Adventures from Back of Beyond

Friday, September 11, 2009

In the Zone

Volleyball is a big part of my life, even out here in the hinterlands of Back of Beyond.

I learned to play the competitive skill version of the sport on the beaches and gymnasiums of Southern California. Although I lacked the benefits of training under a true coach, I learned the game by playing, by doing it. And I love volleyball for what it is -- a highly skilled sport involving athleticism, strategy, the fun of competition, and camaraderie of team.

Here in Back of Beyond, I was involved in organizing the first local volleyball league, and watched that league grow up and produce more teams with increasingly better players.

Our team, which my good friend Brian and I co-captained, invariably had the same core of players. Not just good players, but also positive people that we liked and who loved the sport like we did. We all got along well.

As the years went by, our stiffest competition came from a team sponsored by a timeshare company, Sunterra. Like us, they were ultra-competitive, and hated to lose. But one key difference was they'd start sniping at one another if they weren't doing well; we'd never do that.

Sunterra was a good team, with good skilled players. We could beat them, but we had to be at the top of our game. I credit them for helping us to raise the level of our game. One tournament in particular illustrates this.

Sunterra and our team were consistently the two best teams in the league. In this particular post-league tournament, which was double elimination, we wasted one of our losses early on by being defeated by a much lesser team. It happens. We weren't focused.

But we came back and defeated everyone else to reach the finals against Sunterra. Because it was double elimination, if we lost even one game we were out. So the way it worked out, we had to beat them in three consecutive games, and they came into the finals brimming with confidence. Perhaps overconfident.

In the first game, Sunterra chose to sit Rico, their best player. That was a bit presumptuous we thought. Lack of respect.

We beat them.

In the second game, Sunterra put Rico on the floor with their best players to finish us off.

We beat them again.

By this time we had momentum. Volleyball is a game of momentum, and with two reasonably matched teams, the momentum usually switches back and forth several times.

But we grabbed the momentum in that first game and never gave it up. They couldn't get it back no matter what they tried. Our team got into a zone. All of us together, and it was sweet.

A zone is a mental state, a mind-set of clarity; it's also a physical state of moving, of flowing freely and naturally. It is wonderful. Most often you hear about basketball players getting into a zone, where they just can't miss shot after shot. Somehow in this match all of us found the zone together, and to share that as a team is just indescribable. Must be experienced to be appreciated.

I clearly remember the final game of that tournament. It was close to 11 p.m., we had played for several hours straight. We all had to work the next day. I should have been tired after having played that long -- but I was not. I was, in fact, gaining strength and focus as the evening wore on. It came easily, effortlessly.

In the zone.

This final game, winner take all, would be shortened because it was the third of the set. I at first thought it would go to 11 points.

I rotated into serving position at 10, and was determined to finish them off. With me serving, this was our strongest line-up. Brian was at front row left, Linda in the middle setting, and Scott at front right. Shelly and Gayle were in the back row with me. This was formidable. I knew we could roll off some points.

For me, being in the zone meant no second guessing. I could confidently and precisely place hard serves where I wanted them. A tough serve in volleyball is key -- it reduces the chances of your opponent's getting a good pass and set, which then increases your chances for a block or an easy return.

I served a point at 10, and started celebrating. I thought it was over.

It was not. Somehow, Tim, the referee, determined the game should go to 15. So back to the service line I went, still as determined as ever.

We rolled off 3 more points. They couldn't stop us. We had the momentum and they couldn't get it back. It was excellent.

Now it was game point, with me still serving. I looked down as I bounced the ball a few times for rhythm, then took a quick glance up at their positioning. I quickly looked back down so as to not telegraph what I'd do with the serve.

With that one quick glance I noticed something significant. Their captain, the dislikable Patty of all persons, a decent but not great player, playing the far left corner, was standing too close in by a step or two. Out of position. Why?

Was she anticipating the possibility of a short serve? Patty and Sunterra had played us long enough to learn some of my tricks. Normally I served flat hard knuckling and floating serves, precisely placed. Sometimes the ball would really float and they were hard to pick up.

But every once in awhile I'd work in a deceptive little short serve. The serving motion looked just the same and it appeared like another hard one, but at the last second I'd pull the plug and arch one gently over the net. I could get my short serves to drop like a rock within a couple feet of the net. It would fool people so bad sometimes they'd just flail out at the last second in a vain attempt to reach it, and wind up flat on the floor, a couple of feet short of the ball. They looked foolish. It was embarrassing.

I think Patty, playing in a step or two, was anticipating a short serve. They were getting nailed on everything else, and she figured "no way, not on game point is he going to make me look like a fool with that little short serve of his". So she stepped in a little.

Duly noted.

I cranked a flat hard knuckler precisely into her deep far corner. If she would've let it go I'm sure it would have been an ace. But she stiffly shuffled back a couple of quick steps, and barely got behind it.

Her pass could have, probably should have, been called a throw, a mishandled ball. But Tim let it go.

The pass floated up behind her, out of bounds. Their center row back player had to retrieve it, and they barely got the ball back over the net on their third hit.

This was game point to remember.

Brian, normally the quiet kid from Minnesota, almost shouted (something he never did), "that's it!"

It was a statement of finality. He knew after a long night, this was it. I think it was also his way of calling for the ball, something else the big guy in his own quiet way never did.

Our setter, Linda, had an uncanny way of reading the defense and knowing which players were on, and would pick and choose her spots to set.

She set Brian. A high tight set near the outside antenna. They had two blockers up, but little room to maneuver since it was so tight to the end.

Brian went up and expertly hit it down and off the block. It went out of bounds.

Point. Game. Match. Tournament.

Afterwards, we went to my house where I just happened to have a couple of cases of beer. We drank most of it in celebration, even though it was nearing midnight and we all had to work the next day. We wanted to keep the focus, the team spirit. We wanted to stay in the zone, together, as long as possible.


  • amazing story of competition and camaraderie

    By Anonymous Max, at 3:48 PM  

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