This post should be titled “In Appreciation of Volleyball,” but because I have, until recently, thought of the pastime as a woman’s sport, and perhaps deep inside I was a sexist when it came to women in sports, the title will stay with apologies to follow. I never liked volleyball; I always thought it was a sissy sport. When we played volleyball in high school P.E. I would conveniently interpret my own awkwardness as a result of having a Y chromosome. The open-handed “slapping” of the ball and the lob serves didn’t help my image of it either. As for the rules, I just hated them.
There were guys who could punch the ball, which improved my opinion of volleyball, but still I didn’t think the game was for men. Many years later, one of my co-workers started watching beach volleyball. He would copy hi-def images to place on his PC's desktop. While these photos showed very muscular men performing feats of athleticism, I still didn’t buy into volleyball as a man’s sport. Maybe I didn’t like those goofy hats with the bills flipped up.
I felt better about women playing the sport, which I’m sure was a sexist hang-up of mine. In some ways I think I reflected the time: Title IX had just passed, yet sports scholarships were still not encouraged for young women. Part of my problem is I never sat down and watched girls’ volleyball while I was in high school. If I had, I might have changed my mind right then and there.
I played beach volleyball as an adult only once, and it only had a negative affect on my opinion of the game. It was a Boy Scouts camping trip at Point Reyes and a dozen or so of us set up a net on the beach. I would have rather flown kites, or played with the potato cannons, but the scoutmaster wanted to play volleyball. I ended up on a team with a hyper-aggressive assistant scoutmaster who was hell-bent on telling all the scouts on our team how the game should be played.
As (bad) luck would have it, the ball never seemed to come toward him so he crashed into me every time it came my way, showing the scouts how to perform various setups, saves, and spikes. After eating half the sand on the beach, I bowed out, as did a kid on the opposing side. We ran off and stole one of the potato cannons and a sack of ordnance. I wanted to lead a spud attack on the assistant scoutmaster and the whole stupid game, but I had to be responsible and lead by example. I limited the number of projectiles we fired, and made sure we shot them in the opposite direction of the game. At that time I didn’t know what was a lamer game: volleyball or badminton.
My opinion of volleyball warmed a few years ago when I spent a few minutes watching hordes of young women play the game at the Sacramento Convention Center. The only reason I ended up there was because I was in a deli across the street two blocks from work when three guys walked into the store shaking their heads in amazement, one exclaiming, “Those girls are off the hook!” After finishing my lunch, I walked across the street to where the games took place. I remember how fast the games were and noted the intense competitiveness. This was not the sport I remember from high school. I found out just recently that the event I saw only a few minutes of is the Volleyball Festival. I also learned that this national event was huge—with hundreds of athletes competing in games not only at the Convention Center but also at Cal Expo and in Davis. I was hoping to attend more the following years but my wife told me that Reno now hosts the event.
About two weeks ago my wife asked if I would like to go with her to the NCAA final between Stanford and Penn State. I said yes, not because I was interested in the match, but because my wife and I don’t go out much and I knew she was going with or without me. The next night we were in ARCO Arena, up in the nosebleeds watching the match. My only complaint is that I wasn’t close enough to catch all the nuances of the game.
I had no trouble seeing the incredible speed and power with which these tall women played Then I saw the diving saves and blistering spikes and the amazing speed, aggressiveness, and skill; I was impressed with their athleticism. I also couldn’t help but be a little intimidated—what would it be like to be on the receiving end of one of those spikes! The setups made sense to me. There was a beauty to the movement; the best setups were as stunningly beautiful as a perfectly executed double play in baseball; I was finally getting it.
Some stuff was a mystery to me, but my wife helped explain the changes since our high school days. All the changes are definitely for the better, making the game far more interesting and dramatic; for instance, no more specific amount of passes before the spike and more open rules on service. It is all wide-open and that made the action far more dynamic, unpredictable, and explosive. About a game into the match and I began caring about the teams. I became a Stanford fan. Although, just as in NBA games, I thought the cheerleading stuff was dumb and unnecessary. The only thing entertaining about them was how unsynchronized the Stanford cheerleaders were—perhaps they had Finals on their minds. I don’t think you will ever see an apologetic post on this blog about cheerleading. In an evening of pleasant surprises, the only disappointment was the scoring.
I was still into the match when, on the fifth game, it was suddenly over with the scoreboard reading Penn State: 15, Stanford: 8. What is this half-of-a-fifth game all about? The fact that Stanford lost was enough to make virtually everyone (shy of the Penn State players) quiet, but I was still wondering why everyone began shuffling down the stairs. “I guess that’s how they score Game Five,” my wife said. When the match started she told me that the rules from the 70s when she played high school volleyball, had changed, but she didn’t know all the changes, so even she was a little befuddled. While Stanford forced Penn State to a tie-breaking fifth game (30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8), I felt I could watch more that night—why not the best of seven like in other post-season sports? I left that evening with an appreciation for a sport I used to discredit and an admiration of the athletes that I rarely gave a second thought. Perhaps I should reconsider badminton, too. Easy there, Jocko!