Sunday, November 05, 2006


At some time in our lives most of us will have a hero to look up to. As kids it is Superman, or Batman or some other superhero. Sometimes it is a sports figure or some other famous person that is in the news. For many of us it is our parents.

I have never been much of a hero worshipper. I loved comic books when I was younger. But the heroes in them were just characters in a story. I never dreamed of growing up to be Spiderman or a member of the X-men. I have never been that enamored with politicians, movie stars or other public figures. I didn’t really get into sports until I was in college so I didn’t have to deal with childhood hero worship of sports figures. Sure there are those rare athletes that I love to watch play their game. It may have been a form of hero worship, but it may have been just the joy of watching a well trained athlete perform at the best of their abilities. I’ve had many years of pleasure watching Dr. J, Walter Payton, Payne Stewart, Carl Lewis, Chris Everett and Lance Armstrong do those things that they did so well. Did I worship those athletes? No. Did I love to watch them play? Absolutely.

I have no problem with having heroes to admire. But I have never ascribed to the idea of hero worship. I don’t buy sports memorabilia. I don’t wear jerseys or caps with my favorite player’s names or numbers on them. The only shirts or hats that I own with team logos on them were gifts, and I don’t wear them very often. I love sports and the athletes that play those sports. Today, I have 8 new heroes that I won’t ever worship, but I love watching them play their sport more than any professional athlete I have ever seen.

Yesterday my volleyball teams and I along with the best group of parents I have ever dealt with, traveled the 30 miles over the hill and through Poison Canyon to Trona, CA. The last two years Trona has hosted our local middle school post season volleyball tournament. This tournament is growing each year. Three years when Saint Ann’s hosted this tournament there were only 5 or 6 teams in each of the 8th and 7th grade divisions. Over the last two years involvement in this tournament has expanded to 11 teams in each of the two divisions this year. This meant that we were in for a very long day.

I took three teams to the tournament. This was really stretching things though. I started the season with 18 girls to play volleyball. So I decided to play three teams – a 6th grade team, a 7th grade team and an 8th grade team. However after two weeks I had two girls quit because the program was too hard. So that left me with six 6th grade players, six 7th grade players and four 8th grade players. My 8th grade team played all their games this season with the four 8th grade players and several different combinations of 6th and 7th grade players filling the two open spots on their team.

Since we had promised to take all three teams to Trona at the beginning of the season we stuck to our word and took three teams comprised of 15 girls with us on Saturday. The sixth and seventh grade teams were in the seventh grade division and my “eighth” grade team in the eighth grade division. It was a very busy day for several of my players. During the course of this tournament I had 8 different sixth and seventh grade players play games in both divisions of this tournament. When the day started the only four athletes on my team who were sure of their playing positions were my four eighth grade players who knew they would only be playing in the eighth grade division.

My sixth grade team, which we took to this tournament just to get them some experience for next year played some good games. They were eliminated from the tournament after the pool play portion with a 1-5 record. What impressed me most were their five losses. They were only blown out of one of those games. In one game they came roaring back from an 8 point deficient to lose in overtime. These girls are going to be a good base for my seventh grade team next year. Two of my sixth grade players played in (and won) one of the eighth grade pool play games. Four of my sixth grade players started one of the seventh grade team’s pool play games when the rest of the seventh grade team was helping the eighth grade team win their most important pool play game.

I asked a lot of my seventh grade team yesterday. At one time or another every athlete on that team played in more than one game with one of the other teams. My seventh grade team went 6-0 in pool play and won a bye in the first round of the afternoon bracket play. In the semifinals of the afternoon brackets I started to see signs of the aggressive schedule they had played that day start to show. They started the game slow and let their opponents get a seven point lead at one point. Eventually they got themselves into the game. They finally settled into their offensive system and started passing, setting and spiking and eventually cruised into win to send them to the finals against a team from Edwards AFB that we had beaten earlier that day in the pool play portion of the tournament. The finals were a different story all together. I used my first timeout when we were down 0-4. I used my second timeout when the score was 1-9. My players were playing in a panic. There was a lot of movement but no action on the court. Their biggest problem was that they had abandoned everything they spent the last 3 months learning. They stopped passing and setting and were just sending every ball they hit over the net. On the back of 8 straight service aces we finally managed to close the gap in the score but eventually lost the game 21-25. This left my seventh grade team with second place in the tournament. Second place is a great accomplishment, but, for a team that had dominated every local team they faced this season they took it pretty hard. I have to take the blame for the loss. First because I always say that when they win, they get the credit and when they lose, it’s because I didn’t prepared them well enough. Today that was very true. I just never could find the right way to train them to prepare for teams that were better than our local competition.

Once the seventh grade finals ended I was ready to step onto the court to celebrate a second place finish with my team but seeing the disappointment, the tears and the despair in their eyes I changed tactics in a heart beat and decided to do a little preparation for next year. I circled up the girls and facing the tears and upset I asked them one question “How many three-hit offensive plays did you attempt in that game?” Immediately both my setters replied “None.” I corrected them that they had actually run – one. Then I added “That is why you lost this tournament. You gave up on everything you have worked to learn for the last three months. You played this game like all the teams you have destroyed all season. That is why you lost.” Then I added “Four of you have a commitment to play with the 8th grade for two more games. But if you play like you just did out there, I have two 6th grade players sitting on the bench over there who would love to take your place, and I. Will. Sub. You. Out. In. A. Heartbeat. Got It?”

Then, without waiting for a reply I stood up straight and yelled “We just won second place! Come on, that’s a great finish to a tournament so how about some happiness here? Now let’s get in line and shake our opponent’s hands.” Then I hugged the one girl that couldn’t stop crying and herded them all to the net to shake our opponent’s hands.

Right after this game the tournament officials gathered all three remaining seventh grade teams on the court and passed out the all tournament team awards, the third, second and first place trophies and the tournament MVP award. While this was going on the last eighth grade semifinal was on the court and ready to start. Our opponents were standing on the court staring at the four players on my side that were waiting for them. They got rather wide eyed when four players broke out of the pack at the awards ceremony and started running onto the court. Three of them wearing all tournament team ribbons and the fourth carrying the second place trophy. Suddenly they all stopped and ran back off the court and left the ribbons and trophy with their teammates. Then they were back, two of them on the court and two waiting to situationally substitute into the game.

My eighth grade team went 6-0 in their pool play including a huge win over Lone Pine. Lone Pine was the two times defending champion of this tournament. They don’t play against any of our local teams during the regular season. But they show up at this tournament every year and take home the first place trophy. We had scrimmaged against Lone Pine at their gym in October and we lost 4 straight games to them. They came to our gym last Thursday for another scrimmage. We played a best 2 of 3 match with them winning the first game easily, we squeaked out a 26-24 second game win and lost the third game 12-15. When we got to the tournament all my players could talk about was that we were in the same pool as Lone Pine. Our pool play game with Lone Pine was a close one. It was probably the most watched game of the day. Both teams played well with neither team ever getting more than a two point lead. Eventually we prevailed to win that game 17-15. Followed immediately by four of my players rushing over to the seventh grade pool play game to replace the four sixth grade players that had started for them.

Now we were facing a Murray Middle School team that we hadn’t played in the regular season with the winner getting to face Lone Pine in the finals. We started off slow. I think my seventh graders hadn’t recovered from their finals loss yet. But my eighth grade players stayed with them and pushed them into performing better. Eventually they started playing like the team I’ve come to love and eventually won the game 25-21. Next up – Lone Pine.

We had a third place game buffer between our semi final and the finals. When the finals started Lone Pine was all business. They seemed to take that pool play loss to us personally and were looking for revenge. They shot out to a 3-0 lead before my girls seemed to figure out that they were in a volleyball game. From that point on the game is kind of a blur to me. We were never able to close the initial gap in the score they established. I think I aged 20 years in the 15 minutes that that game took. Nine different times Lone Pine would get a 2 point lead and told myself if we don’t get this point I’m calling time out. Each time I decided to call time out my team would win the point. So I let them go.

The game started out a lot like the seventh grade final had. My team was not running the offense they had learned to run. But with the score 2-5 my two eighth grade setters and one seventh grade hitter took over control of the team. We had several plays where they were the only three players who touched the ball and each one of plays was a textbook pass, set and spike.

Lone Pine finally called a time out when we managed to close the gap to 16-17. This gave me an opportunity to point out to my team that Lone Pine was panicking. They hadn’t set a hitter for the last 5 plays. They were sending every second hit over the net. One of my setters immediately asked “Should we back off the net then until they start spiking?” I was thrilled that she understood the implications of what I told her, but disappointed that she had to ask. I asked her what she thought? Immediately she looked at her teammates and said “Everyone off the net.” To which the other setter added “Plan on first and second hits to be freeballs. So stay back until they hit one at us.” All I could do was smile, stick my hand into the circle and say “Keep it up on three.”

Unfortunately the time out iced my server and she missed the next serve. So we went back to playing 2 or 3 down. When the game got to 20-22 my assist coach who tends to think that I don’t use my time outs enough tapped me on the shoulder and said “If they win this one, call time out”, which was the same thing I was thinking to myself for the ninth time in the game. But no sooner did she say the words and Lone Pine served into the net.

Since getting home last night I have watched the last six plays in that game video twice. I still can’t really explain what happened except this – an ace serve by my most nervous server. Two freeballs by Lone Pine and one perfect dig by my eighth grade setter followed by two textbook perfect pass-set-spikes that were put away by a five foot tall hitter who can really jump and one perfectly placed quick hit by my seventh grade hitter who had finally gotten the tears out of her eyes.

The game ended with a shot on the endline that I was sure what out, but the referee called good, and the look on the Lone Pine coaches told me she was right. My eighth grade team celebrated a 25-23 win to unseat the two time defending champions. The toughest thing I had to do all day was tell them to stop jumping around and screaming long enough to give a cheer to Lone Pine and to line up and shake their hands.

So that was a pretty long explanation of why these are my eight newest heroes.

8th Grade Champions

The five medallions are all tournament team honors earned as seventh or eighth grade team members. The small trophy is the 8th grade division tournament MVP award. How they decided which of my two setters sitting in the front row to give it to I have no idea. I am positive that if my seventh grade team had won their division the far left back row player would have been that division's MVP. If they gave such an award, she would have been the overall tournament MVP. She played in 14 full games and half of a 15th on Saturday and won all but one of them. If that is not an MVP performance I don't know what is.

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