Jen and I have been playing an indoor co-ed volleyball league all winter. We wrapped up the season last month and our team had a good season, ending up as third of twelve teams. As soon as the season ended, we badgered the league’s organizer to make sure our bracket (the top level) played as early in the tournament as possible due to Jen’s pregnancy. The first tournament date was April 10th, so we spent most of Sunday playing volleyball.
So, we played our best and won the tournament, right? Not exactly. We started out playing much as we had all season, which is to say, competent, but not well. The tournament was double elimination so we started by winning our first game, and then losing the next two. Losing our first match set us up for the long road through the losers bracket before we could get a chance to play the top team for the winners seat.
After losing our first match, we started fighting, a little. Our lot in life was knocking all the other teams out of the tournament by handing them their second defeat. Our next couple matches were difficult. We played three games in each match, losing one but narrowly winning two games. Simply put, we played just well enough to avoid ultimate defeat. However, during those first three matches, we slowly began achieving something we hadn’t achieved all season, synergy. As the day went on, our team play got better and better.
Late in the day, we had earned our right to battle against the top team. Their first match was a bye so they were well rested, having played no more than 6 games in their two matches. We got to watch them play one game. Comparatively, we had already played 11 games in 4 matches. That’s what I mean by “the long road” through the losers bracket. We would have to beat the top team twice, meaning at least 4 and possibly six more games.
Having watched them, we identified their biggest threat and devised a plan to control him. Our plan was simple. Their big hitter was super fast, with an explosive attack to the net. We watched for it early and double blocked both their hitters on every swing. Here was the critical difference. As contrasted to our regular season blocking, our blocking matured dramatically during the tournament. It wasn’t just one of us blockers that got better, nearly every one of us did. Karl, Rhonda, Eric, and I all stepped up our blocking and put the smack-down on the hitters. We started it in our third match, employed it well during the fourth, and by the time we got to our fifth and sixth matches against the top team, we used it so well that we effectively shut down their offensive weapons.
As we kept blocking, their big guns were pulling back off the net, hitting from mid-court, and doing a lot more placement instead of big swings. We had one team shut us down mercilessly in regular season by blocking our every hit. This time I got to watch the block from our side and I’m beginning to understand just how critical the block at the net is. An effective block forces their offense to settle for a less intense attack. It’s easier for us to defend and get up a good pass to the setters. As our passes improved, our setting picked up, and so did our hitting. Our little guns were credible weapons and our big guns pounded them relentlessly.
We won the first match in 2 successive games. We didn’t just beat them, we demoralized them. In the second match, they commented, “maybe we should just sit over on the bleachers and watch you finish up.” The very same ladies that fed Jay set after set when he subbed in for them during the regular season were ready to pronounce him one of the devil’s own for pounding so many successive balls at them. “It’s not all about power”, they’d snide. They were feeling helpless, and we were riding the tides of victory. Our last 4 games were our easiest, and we won them by substantial margins.
We played from 1 to 7PM, with only one break between our first and second matches. We closed out the day by winning our 15th and final game, handing the 4th consecutive defeat to the leagues top rated team. For me, the victory was bigger than the tournament. I saw us achieve a level of unity our team had lacked all year, and we all played our best, together.