Yesterday I was reminiscing with my good friend and volleyball partner extraordinaire, Rich about our 1999 Pottstown Rumble win in the BB division. He asked me if I still had the write up I did about it.
The page that had the link to it had a 404 error so I manually found the write up and sent the link to Rich. I reread the recap as well. It brought back the magic memories of the day where we outlasted a field of more than 120 teams to take the top spot. Well Rich, some 16 years later decided to write up his own recollection of that day along with a general overview of our days as a volleyball doubles team. Rich is blessed with strong writing skills along with a pretty remarkable ability to recall minute details of events that occurred long ago, a gift I do not possess.
Well anyway, with Rich’s permission, I am posting his recollection of that epic day, enjoy.
Another Point of View – My Recollection of the 99 Rumble Win
Shawn and I had been serious partners the year before, and on various quads teams and sixes a year earlier, but it was right about here that we, through repetition, became very in tune to each other’s habits, coverages, and abilities as double’s partners.
I had various partners for tournaments prior to, during and after our run together with some success, but never was I to match up with someone who was so like me in certain game aspects, while so complimentary in others. Both these factors wound up being exactly what I needed to excel in the doubles game. Both Shawn and I at the time were tall, athletic types who took on volleyball later in life (for me, at age 28 or so), and subsequently didn’t have any formal training on teams to develop skills. Neither Shawn nor I was comfortable hand-setting, so about 90 percent of our sets were bump sets, even when there was a ton of time to square up to a ball to hand set. Neither of us, in spite of our height, was an exceptional blocker, and as a result, we would rarely commit to blocking, instead relying on quick reads and throwing block signals at the last possible moment, with the down person running a best guess defense. I would say in these years, we would block at most 25 percent of the time, falling out of blocks and doubling down at mid-court, challenging hitters to beat us that way. We never spoke of these unorthodox decisions; it just wound up being what we did, letting our reaction and athleticism dictate our success or failure. I’m sure we were unlike most any team our opponents encountered, and probably, if given time, could be dissected easily.
However we differed in fundamental ways that, as I look back made our play so interesting. Shawn, if asked would say his best feeling in a game would come when he smashed a ball down so hard it would bounce 15 feet in the air through whatever defense was put up. I on the other hand felt best when someone like Shawn on the other team would hit like that, yet I would dig the ball clean. He wanted to punish; I wanted to rob them of their best effort. That kind of chemistry was a magic that only we shared. I had good twitch reflex back then, and would play a step back and lunge forward. Shawn stayed back a bit more, and whereas I would cover more than half the court in the front, he would do so in the back. This resulted in digs for him that gave him time to run up on approach, and my digs would offer me little approach and become more a finesse game when I had to hit.
Shawn had a powerful outside hit. We were both lefties, and he preferred weak side. If his timing was on and the sets were there, he could hold his own against any hitter I remember us facing. He rarely did anything else, a slugger through and through. But when it works it works, and I would bump set and scamper to dig blocks which most always would come on my side anyway since he hit angle more times than not. But he was hard to block. I didn’t have near the strength or form. I could hit, but needed a better set, was more prone to be blocked and I’m sure I hit line as often as cross. I relied on placement to supplement, and this also kept my body a little fresher for running around like a nut. I was forced to watch how the other team played, and adjust my game as I saw habits. I can’t say this was strategy by design, rather it was to supplement shortcomings. Shawn was the stronger of us two, but as is the strategy in doubles, the weak person gets most of the serves and has to do most of the siding out, so it was always important to me that I at least looked as imposing as Shawn, so even if I didn’t have the raw power, it would take other teams at least a game to figure it out. Not that I was a slouch by any means, but that’s how doubles works.
Shawn was a competitor. He wanted to win badly always, and provided us the drive to win. I had more of a casual mentality, seeing games as more of a challenge than anything else, and whereas I liked winning, never had a killer instinct. I think maybe I did want to win just as much, but never had confidence in my abilities frankly, and pawned it off as if I didn’t care as much. I guess there’s some psychology to look into there. Sure, we would talk each other up when we got into ruts, as is bound to happen throughout the day or the season, but we were neither the type that yelled at each other (I had some partners like that, and my response to being yelled at was a basic, F you, it’s only a game shutdown) Shawn knew how to deal with me, and keep me interested in the win. I never thought we were the best team on the net; he ALWAYS thought we were. Looking back I probably was playing above my level in a way to prove to him that I could do it.
Finally, Shawn was a preparer. He had the tent, the cooler, the multiple balls, the Oakley’s and the spare Oakley’s ,the towels, medicine, bandages, braces, food, chairs, a case of water, and the wife who took pictures and movies all day and pretty much every comfort there was. He even registered us. I, in turn brought a towel, sunglasses and a spare shirt. I travelled light. I never thanked him for all that stuff. Thanks, Shawn.
I had a light stomach, when I played, which led to problematic fatigue if matches lasted too long. I would drink Gatorade and water, but normally any food would make me sluggish and feel worse. If events offered food, I would need to eat sparingly, and never unless we had some serious down time. I remember for the Rumble, I brought a bag of Smarties candy. That’s more than I usually brought, content on riding the day out and eating when we were done. Shawn and Ali packed enough supplies to eat for 3 days. I believe one of the secret factors on my part for the 99 Rumble was that it lasted so long..from 6 AM to 10 PM, and we had such a lull between pool play and playoffs, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 hours, that I actually had the time to eat a full meal, hydrate, and digest. Sure we were stiff from waiting, but the day was so hot and humid that it didn’t take long to stretch out again. And boy was it hot that day.
I’d love to write about our finals match being this epic, hard fought battle of attrition, but truthfully, it was anything but that. We really just played consistently, while the other team imploded. I can’t offer a reason why it happened, and frankly I remember in my eyes conceding the win before we began, as this team looked far better than any team I had seen all day, and our semi-final match was such a war. They were young guys who obviously played ball in high school and/or college, with soft handset ability and an arsenal of presumed tricks and power. I was running on a reserve tank of adrenaline by that time, and my effort was far more robotic. I remember telling Shawn before the game that we could be proud just being here this far, and that there would be no shame in losing. How’s that for a booster speech? He looked at me and gave me a “What the fuck, we can win it! Do you want to lose to them ?” reply which is just what I needed. I hated the other team. I hated how they looked, how they acted, and I hated their gaggle of annoying friends that stayed to watch them win. I wasn’t normally that way, so it took a certain attitude to make me delight in another team’s misery. And I remember, after one point we got, where I did a reverse bump at the net on a wayward ball that was at a hard angle and they didn’t even try for it, that, “Hey we’re at 7-1. It would really take us falling apart at this point not to win this”, and how confusing, somewhat frightening and surreal that felt. “Don’t over-think it, Rich….let them make mistakes…Shawn’s serving hard and in…just don’t fuck up, and play consistent”, that was what was racing through my mind. Consistancy…pass the ball as precise as you can..keep your feet light…be ready…I hope this is over soon….
The real game, the real finals was in fact our semi-finals match. We had just come off beating a team that we lost to a year ago, that I was proud to have beaten now in the playoffs, and anything after that point was just gravy to me. This new team was a wicked combo, of a 40 year old guy who had the skills of our friend Brian Eisele, a cerebral player (and well-respected mentor) if ever there was one, and a 20 something athlete guy who ran the back, played defense well, and could hit out of anywhere. The older guy happily fed the younger guy, and neither was weak so there was no better play in most circumstances. That, and the encroaching darkness meant that it was easy to lose points that otherwise we shouldn’t have, and the breaks didn’t start out going our way. We were asked if we wanted to move under the lights when it was about 9-6 and we were down. That’s only 2 points of wiggle room. And I remember at that moment, and only that moment ever in my career that I vowed to myself to play my absolute hardest. Without exaggeration, I believe we faced at least 12 match points during our comeback, and held up to the insane pressure that is on to execute perfectly to keep it going. We didn’t waver from our normal routine, we just tried that little bit harder, and that was what was needed.
We were in the center court under the lights; the first and only time I ever wound up there. It was funny in general, earlier in the day there were literally thousands of people at the Rumble, with stands at center court, music blaring, announcements being made over the loudspeaker, and a ton to do and see during your down time. There were food stands, a massage tent, and an apparel stand for souvenir wearables. It was a carnival sports atmosphere; the biggest I’ve ever been part of. People would stop by our tent to check on our progress, we would go visit others as well…I even remember a friend of mine, Rod, swinging by to tell us he just completed his first skydiving jump there in Pottstown earlier in the day. Plenty of sight-seeing and people-watching. One by one though, as the day closed out, so did the people, and one by one coolers were packed up and drug out and well-wishes and good lucks were given, the tents were closed down, until now, the one time we were in the big time, center court, there were only about thirty people left in the entire place, and only about ten were paying any attention to us…the rest closing up shop, and readying for the co-ed day that followed on Sunday. Our division was huge, and by the time we were forced to play our best ball, we were left almost alone to do it on a hot, sterile, and totally quiet night. We were the only game playing anymore. If you were the type who played to showcase for the masses, this wasn’t the place to be. It was easy, in fact, to start wondering what the point of it all was, if you dared to stop long enough to reflect.
I’m sure there were many, many moments that were inspiring, but this was the one play that sticks out in my mind for me, if I could replay one in my life. Facing a match point, Shawn belted one line, or more line than normal to side us out…hell, maybe it was a bad set of mine and he poked it, and they came back over in one or quick two, over his head as he came down at the net, into the corner behind him. I don’t know if it was cheap or not, whether he hit it that hard and that was the result, or if they were trying to get things over with then and there. Either way, it was match point and would count. It was in the back 3 foot by 3 foot corner. If you’ve never played, when your partner comes down at the net and the ball is coming back over, that whole court is yours. And the court at that moment is a very big place. I got to that ball. I don’t know how we sided it out, if Shawn went over in 2 from whatever I did, or if we had time to set it up, or what. It wasn’t some crazy kind of sand dig that sent me diving or flying either, and if I bothered to look for it, I’m sure it wouldn’t be anything for a highlight film. My momentum took me off the court quite a bit and to the colored flags that surrounded center court. I remember as I was running to that ball, looking at Shawn for a split second when I started tracking it, and shoulders slumped as he was turning around, clearly the visible tell that he believed we were beaten. I would have yelled something like Go! Or Got it! normally, but I was running diagonally across the court, and when I did get wrists on the ball, hooked it high up and back somewhere, I barely got out a grunt, more like just a nasal Brahma Bull exhale. As I spun, I saw Shawn tense back up and come to life when he knew there was still work to do, and now it was on him. It was more the one moment I executed coverage on something unconventional and unexpected because I really, really wanted to win. “If we lose, I don’t want it to be on this ball…because the only reason would be because I was too lazy to run this one down.” (at least this is how I remember it….time has a way of playing tricks, and if this wasn’t game point, I’d be surprised, but not surprised…but it certainly did happen)
Anyway, the game raged on into the night, and finally I dug a championship point on their attempt to side out, but it wasn’t controlled and looked to be a high straight drop onto the net on Shawn’s side. And he reached up and knuckled it; a super smart move, just enough to make the older guy flounder. It was a brutal game, and one that I’ll never forget. We were so tired, and there was still one to go…
And then we won it all. It was a short lopsided game in comparison. We weren’t stellar. We were composed. We didn’t show off, or act up, or behave foolishly. We were tired, and that probably was a saving grace, as there was little left for me to have any real nervousness in a finals of an event this size. All that was left was the robotic approach of passing yet another serve, lining up to hit, getting back to position…looking at eyes and hand angles. But truthfully, they hit into the net a lot, couldn’t handle our serves, and I don’t really remember getting bombarded in any way. They didn’t have a finesse game, or didn’t break it out, and the one knucklehead lost his composure and cost them everything. His partner wasn’t great either, but couldn’t handle the other guys’ outrage and mistakes. The game point serve was Shawn’s crowning moment as a player. He changed up his serve to the rage boy and picked on his partner who was sliding over to help out.
To relive it, I was at the middle of the net, crouched and flashing some meaningless hand signal, both Shawn and I knowing full well I had no intention of blocking anyone and was soon to fall back.
“This”, I muttered.
Shawn replied “Yeah” so quickly, it was apparent to me at least that he wasn’t even pretending to be looking anymore, not that it mattered. So I stared ahead at their faces, watching the angry guy who was gearing up for the tough topspin cannon serve that was to follow. His buddy was a step away from center by now since his friend was having such trouble.
“Serve.”, I heard from behind me.
And then the strangest thing happened. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ball hit, at least 3 quarters in on the line to my left, at about half court on their side. I wasn’t even looking there. Shawn had floated one in; probably the first and only time all day. I was looking at them, and when I glanced at it, and back at them, they both kind of grimaced or smirked and turned around. My mind raced quizzically…Did I have the score wrong? It wouldn’t be that surprising. Back then in the sideout scoring days, it was easy to lose track. No. Weren’t they ready? Was there some timeout? They had seemed ready. Did the ball hit the net? I should have heard it more than anyone if it did. I looked back, bleary and said, “What?”
Shawn had this glazed look and a bit of a bemused chuckle. About as subdued and anti-climactic as it could be uttered, he said, “Dude, we won.”
There was no cannon going off; no chorus of cheers, no fireworks… just the quiet, hot night.
I was the last one on the court to know it was over, and I saw the ball hit. That’s how fooled they were.
I don’t think we bothered shaking their hands afterwards. There were no kind words for them. We won the night.
Shawn and I gave each other the double-high five, which is all the more two men can show that kind of congratulatory mood, although if I had to do it again, it warranted the back slap man-hug, but we were sweaty and who wants to remember that? I was proud, and it felt strange, and didn’t really sink in until I was talking about it on the way home. It wasn’t as if anyone saw any of this, and I knew no one would want to hear a self-serving recap (such as this); as a matter of fact, the only real reply we ever gave to those who knew we were playing, was “Yeah, we won it”, so this feeling would wind up being the reward. We each won volleyballs I think, which was pretty piss poor if you ask me for all the entry fees and teams. But trophies were made for us anyway, and I keep mine on my dresser to this day.
In closing, and this is more reminiscent of a brief volleyball career of mine in the rear view mirror, I like to think about something a friend of ours, Jim, recalled reading about the dynamics of teams, and how it affected me. He read that successful volleyball teams have unwritten roles for the players (we all played triples a bunch and quads), and we fit in these categories. The Stud (Shawn), who was the raw power guy other teams feared, who we lived and died by, the Field General (Jim), who strategized and used his knowledge of the game to work the team and exploit weaknesses, and the Stabilizer (Me). And the Stabilizer definition may not mean much to some, but became my mantra from then on in. The Stabilizer (or so I am paraphrasing) was rarely the reason a team won a match, or a tournament…..but he was never the reason they lost. I could not have been happier in that role, and hope that as we look back to those days of our wayward youth, that those who were in the mix remember me as just that.
I’d put this up there as one of my life’s favorite days.