The Start of a Legacy

Volleyball Beach Summer Power League Champs!It began innocently enough.

At a little after four o’clock on Saturday Team Katstra took to the blue court under a bright sun and blue skies with hardly a cloud in sight.  There was a light breeze blowing, cooling off the sweat that started to form as soon as we set foot on the 100-degree sand.  We all donned our sunglasses, did our stretches and performed our pre-game rituals – just like every other time we teamed up for a tourney.

We had high hopes like the other 9 teams playing in the Volleyball Beach Summer Tournament of Champions did: we all wanted the name.  We all wanted the title.  We all wanted the sweatshirts that were tangible reminders of our championship.

Our hopes, however, were augmented by a smoldering fire from seasons past – Team Katstra had played bridesmaid to the champions in four out of the last six tournaments – all to Team Steadman – with never a victory to our name.  We were determined to change that this season, history be damned, but the road was long and difficult.

In all the years I’ve played power volleyball out at Volleyball Beach I can’t remember there being ten teams in the tournament.  Typically there’s five or six; I think there was eight one season.  But for the summer of 2013 there were ten.  I recognized most of the teams from the fact I play out there three+ nights a week, and it was clear – if we were going to take home the championship it was going to be a long hard road.  There were two Power pools with five teams each, and we’d have to play everyone in our pool.  Team Steadman – reigning champs since basically forever were in the other pool, but we had a couple of very solid teams in ours.

Our first match was on the blue court against a team I didn’t recognize.  As a team we tend to start off slow and Saturday was no exception.  We gave up a few points before we finally found our groove and started getting the job done.  When all was said and done we ended up taking both games (two games to 21 was the setup) in a pretty convincing fashion.  We were hitting on all cylinders – even I got a few hits straight down.

We had a bye after that, so we retreated to the shade of the upper level of the deck to enjoy a few cold beverages and scope out our competition.  After what seemed like hours (but really was only maybe 45 minutes) we were back up on the blue court, this time against Maureen’s team.  We had a number of good volleys in the first game and ended up winning the first game 21-12.  The second game had even more good volleys but we couldn’t overcome a five-point run we gave up right off the bat and found ourselves on the losing side of it by a score of 21-18.

That gave us a record of 3-1 moving over to the yellow court for our final two matches of pool play.  Our first game was pretty good – we won it solidly.  In what proved to be a common theme throughout we couldn’t quite get all of our hits down in the second game (although Chad and Scott had some monster spikes) and when we thought we’d hit an open spot someone would appear there as if by magic.  But while we couldn’t maintain our first-game mojo we did end up pulling out a victory anyway.

Our final pool play match was against a very scrappy team with some power behind them.  The match was pretty key – a two-game win would solidify our #1 seed in our pool, and while the difference between a #1 and a #2 seed was pretty small in terms of the competition we’d be up against (there weren’t any “easy wins” when it hit tournament time) there certainly was some psychological benefit to claiming the top spot.

We certainly played a more consistent set of games in that final match than we did the prior one, but that didn’t translate into easy wins by any stretch.  Both games were close and we found ourselves down in each one but we did manage to pull off the two victories we needed.

We got a short break after that while Howard waited on the final games to finish so he could tally up the wins/losses/points and figure out what the single-elimination tournament itself looked like.

As expected we held the #1 seed  the tournament from our pool (barely – Maureen’s team was a solid #2 barely behind us) with Team Steadman holding #1 in their pool.  Unfortunately that put us up against Jeremy’s team in our first match.  Of all the teams to pull for a first round matchup (quarterfinals, effectively) that was not the team we wanted.  Add to the fact we’d poached Chad from that team to play with ours (we asked first) and there was definitely a revenge factor on the line.

The tournament was best-of-3 to 21 with the third game to 15.  Jeremy’s team came out with a vengeance, swinging hard, getting damn near everything and, despite a solid run at the end by us, taking the first game from us.  That put us in a win-or-go-home situation – we needed to come on strong for the next two or we were out.  We picked it up the second game, edging out a couple-point win to force a game three and keep our hopes alive.  In true Team Katstra fashion we found our mojo in that second game and made it happen, but we weren’t done.  We needed to keep things going to take the third game.

We did, using a strong start to pull out a victory and advance to the semi-finals.

The semi-final matchup was a good one.  We’d found our groove when we played against Em and Jeremy and company and we kept it through the semis, taking both games in a solid fashion.  At the start of our second game Team Steadman pulled out their match victory against Maureen’s team to move on to the finals so they were able to kick back, regain some energy and watch us.

That put us on orange court against Team Steadman for first place and the title of Power league champions for the fifth time in seven seasons.  The first four were fresh in our minds – and theirs, I’m sure – as we bantered back and forth on the sand (friendly, of course – we’re all friends on the sand regardless of whether we’re lined up with or against each other).  We had the south side to start with and they had the north side.

Let me take a break here and walk through the lineups of both teams so you get an idea of what the dozens of folks hanging out on the deck and watching were seeing.

There are six guys and six girls on the sand between us.  Five of the six guys (myself excluded) can put a hole in nearly any man-made material with the ball when they swing and can also get up on the net and risk life and limb to effectively block the oncoming hits.  I don’t have that kind of power but I can block a little (height has advantages), am fairly mobile and I can find open spots.  The six women on the court can all set the ball well, and between the two team captains if the ball is within 100 feet of the setter position the chances are they’re going to get it and set it – well.  Half the women on the court can hit solidly, as well, and two are legitimate blockers.  Several people played organized volleyball at various points in their lives including one on Team Steadman who played professionally.

I’m not a bad player by any stretch but I was easily at the bottom of the talent pool Saturday night on orange court, for sure.  That’s the kind of matchup it was.

We didn’t have any doubt it was going to be an epic matchup.  While not every game is – we’ve lost by five or six points before – given our history and the road we all took to get there nobody had any doubt this was going to be a matchup to watch.  The victor might have been in question but the intensity certainly was not.

I don’t remember many details of the first game, honestly.  I just know we battled back and forth, back and forth with neither team going up by more than a couple of points at a time.  Hits were finding sand, blocks were going strong and people were making spectacular digs.  All-told there wasn’t much else you could have asked for that didn’t happen in the first game of the championship match.  We found ourselves down late in the game but pulled off a rally to pull out a two-point victory – 21-19 – taking game one.  That meant we had the upper-hand going in to game two – we needed just one more win to claim first place.

After the first game a buddy of mine (shout out to Jason Gray) coined the term “The Pauly Factor“.  That was cracking me up – I played well but I don’t think I played that well…but I appreciate the thought nonetheless.  I did have a couple of targeted shots and was able to use some of the blocks (which previously would have resulted with me getting hit square in the face) to gain a few points – with thanks to the rest of my team for calling them out to me.  But as always I kept smiling, kept encouraging and kept getting up, even when I screwed up.  That’s all you can do – get up, dust yourself off (which is practically impossible when you’re covered with sweat and sand, incidentally) and get back to business.

Like the first game I don’t remember much from a specifics standpoint of the second game, either.  I remember being up and then giving up a five- or six-point run midway through that (ultimately) sealed the need for a third game.  I remember we had some great digs and I got some absolutely gorgeous sets (which I hit well for the most part).  I remember a couple of absolutely square blocks (the kind where ball hits squarely in the middle of the blocker’s hands) by both teams, a late-game run by us and, ultimately, the fact we were on the losing end of a 21-18 score.

Game three.  Normally played to 15 but both teams decided given everything 15 just wasn’t enough – it needed to be a game to 21 like the first two.  We rehydrated ourselves and got back out on the court, ready to decide a champion come hell or high water.  It didn’t matter that it was 10:45 – if it took us until the break of dawn one team was going to come out ahead and take home the sweatshirts.

And what a deciding game it was.  Neither team could pull off a run of more than a couple of points.  Neither team could extend their total lead by more than two.  Despite some absolute screw-ups by me (up 17-16 and I served out of bounds???) we found ourselves tied up 20-20.  A fitting end to an epic battle – regardless of who pulled out the next two-point lead (and hence the game, set and match) you’d expect nothing less than going into overtime in the championship battle.

One volley later we had a one-point lead and could almost taste victory.  The ball went over the net and came back solid on the third hit.  A good pass and a set and Chad swung for all he was worth.  Josh leaned out to get a hand on it, popping it up and off to the right.  Zack sprinted for it but despite having what seems at times like a 10-foot wingspan it was just out of his effective reach and it fell to the sand, closing the match.

The elation we felt was palpable.  Every bit of draining heat, poor plays, tired muscles and sheer exhaustion we’d dealt with over the last seven hours or so was completely forgotten as we reveled in the fact that we’d finally done what we’d failed to do the last four meetings against the champions.

The best thing about it is that Team Steadman is always one of the most fun teams to play.  They bring it and they’re not the kind to let up on you which makes it all that much more fun.  Win, lose or draw (most often the middle) I always enjoy playing against J, Mike, Angie, Erica, Zach, Rich and Josh, and I love the fact that the Tournament of Champions often comes down to us against them.

Kudos to Team Katstra – Amy, Scott, Ashley, Chad and Jane – I love playing with you guys and can’t wait to defend our title.  Even when it all falls apart we pull together and make the most out of it – that’s an awesome team.

Here’s to next season!

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