April 17, 2016 — Day 8: Volleyball

I’ve gotten very into playing volleyball over the course of the last year or two. It began a few years back when I joined a team with a few people from Manda’s work as well as Manda and her sister. We played at a bar called K Ranch in Cudahy and we were truly awful. That was to be expected, most of us hadn’t played in many years, and even then most of our experience was playing recreationally in high school. I played only one other time after high school, in a recreational league at UW-Madison. Back then our focus was mostly on getting drunk before playing, so I don’t recall how well we did. I suspect that the answer is not very well at all. That league was also on a hard court gym floor, which is surprisingly different from playing sand/beach volleyball like I do now.

Eventually the K Ranch team disbanded…we were pretty loosely affiliated with some of the team members, but the experience certainly whetted our appetite for volleyball. The next step in our volleyball journey was at Tracks Tavern in Riverwest — where we immediately bit off much more than we could chew. K Ranch was not very competitive compared to some other places, as we quickly learned. We added a few stronger teammates, as well as some newcomers, and signed up for B League at Tracks (A League is highest skill, C League is lowest). Even with the stronger players capable of proper three hit techniques (bump, set, spike) we quickly learned we were heavily overmatched in nearly every game we played. This lead to a lot of frustration for the stronger players we had brought on and by the time the season was over we all knew they wouldn’t be playing with us again. I certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to play with us anymore — who wants to lose every game and play with players well below your skill level? It was time to try a different strategy.

We reconfigured the team once again and brought on some new players who were more in-line with our skill level (when I say “our” I’m referring to Manda, Manda’s sister, my friend Glenn, and myself — we were the players left after the B League debacle). This time we tempered our ambitions and moved down to C League where we could actually learn how to play a bit instead of simply getting stomped in every match. Much to my own frustration we didn’t fare too well in C League when we started out either.

At this point the team consisted of Manda, Jamie, Cassi, Julianna, Paul, Glenn, Brandon, and myself. This was finally a lineup that worked for us (mostly, we’ve occasionally beefed over things…mostly my fault, which we’ll get to). Our first season together at the Tracks was the late summer / early fall league in 2014. We didn’t do too well:

Well, I guess I should say we didn’t too well at the volleyball part, where we went went a pretty awful 3–10 in our matches. We won our league’s beer pitcher drinking race though, so the season wasn’t a total disaster!

In retrospect, its ok that we struggled at this point. We had just begun playing together and it was obvious it was going to take time for us to figure out how to play volleyball correctly, let alone do it as a cohesive unit. We started improving, slowly, but at least it was something.

We made a big mistake for Spring League in 2015…we didn’t sign up early enough to play at Tracks. Luckily we found a spot at Fat Daddy’s in Walker’s Point. It was also at this point we made one final roster change, swapping out Julianna for Courtney. Fat Daddy’s was convenient for Manda and I since we live within walking distance, but the rest of the team was not pumped. Once again, we were not quite up to the challenge of C League. We were all too raw as volleyball players to really compete, but once again we continued to develop our skills. Unfortunately Fat Daddy’s doesn’t have the records from 2015 on their website anymore, but I can guarantee you we won no championships. In fact, I believe we missed the playoffs for the second season in a row.

We made sure to sign up for late summer league at Tracks very early. Tracks is just an all around better place to hang out. Their volleyball setup may not be as nice at Fat Daddy’s, but they have a better atmosphere, an amazing staff, and a menu that includes more than just frozen pizza. All of the time we had spent simply learning how to play volleyball began to start paying off once we moved back to Tracks as well:

We improved to a respectable 6–8 in our matches, and actually did even better than that in score differential, sitting at 917–913! We also dramatically improved our beer consumption and absolutely dominated the pitcher race, drinking 209 pitchers of beer. Most importantly, we made the playoffs as the 4 seed and lost very respectably to the 1 seed, taking one game and dropping 2 in our semifinal playoff match. We were finally getting kinda good, at least for C League!

But good maybe wasn’t enough for some of us…by which I mean me. I have a tendency to be overly competitive and much too vocal with my criticisms of others. I often lose track of the fact that we are playing in a recreational bar league and that some of our players may not take winning quite as seriously as I do. I don’t want to imply that they don’t want to win and get better, but I don’t think they want to do it at the expense of having fun. Sometimes I don’t care so much about having fun with my friends on the court, I want to win — haven’t we been taught that winning is how you have fun? At least that’s the lesson I feel like I’ve learned over the years…I want to be better than others at what I do, sometimes at the expense of their feelings. And there isn’t really a place for that kind of harsh behavior in recreational bar sports. If we were an A League team competing intensely week after week that would be one thing, but it doesn’t make sense most of the time in C League. So I’ve done and said some things that have royally pissed off some of my teammates. I’m working on being better about it, but its definitely a work in progress.

Luckily for me things may get easier on me since we are finally starting to get good enough to challenge the best C League teams. After summer league ended in October (brr, some of those games got really cold) we decided we wanted to keep playing over winter rather than wait until April. So, we signed up at Libby Montana’s, where there are indoor courts and winter leagues. Things have been up and down at various points this season, but one thing that gives me a lot of confidence about the future of our team is how much better we’ve gotten and continue to get at using all three hits. For a long time our primary strategy consisted of getting the ball over the net in as few hits as possible because our bumping and setting was so unreliable. We needed to reduce the number of chances we had to make mistakes in order to stay alive in many of our games. We wanted to reduce the variance on our side of the net and maximize it for the other team. The problem with this is that it makes it very difficult to line up good shots — we were pretty good at getting the ball over, but we didn’t always make it very hard on the other team. We needed to start working spiking into our routine. We’ve all been making a lot of progress on our bumping, setting, and spiking, and we are finally getting to the point where we can produce more difficult to return shots for our opponents. Much of this is still a rough work in progress, but its allowed us to get better to the extent that we are sometimes beating teams 3–0, depending on the week.

The Tracks Spring 2016 league started this week and we’ve started out strong at 3–0 in our games and 1–0 in matches. My ultimate hope is that we can win the C League championship in spring league. Then we can consider if we want to take another stab at B League. We might be ready this time.