiting for 2008. I take the opportunity to send him a private message “Meet me at the Sonoma Mission Inn and I can tell you smore what I overhear today. S'all right?"

I turn to Mrs. Boris, shake my head, and say, “Wow, junior volleyball sure has changed in the last few years.”

We decide to run down to Clement Street to get early morning Dim Sum. It’s not as good as Pottsylvanian style breakfast, but it’s nice to have so many food choices nearby.
Over breakfast, Mrs. Boris and I plot our strategy for this week’s league 3 tournament.

“Okay, is my turn to yell at ref and complain about other players on team not being good enough. Last week, I was one who had to yell at coach in middle of match about daughter’s playing time and how strategy did not have setter hitting and setting on same play.”

“Is sad no? that we have to do this. In old days, coaches were free to molest players without parent’s even being allowed to ask.”


“Is sad. Or make them anorexic or run or hours with other player on back if they lost.”

“True, true. I miss days when coaches could all be trusted implicitly. Now they just steal club fees from unsuspecting parents who should have butted out in first place.”

“Yes, is good that no coaches play favorites anymore. They are all only about making every single player best she can be. Is good that no clubs break own promises about playing time and philosophy.”

“Yes, is good.”

“But Boris, there are good coaches, yes?”

“Yes, of course good coaches, most are maybe almost all are.”

“Then is maybe wrong to say that coaches molest players and treat them sadistically?”

“Maybe is wrong to make it sound like all parents hover around kids, interfere with coaches, and embarrass their daughters. Most of us don’t.”

“Sokay, how you want to yell at coach this tournament? You want say is damaging daughter’s self-esteem?”

“Is shame, no Pottsylvanian restaurant on Clement St.? Moose Bacon and Squirrel toast would be good right now.”

“No one makes Moose Bacon like you.”

“Boris, you so sweet!” she kisses me on the top of my hat.

Meanwhile, on the way back to USF. We run into a man passing out business cards for 1-800 lawyer.

“Sorry, we’re just here for a volleyball tournament.”

“Have you seen the lack of space between the three courts there? It’s an accident waiting to happen. I’m just trying to figure out who to sue first. They make you sign that waiver, but just wait till I bring up standard of care issues. You know you can’t waive your own gross negligence.”

We glance inside where the Yahoo setter makes an ordinary backset to her rightside and the ball goes into a wall made up of stacked bleachers, two ball ons happen simultaneously as a stray ball makes it from far court to far court. We take his card.

Mrs. Boris whispers, “I hate lawyers.”

I nod “Yes, how can have system of personal accountability if lawyers can sue people for every act of negligence?”

Narrator who sounds like William Conrad interrupts:

When last we saw the Norcal 16’s they had interrupted league play for a month of qualifiers. The Northern California teams did very well in the month’s two qualifiers. City Beach 16’s qualified at Crossroads despite the presence of unauthorized signs in the men’s rooms there. Vision finished fourth in Denver and Force (then in silver) broke into the top seven, and Gold Cal finished tenth. In Los Angeles, Vision Gold won the tournament, Yahoo finished fourth, and City Beach, Gold Cal, and Empire all made the top ten. It's a good showing for a region that had no teams in Prepvolleyball’s pre-season national top 20.

Boris and Natasha step inside gym.

“Boris, something up?”

Narrator again:

Fresh from LA, Vision and City Beach, the two open qualifiers, were having a rough time in their opening matches with Norcal and Force respectively. Liz Prang, the Vision setter who had started the season, was sitting on a folding metal chair with a rather sizeable cast around her leg. Asia Casino (who as it happens also goes to St. Francis like Prang) replaced her and was doing well at it, but Vision’s strength on offense tends to be middle to right with the very agile Tanya Schmidt and Taylor Smith. It often takes more time for a new setter to get timing and placement down setting the middles and rights and some of that was showing in the match as it looked to me like Vision was hitting left more than they had the last time I’d watched and NorCal’s big athletic front line was putting up a very effective block with Robyn Hall and Betsy Sedlak. Setter Christy Payne was also distributing the ball very effectively as Norcal came from behind to win the first game against Vision.

In the middle court, Force had apparently chased away its early season consistency problems that had banished them to Silver in League 1. They have several big athletic hitters and a very good setter (they also don’t seem to have a website with rosters so I apologize for not knowing any names). Early on, they were outhitting City Beach and generally outhustling them. The two split the first two games.

Force and Norcal are both clearly good teams that likely match up well with any 16’s team in Northern California, but there were other factors as well. In fact, a few of the teams in the gym seemed to be missing players for a variety of reasons, though Spring Break plans probably were prominent among them.

In the meantime, Dave Winn of City Beach was sitting in the lotus position with his team circled around him during a timeout and lecturing them, “You must visualize yourself as scorpions so you can bring out your scorpion nature in game three, your true selves. Remember Crossroads.”

Libero Katherine Goldman: “Yes master. At Crossroads we qualified because we were true to our scorpion nature.”

Winn: “Yes exactly. The scorpion nature can overcome the power of the Force, though strong is the power of the force. No think, just dig. Yes yes.”

On the Force sideline, I overheard the following conversation.

“Coach, if we win this league tournament is it true that you will let us see our parents again?”

“I am your father.”


“Give in to the Force side, and we will qualify for open together and we can medal at Jos.”

Okay, maybe that’s not really what I heard, but one of the subtle themes at League 3 was the post-qualifier letdown.

Narrator (this one sounds like Edward Everett Horton):

One of the current oddities of Junior volleyball is that the qualifiers basically determine Open Bids while the Regions control a certain number of Club bids at Jos. Of the two, Open is far more prestigious. For those who take the whole competition thing seriously, “league” in junior volleyball has less significance than the NBA regular season. Politically, this has resulted in a sometimes not so quiet power struggle between “regions” and “clubs” for control of the qualifiers. For example, the Crossroads and Lonestar are run by individual clubs rather than by their region and one look (through the form 990s) at the budgets of those two regions tells an interesting story. NCVA controls the Far Western Regional and has an annual budget of 2 million dollars. SCVA which controls the Southern Qualifier and the Las Vegas tournament has a budget of 2.3 million dollars. Crossroads and Lonestar regions have budgets closer to five hundred thousand dollars a year. Hosting an open qualifier is a major source of volleyball revenue. Running leagues is not.

As a secondary matter, some of the Regions have gone Walmart and gotten beyond just sanctioning, promoting, and setting standards for tournaments. In some parts of the country, the Regions have taken to trying to take over and run all tournaments and the revenues that come with them. One perverse result is that this encourages the proliferation of the monster convention-center-based high-stakes events and discourages multiple smaller friendlier events say run by a local club and arguably makes for less volleyball in the region itself.

I’m personally not a fan of the emerging order. For one, power league teams now roam the United States in the middle of the school year in search of the ever elusive prestige of an open bid. Even my daughter’s team, which remains a Fesitval Club, will go to three qualifiers this year. I should mention one of the ironies of the LA Qualifier was that my daughter’s Day 3 pool consisted of Vision, Yahoo, Empire, and Epic (a San Diego club which happened to feature one of her former teammates). Each qualifier runs about five hundred dollars and a day and a half of missed school. Once a team qualifies, it also renders the next three months of competition more or less meaningless. Most significant, it unacceptably raises the pressure level for the not yet qualified teams on what remain very young girls.

Currently, league only matters to those teams that can’t qualify in open. Non-JO tournaments held after April and certainly after bids come out don’t seem to matter at all. We now have a two month long National season, as opposed to the National division of JO Club. Volleyball in one’s own region becomes more or less a sideshow to the main event. In fact, the last two times I attended regionals hardly anyone was worried about who won the regional tournament. All the interest focused on who was going to get the “club” bids to JO’s.

What would I do about it?

1. I’m not sure why JOs has moved to four classes of membership. Open is the one everyone talks about. Most people see American and National as consolation tournaments for not making open. Finally, has anyone ever heard of a team being turned down for the JO Invitational?

I know this is radical and it probably upsets too many economic apple carts, but there should be one nationals consisting of 64 teams in a single Open tournament.

2. Bids for the tournament should come 3 ways. One qualifying in a qualifier. Winning regionals. Winning your region league or equivalent means of accumulating points. There possibly could be a handful of “at large” bids to deal with teams that seem like they ought to belong.

3. Restrict the amount of travel during the school year by region. Two out of state tournaments is plenty unless you have a team in Alaska. Also, tournaments played on Friday should be held only with very good reason.

4) If teams beyond the 64 want to attend an end of year tournament, create some regional invitationals in the summer. You might hold them 10 days before JO’s and even allow the winners to get a bid to the main event to keep them relevant.

Boris and Natasha return as both City Beach and Vision 16 pull out their matches in close third games.

“MMmm….Natasha. I don’t think any team brought "A" game today except Force and maybe Gold Cal.”

After putting a scare into Vision, Norcal’s level of play slips against Empire. Nonetheless Norcal had a 19-16 lead in the first game then lost in a flurry of errors. In fact, Empire needed just one kill to score its last nine points. Norcal was even flatter in the second game. Unfortunately though good for Empire, the 2 v 3 match is the most critical match of the day in the current league format and in one match Empire was as they say on American Idol “SAFE” (not that either Natasha or I watch any non-animated shows on American televsion)

With the big exception of the court safety issue and the lack of proper landing pads for our helicopters, USF is an extremely nice site. Instead of packing the sidelines, most parents watch from stands ten feet above the playing area which has the advantage of making it harder for our daughters to hear us howl at bad calls and the like. The bathrooms are good and there’s a clean covered space just in front of the gym for hanging out between matches. I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned the whole safety thing, after all, our children’s safety is really none of our business and who wants to hear parents rant. Look how quickly the Region fixed the bathroom problem at the NCVA facility.

One of the interesting things this year in 16’s is that all the top 10 teams in the age group have played one another close at some point this year which may account for the relative stability of the gold division this year. Other than Force’s detour to silver, the 9 eventual survivors of league 3 were all in gold coming out of the qualifier. There’s been a lot of talk about Nevada County being good enough to be there on the board, in fact there’s more talk about Nevada County than there’s been about some teams who actually remain ahead of them, but the league results thus far suggest that at least for Gold this year the qualifier actually did identify 10 of the 12 top teams.

In the course of the day, Empire wound up playing both Vision 16 (to be distinguished from Vision 15 and Vision 15 two who were also there) and City Beach 16 (first time this year). The Vision 16 match had a horrific beginning with Vision winning the first seven points mostly on points that didn’t get past the serve. Ultimately, Empire didn’t have an answer for Smith and Schmidt either offensively or defensively. Vision’s right and middles very efficiently jammed any swings from the left throughout the match. The second game was closer, but No, Empire didn’t push Vision all that hard this time.

There were three very interesting crossover matches. Golden Bear, missing at least 2 players from League 2, went up 9-3 in the third and Yahoo came all the way back with several kills by Bridget O’hara. I, unfortunately, missed what was likely the match of the day. Force beat Vision in the second crossover match. It wasn’t really an upset. Literally, Force had one bad day in league one, but this ended the Vision-City Beach stranglehold on the top two spots this year.

In Empire’s crossover, my daughter’s team had the chance to play City Beach for the first time this year. (they still haven’t played Gold Cal or Force). This one started identically to the Vision match with Empire losing the first seven points again mostly in serve receive. During the match, City Beach’s rightside Justine Record consistently hurt Empire both as a hitter and as a left-handed jump server. In addition, Sophia Dunworth appears to be asserting herself more as a hitter. Katherine Gorman also played well at libero. The surprise was that Empire regathered itself in the second game and won surprisingly easily to set up a third game as the Empire lefts were able to hit effectively over City Beach’s rightside block. The third game stayed within 2 points up to 13-11 when City Beach got an ace on a waist high ball between two Empire passers. Hopefully the two teams will have at least one more chance to play this year.

Midway through the crossover matches, Jeff Nelson, the USF coach, made a brief appearance, something that struck me as a very smart thing to do. fwiw, we had seen the USF tournament early in the year and it seemed that USF was one of the teams there that was headed in the right direction competitively.

City Beach went on to beat Force in the final in two reasonably close games that oddly didn’t have the electricity of the early morning match. Beach kept control of after the 12 point mark of the first game of this one and perhaps after close calls with both Force and Empire earlier in the day, they shook off the already-qualified thing and found their consitency zone in the championship match.

Vision fifteen, which had the misfortune of landing in the same pool as City Beach and Force at the beginning of the day hung on in the consolation pool to chase out Vision 15 two, City Beach 15, and a hard luck Norcal team.

We climbed back into our helicopter and flew home. In some ways, this has been my most interesting season as a parent, but in many ways it’s been the least enjoyable. I find that I’m not as able to relax in the simple pleasure of just sitting and watching matches closely and enjoying the ebb and flow as the players assert both their skills and nerve. As I sit down to write about what happened, I remember less and less of what once made these days so fun. Something I’ve noticed in my last couple writeups.

Some of that is the creep of the end of my tenure as a volleyball parent. Now and then my daughter gets letters from colleges and it seems like so much rides on each tournament and each micro-step in her progress. We tell ourselves, we just want her to be happy, to have opportunities to choose to play or not, yet there’s always this bit of doubt. Are we hovering too much? How much implicit pressure is there from the fact that her older sister played in college? How scary is it to pay tuition out of our own pocket? (we’d have to give up the copter at the very least)

Some is this whole business with the NCVA. I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised that it wasn’t as simple as a group of parents communicating a few concerns and offering suggestions to the Region. There’s a long not terribly harmonious history of regional-sectarian struggle, that I honestly had mostly ignored for the last ten years. When people get that excited about a single day in a tent, it’s usually not just the tent that’s bothering them. I am grateful to have made so many new friends who want to find constructive solutions though. At the same time, I’m offended to have people suggesting that the parent group is somehow about some sort of evil parent agenda. The group made clear in its own agenda that it had no interest in the often controversial topics of seeding, playing time, coaching philosophy (beyond criminal acts) etc.

When my daughter was in 14’s three seasons ago, the team did not go to any qualifiers. While there certainly were politics even then between clubs, within teams, etc., the connection between the pure joy of simply playing and having fun trying to win and being a volleyball parent seemed so much more direct. We used to drive back thinking it was just fun, because well it was just fun. There was no recruiting, no high school team, etc. As the recruiting pushes in earlier and earlier into the junior life cycle and JO’s become increasingly central to the failure or success of a season, I’ve noticed that the pressures mount and the simple joy of the sport gets harder to find.

I remind myself that our older daughter certainly went through a stretch during “recruiting” when the sport became less than fun. For several months, it seemed like all we ever heard was that she didn’t jump high enough or move fast enough, etc. and she was forced to compare herself to dozens of players around the country who she didn’t really know. We went through a “Why the heck are we doing this stretch?”

At the end though, it seemed that the most fun she had in her time as a player turned out to be her senior year of college. I trust that that simple pleasure in the sport will return for our daughter and us.

I was really happy to see that return on the beach last year. I’ve seen it come back at times this year. With the older one, there was a point in her life when she had convinced herself that the only way she could be happy in the sport was to have Dave Shoji call her with the right kind of news. As she got older, she realized that might well not have been happiness for her at all. She loved the team, and more important the college at which she wound up. Eventually, she found there were lots of ways to find happiness in the sport and even decided to become a coach.

I suspect that the joy of 14’s or something like it will return if we can remember that there are many different paths to staying happy in junior sports. Some families need to do it by helicopter, some drive old station wagons, and there may even be a few who don’t even go to tournaments with their kids. My guess is that it has little to do with the kind of vehicle you choose as parents, it’s whether or not you keep track of who your daughter is and what she really needs and wants as a person and that the people you entrust your daughter with have similar priorities.

Well that’s our show for today. Goodnight, Boris. Night Natasha. Hey you want to see me pull a squirrel out of this hat?

link to other Chancelucky volleyball stories


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