Kills, Spikes and Jousts: Volleyball is Not For the Faint of Heart

BELGRADE, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Maeva Orle of France smashes as Brizitka Molnar of Serbia blocks during the women Volleyball European Championship match between Serbia and France on September 24, 2011 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Over the next few days, several Volleyball Clubs from the Seattle and Puget Sound area will head to Columbus, Ohio to compete in the Girls National Championship Tournament.

I hope I don't pull a hamstring jumping to this conclusion, but I think most of us that love sports or who grew up loving sports, also grew up playing them in some manner, from Little League to Pop Warner, soccer to golf. Even if your DNA never allowed to you dunk, or throw a curve, or hit the fairway, maybe you joined the neighborhood in the occasional game of, well, whatever you played. Ours was a form of stickball, with a rectangular playing field and at least one of the bases was a rhododendron bush. I don't remember all of the rules, but it was ours, and we played with solemn pride.

Inevitably, time took us away from those games. School got hard, life got real, work got serious; and instead of living doors down from teammates, we started living time zones away. Knees started to ache, our glasses started slipping from our noses, and all of the sudden our first step wasn't there anymore. But somehow, the memories of those competitions, those games and those times grew larger. They felt remarkable then, and grew into memories of grand achievements now.

Over the next few days, several Volleyball Clubs from the Seattle and Puget Sound area will head to Columbus, Ohio to compete in the Girls National Championship Tournament. These athletes are already well supplied with a long list of achievements and now have the opportunity to create even greater ones.

This region will send 16 (!) teams to compete in the tournament, which is divided by age into three levels of competition: American, National and Open. In all, the Sudden Impact Volleyball Club, the Lake Tapps Volleyball Club, Northwest Juniors, 253 Elite, the Island Thunder Volleyball Club, Power Surge out of the Spanaway Volleyball Club, 253 Elite, the Puget Sound Volleyball Academy, the Capital Volleyball Club and the Washington Volleyball Academy will send teams to compete in every age bracket of the American and National competitions. That is a simply staggering number of Western Washington Athletes headed to the tournament.

How big was your world when you were 14? This occasion provides these athletes with the opportunity to come together with players from all over the country, participate in sportsmanship and community building activities, get a tour of Ohio State University to get a glimpse of what could lie beyond high school, see their sport played at the highest level, and kindle larger dreams about what can be.

Since I still have one hamstring intact, I'll jump to another conclusion about your youthful sporting endeavors: some of you, like me, lost a lot more then you won. I grew up playing baseball and basketball around Tacoma and Pierce County. We lost epically, most of the time. There were occasional years with decent teams, and a few epic, singular triumphs. But for the most part, we were given terrific opportunities to exercise our humility. We once got a perfect game tossed against us by a kid with big coke-bottle glasses who A) didn't get a single strikeout and B) crashed his bike on his way out of the parking lot. This is a common thread for a lot of us, but not the ITVC 15 Black, based out of Mercer Island, whose Head Coach Jake Putnam filled me in on all things bump, set, spike.

They will head to Columbus to compete in the American Division at Nationals, starting Monday. This is a group of 14 and 15 year old girls who, as Coach Putnam puts, are "excited and a little nervous to go". After all, this privilege very much had to be earned. To make these teams, athletes have to survive ultra-competitive tryouts, and then sustain a schedule of at least three practices or competitions a week, during the winter and spring school months. After some disappointing results earlier in the season, the players and coaches had to have what the pro sports would call a "closed door meeting". While we expect this from professional teams, rarely do we think about how young minds and burgeoning egos might handle it. As it turns out, these ladies handled it very, very well. Refocused, and within sight of a berth at Nationals, they earned a second place finish in the regional qualifier last May, upsetting the second and third seeded teams, in a tournament called All Valley Karate Prime Time. I can almost hear Joe Esposito's You're the Best right now.

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges when dealing with young people is getting them to truly believe in what they are capable of. This applies to school, sports, arts, whatever. Coach Putnam took an unusual approach: to spark the desire to succeed, he vowed to get a tattoo when they made it to Nationals. He prophetically stopped short of promising to let them pick the tattoo as well; otherwise he would very likely be permanently inking himself with the names of ten teenage girls, which is not exactly a healthy message for a grown man. Regardless, he is headed to the tattoo shop soon, for an enduring reminder of this team's success. And while his players feel like they've managed to get one over on their coach, the truth is somewhat less impish. "Honestly, it's one of the prouder moments of my life" he says. Somehow I get the feeling he won't be so hesitant to remember this forever.

Join me in congratulating these athletes on their achievements, and in wishing them success at Nationals. You can monitor their progress on the website for the National Tournament, or learn more about USA Volleyball here.

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