History of the US Women’s Volleyball Team – A Strong Favorite to Win the Olympics 2012!

1955 In Mexico City, the U.S. national squad beats the Brazilian team 3-2 (15-7, 7-15, 13-15, 16-14 and 15-9) to win its first medal (silver) in the Inaugural Women’s Volleyball Tournament at the Second Pan American Games (a performance it repeats in 1959 and 1963). This medal is the first medal of any kind for the States in volleyball in an international championship.

1956 The United States of America, birthplace of volleyball, participates for the first time in the Women’s World Championships at Paris, France, along with athletes from 16 other countries (Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Netherlands, North Korea, Poland, Romania, USSR, West Germany, and the host nation).

1959 The American team finishes second in women’s volleyball at the III Pan American Games in Chicago, IL (in what may be the first women’s international volleyball tournament on U.S. soil), falling to Brazil in the finals 3-1 (15-7, 15-10, 9-15, 15-11).

1960 The national squad participates at the FIVB World Championships at Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), coming in sixth among 10 countries.

1962 America declines to compete in the World Championships in the Russian capital of Moscow in October.

1963 The IV Pan American Games (which is held every four years since 1951) are held in Brazil and serve as an Olympian qualifier for women’s volleyball. On Brazilian soil, the U.S. squad wins its third Pan American silver medal after losing to Brazil (3-1:12-15, 15-12, 15-4, 15-11) in the finals.

1964 Volleyball is admitted as an Olympian sport for the first time in the 18th Olympiad in Japan and the U.S. is one of the competitors, after Brazil announced their decision to cancel its participation as winner of the Pan American Games in 1963 (a Pre-Olympic tournament for athletes from Latin America and North America).

1964 Twelve athletes are selected for the first U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball squad. They are: Linda Murphy, Jane Ward, Jean Gaertner, Lou Galloway, Verneda Thomas, Barbara Harweth, Patti Lucas-Bright, Gail O’ Rourke, Nancy Owen, Mary Jo Peppler, Mary Margaret Perry, and Sharon Peterson.

1964 The States becomes the first country from the Americas (from Alaska to Argentina) to compete in the First Olympic Tournament, finishing in fifth place, behind Japan, USSR, Poland, and Romania.

1967 After not competing in 1962, the U.S. squad is runner-up to Japan in the 5th World Championships at Tokyo.

1967 The underdog United States volleyball team makes international headlines when they win the international tournament at the Winnipeg Pan American Games ( the country’s first Pan American gold medal in women’s volleyball and first major international title) by defeating five opponents– Canada (3-0: 15-6,15-5, 15-2), Peru (3-0:15-12, 15-8, 15-6), Mexico (3-0:15-7,15-4, 15-5), Cuba (3-0:15-8,15-8,15-10) and the defending champion Brazil (3-0:15-8,15-10,15-12). The winner gets a berth in next year’s Olympics in the metropolis of Mexico City.

1968 The Unites States sends players to the United Mexican States to compete in the Games of the 19th Olympiad. The North American country qualified for the Olympiad in the Pan American Games a year earlier.

1969 The U.S. volleyball team takes the bronze in the Inaugural Norceca (North and Central American and Caribbean regional volleyball championship) Tournament in the Mexican capital.

1970 Under the leadership of Mary Jo Peppler, the national side competes in their second consecutive FIVB World Championship in the Balkan republic of Bulgaria, placing 11th. On Bulgarian soil, Miss Pepper — a member of the first U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball squad at Tokyo’64 and 1967 Pan American Games women’s volleyball gold medalist– makes history as she is regarded as one of the top players on the planet (the first American to do so).

1971 The USA team refuses to participate in the Second Norceca Championship on Cuba.

1971 Surprisingly, the USA squad fails to qualify for the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics by finishing sixth in the VI Pan American Games at Cali ( a city in southwest Colombia, South America), after their victory over Haiti 3-0 (15-7, 15-1, 15-7).

1973 In the regional championship in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, the U.S. beats hosts (defending champion) 3-2 (15-10, 3-15, 2-15, 16-14, 15-11) to win the bronze medal, clinching America’s first appearance in the World Cup.

1973 Young-up-and-coming player Flora “Flo” Jean Hyman makes her major debut at the World University Games in the USSR/Soviet Union. Without a doubt, she will be the most famous female player in U.S volleyball history.

1973 The United States is one of 12 countries to compete in the Inaugural World Cup competition in the South American republic of Uruguay, one of the most prestigious women’s volleyball tournaments alongside the FIVB World Championship, the Grand Prix, and the Summer Games.

1973 South Korean-born Park Moo, who later was coach of the 1976 Canadian Olympic side, works with a new U.S. team.

1974 The American team -made up of six notable athletes: Paula Ditner, Leslie Knudsen, Debra Landreta, Susan Woodstra, Roxane ElĂ­as & Debbie Green– finishes 12th at the FIVB World Championship at Guadalajara (Mexico).

1974-1975 15-year-old Debbie Green becomes the youngest player in U.S history.

1975 Los Angeles (CA) hosts the IV Norceca Tournament. After defeating Mexico (3-2) and Canada (3-0), the host country finishes second in the regional championship, winning the right to compete at the 1976 Pre-Olympic Tournament in Heidelberg, West Germany.

1975 The U.S. women’s volleyball team fails to qualify for the medal round in the Seventh Pan American Games, despite defeating Mexico (the host country) 3-2 (6-15, 7-15, 15-12, 16-14, 15-11) in the first round.

1975-1984 Arie Selinger is named Head Coach of the USA Women’s Squad. Mr. Selinger has been praised by sportswriters and experts for his work with giant players, becoming an international pioneer in the sport of volleyball.

1976 After two difficult games against Bulgaria and East Germany and three victories over Switzerland, Poland, and the host Germans, the American squad, under Selinger as a head coach, fails to qualify for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games by finishing in fourth place in the Pre-Olympic Tournament at Heidelberg (Federal Republic of Germany).

1976 The Peruvian side, led by its main athlete Mercedes “Meche” Gonzalez (who later played in the state of Arizona), makes a trip to U.S. to play friendly games against the American team of Arie Selinger.

1977 In the V Norceca World Cup Qualifying in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), the U.S side — spearheaded by the top-class volleyball player Flo Hyman — takes the silver medal after losing to arch-rival Cuba 3-1 (15-2, 15-13, 8-15, 15-13).

1977 The U.S. is invited to participate in the Second World Cup in Japan.

1977 At the FIVB Volleyball World Cup in Japan’s capital city of Tokyo, America defeats Soviet Union 3-1 for the first time in U.S. volleyball history. A year ago, the USSR picked up a silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Sumer Games.

1978 Before grabbing fifth place in the Women’s World Championships on Soviet soil, America beats China 3-0 (15-13, 15-11, 15-10).

1978 Selinger’s team shocks the world with a convincing victory over Peru 3-0 in the Global Championships at Moscow, USSR. In the event, America makes history again when its athlete Flora Hyman becomes one of the world’s top female players (alongside Yuri Yokohama from Japan and Cuba’s Mercedes Perez). The last American female to win this honor was Mary Jo Peppler in the early 1970s. Miss Hyman has played more than 300 women’s volleyball matches since her official debut in 1973.

1979 The Peruvian team travels to the United States to play some matches.

1979 Despite being one of the favorites at the Pan American Games in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the States is not able to win a medal after losing to Brazil 3-2 (15-8, 7-15, 15-11,7-15 and 15-11) in the bronze-medal match.

1979 At the VI Norceca Cup on the island of Cuba, the USA squad places second, winning the right to represent Norceca in the 22nd Olympiad (a feat it repeats in 1987). An American team has not participated in the Olympian event since 1964.

1980 For the first time since 1967, the United States defeats Cuba 3-0.

1980 Due to the American boycott of the Summer Games in the USSR ( in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), the U.S. women’s Olympic team, made up of the best American athletes available, loses a chance to become an Olympic champion at Moscow (the capital of Soviet Russia), after impressive victories over Cuba (world champion and winner of the Pan American Games in 1979) and the People’s Republic of China during the last 10 months.

1981 In a historic volleyball match, the national team wins the regional championship title over the world’s number one squad, Cuba, 3-1 at Mexico City (they had spent nearly 12 years losing in the Norceca tournaments), a feat it repeats in 1983.

1981: The U.S. women’s World Cup team makes more history: For the first time in American volleyball history, the nation defeats Japan (host -country) 3-2 (15-10, 11-15, 15-13, 12-15, 15-9 ) at the FIVB World Cup. This win would have been extremely hard to imagine in the 1960s and 1970s. On October 11, 1964 America lost, 3-0 (15-1, 15-5, 15-2) to Japan at the Summer Olympics.

1981 The women’s volleyball squad of Peru makes a visit to Colorado Springs (USA’s main Olympic center) and to other cities to play important matches against the American squad of Mr. Selinger.

1981 During the III World Cup on Japanese soil, the United States national team beats South Koreans by 3-0 15-8, 15-12, 15-6; its first-ever win over South Korea.

1981 In Japan, the star of the U.S. women’s volleyball team is the African-American Flo Hyman, one of the most charismatic players in the history of sport. A 9-year member of the U.S. women’s national team beginning 1973, she paves the way for future champions in the United States of America.

1982 The United States beats China by 3-1 in the first round before falling 3-0 to Peru in the semi-finals of World Championship in the Peruvian capital of Lima. Nonetheless, Selinger’s team continues to make volleyball history as the first North American squad to capture a world medal (bronze), following a win over Japan, who dominated women’s volleyball for a decade.

1982 For the first time in US volleyball history, Miss Rita Crockett and her fellow American Flo Hyman are named to the All-Tournament Team in Peru, beating out teammate Debbie Green, Mercedes “Mamita” Perez of Cuba and the Peruvian-born Raquel “Chunga” Chumpitaz for the award.

1983 Giant Rose Mary Magers (who stands 1,90m tall) makes her first appearance on the U.S. national team.

1983 South Korean-born American player Debbie Green (1,63m-tall) is replaced by the less-experienced Carolyn Becker (1,84m-tall) as an official setter. By the mid-1970s, Miss Green was the first Asian-American player to make the U.S. volleyball senior national team. Despite her short stature, she was one of the top setters in American volleyball history.

1983 The captain Flo Hyman and her fellow Americans are on a tour of Cuba to play seven matches (six wins and one losses), becoming one of the first American amateur teams to visit Castro’s island since the late 1950s. Seventy years ago, the United States had introduced the game of volleyball to the island of Cuba.

1983 The Soviet-trained Cuban athletes, led by their world-class players Mireya Luis Hernandez and Josefina Capote, make a travel to the United States to play eight matches (USA won all matches).

1983 The VIII Norceca Championship is held in Indianapolis (IN) with the home country beating Cuba 3-0 (15-4, 15-9, 15-13) in the finals. They, with its new young star Rose Magers, become the first U.S. team to win back-to-back Norceca titles.

1983 At the Varna Cup in Bulgaria (one of the most notable international events on Earth), America — the world’s top-ranked squad- places first, following wins over the People’s Republic of China (3-0) and the Soviet Union (3-0), respectively.

1983 In the most glorious international match in volleyball history, Cuba beats the U.S. 3-2 (17-15, 15-7, 11-15, 9-15, 15-10) for the IX Pan American Games gold medal in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas; the nation’s first Pan American medal in 16 years. A marathon game where the global star Flo Hyman is overshadowed by the 16-year-old Cuban volleyball prodigy Mireya Luis Hernandez (who stands 1,76m tall, but with a jump of 3,39 meters over the net), a key-player during the match. Days ago, the U.S. had defeated Cuba 3-1 (16-14, 16-14, 11-15, 16-14) in the first round; it was the first defeat for a Cuban women’s volleyball squad in the Pan American Games since 1971. The North American nation also had wins over five other squads: Canada (3-0), Venezuela (3-0), Brazil (3-1), Argentina (3-0), and Peru (3-0).

1983 Despite being defeated by Cuba at the IX Pan American Games in August, the USA team becomes the top ranked volleyball team in the world and big favorite to win the gold medal at the 1984 Summer Games.

1984 The U.S. squad is preparing for the 1984 Los Angeles Games! The team embarks on a worldwide tour to play several international games– Far East, Eastern Europe, and South America.

1984 As a host nation, the North American team competes in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

1984 Arie Selinger leads the U.S. women’s squad to a silver medal at the 1984 L.A. Summer Olympics. The Los Angeles Games represented the culmination of Selinger’s 10-year project to remake the American side (first women’s volleyball squad in U.S. history to win an Olympian medal). In California, the United States is the only country to have both its squads (men and women) advance to the finals.

1984 California-born athlete Flo Hyman and nine teammates, among them Debbie Green, Rita Crockett, and Susan Woodstra, retire from international competition upon winning a silver at the Los Angeles Games. Miss Hyman was the most outstanding female player in U.S. volleyball history. In her outstanding career, she was nicknamed “the Black giraffe” for her tall (1,96m/6 ft 5 in) at a time when had not giant players in the world of volleyball. In those years, Hyman and her fellow Americans won a bronze in the global tournament by defeating long-time champion Japan in a historic volleyball match. Previously, they had earned a spot in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. By 1981, the national team was undefeated in five games at the Tokyo World Cup, beating Japan 3-2 for the first time. In the latter half of the 1980s and 1990s, Hyman was an inspiration to many world-class players such as Rose Magers, Gabriela “Gaby” Perez del Solar Cuculiza of Peru and Cuba’s Olympic champions Regla Torres and Magaly Carvajal.

1985 With an almost entirely different roster, the United States finishes last in the South Korea Cup (an unofficial championship) in Seoul, after losing its three games (Japan, Canada, and the Republic of Korea).

1985 The national team wins the Taurus Cup at Hungary, an international event with five teams (America, Japan, Italy, France, and the host Hungarians).

1985 The States, under a new national coach, fails to qualify for the 1985 World Cup (in Far East) for the first time by finishing second in the Continental tournament at Santiago de los Caballeros (Dominican Republic).

1985 The global star Rose Magers, who won her country’s first Olympian women’s volleyball gold medal at L.A in 1984, earns a spot on the World All-Star Team (alongside Ute Oldenburg of East Germany, Cecilia Tait of Peru, Japan’s Kumi Nakada, Heloisa Roese from Brazil, and other top players from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Italy and Asia), making her the first American female to earn that honor.

1986 The U.S. squad qualifies for their sixth straight FIVB World Championship (not World Cup) in the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, placing 10th.

1986 Japanese-based player Flo Hyman, who was one of the U.S. women’s top players between 1973 and 1984, passes away in Tokyo. After the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, she became one of the first American players to play outside of the United States and one of the first to sign a professional volleyball contract in Far East at a time when many players could not compete as professionals in the Olympics.

1986 The United States Olympic Committee sends volleyball players to the First Goodwill Games on Russian soil.

1987-2004 The Flo Hyman Memorial Award, named after the former Olympian player, is given annually by the Women’s Sports Foundation to the sportswoman who by her example has done much to stimulate Olympic ideals and women’s interest in sports. Among the winners are Martina Navratilova (tennis), Jackie Joyner-Kersee (track & field), Nancy Lopez (golf), Lynette Woodard (basketball), Evelyn Ashford (athletics), Chris Evert (tennis), and Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics).

1987 Despite missing key players, the national team earns a Pan American bronze medal on home soil, behind Cuba and Peru and well ahead of Brazil (silver at the South American Cup) and Canada.

1987 In the 10th regional championship on Cuba’s capital, the North American nation is runner-up, clinching America’s fourth appearance in the Summer Olympics.

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A Sport for the Ages! (Playing Competitive Volleyball at 60, 70 and Beyond!)

r seasoned athletes, in spite of age and a relentless clock, the imperative is to stay the course. There needn’t be an expiration date stamped on the psyche, either self-imposed or by public affirmation. Put another way, if one enjoys a healthy mind and body, if joints still flex with relative ease and comfort, it’s possible to play until Medicare kicks in, and for many, well beyond that venerable age. For its many devotees, it truly is a sport for the ages! The game of the high net, a remarkably fine, vigorous and competitive sport, when played well, when played by the rules. The uninitiated need only watch college volleyball or professional beach or Olympic volleyball.

To illustrate and to cite an exemplary case in point, Steve and Gigi have played for ages, since 1974 to be accurate. The great game continues to consume their disposable leisure time. For them, it’s a kind of obsession, and one that has continued unabated for more than 40 years. Now at age 72, Steve, and 68, Gigi, they’re still in its grip.

Obsession is an apt description. In a way, it all began at the bell, a telephone bell, and like a current between extremes, it seems always to race between foreboding and hopeful anticipation. Spurred by that opening bell, they soon became prizefighters fired with passion, roped in, initially by the idea, but in the long run, consumed by the game itself, obsessed.

The ringing telephone was loud and insistent. Steve refused to move. Glaring with annoyance in her eyes, Gigi put down a book and walked quickly, almost ran to subdue the obnoxious thing.

“Shall I just get it?” she asked with extravagant sarcasm. “Yes, hullo!”

Steve paid no attention at first, irritated by the instrument’s persistence, its power to interrupt.

“Oh, hi John. What? Yeah, we’re both fine, just hanging out. How’s Joan? That’s good.”

Steve’s attention moved slowly, as did his gaze, to a conversation that was one-sided and cryptic. Her eyes widened. She turned. She paced.

“You think we should do what?” Gigi asked into the instrument, a question wrapped in incredulity, yet with a rising level of excitement. Enthusiasm seemed to boost the current running through the wire.

“What,” he said. Who is that?” The question fell flat as if inaudible, trivial.

“Join a league? Couples, co-ed. Yeah, I played a little in high school. Steve? No. I don’t think so. Maybe at picnics, or in the backyard with family.”

“What did I do in the backyard?” he asked. Another feckless question, no reply expected or given.

“That sounds just great,” Gigi said with growing excitement. “Where? And it starts in January? That’s next month! Yeah, yeah… exercise, something we can do as couples with friends. OK, great! Alright, we’ll talk on Monday and you can let us know the time and schedule.” She hung up the phone.

“Was that John O’Connor?” Steve asked. “What were you talking about? What league?”

“I just love the idea,” Gigi replied. “Yeah, it was John. You and I, the O’Connors and the Keegan’s are going to play volleyball in a co-ed league. The six of us. We start next month. We’ll play at a north side school. It’s near Sherman on Green Tree Road.”

“Wait a minute,” Steve began. “We’ve never played. We don’t know the game. Do they have strict rules? Are the other teams in the league experienced, talented? How are we going to do that?”

“Ach… don’t worry,” said Gigi. “I played in school, and we’ll learn. We’ll get better. It’ll be great fun. We’ll have exercise, time with friends. It’ll be terrific. I’m really looking forward to this. Aren’t you?”

“Volleyball,” he said, a strong note of apprehension in his tone. “A league,” he continued, a heavy sigh punctuating. And that was the sum total of any objection or argument he might have offered in opposition. But, within the privacy of his thoughts, there was this: “I’m married for, what, four or so months. I’m just getting used to things. Now I’m in a volleyball league. How long will this last. My god, life’s a runaway freight train; it moves along way too fast!”

Despite an inauspicious beginning, reluctance on the part of at least one participant, their volleyball-playing career, one that would last for 40 years and beyond, began in 1974.

It was in early September of that year. Six novices appeared on a wood-plank floor at the gymnasium of a north side Milwaukee school, some nervous, some calm and confident. They lined up, three in front and three in the back row. They knew that much. The opposition won the first service. The ball was a meteor, something shot from a cannon. One of the six made contact with the ball, palms up, lifting the volleyball a few feet skyward. It dropped to the floor, between front and back rows of players. Even the ball seemed embarrassed.

A shrill whistle wrenched their collective attention from the shock of the serve and its feckless receipt to the referee’s ladder of authority. “Illegal hit,” the referee shouted. She descended, looked at each of the six in turn and asked, “Has any of you ever played volleyball before?” The question was wound in a thread of astonishment.

“Uh, not really. I mean, some of us played a little in high school, but that was a while ago.” The reply came from Gigi.

“Well,” the referee began, with a nod of apology to the opposing team, now standing and staring at the neophytes, arms akimbo, a look of supreme annoyance on their collective expression. “The first thing you should know about league volleyball, and the rules that apply, is that you receive a service with your arms outstretched like this, hands clasped together in some manner.” She demonstrated the “passing” technique, tossing a volleyball to each in turn so that they could learn the proper arms and hands configuration. “And when you set the ball to your hitter, you may not catch and throw the ball, but rather… well, let me show you.” She demonstrated the “setting” technique.

None of them recalls that first outing with any sense of joy or satisfaction, as they were destroyed, unremittingly. They expressed thanks to that kind and patient referee, and then to the opposing team members, as they slunk away from the court that first, fateful evening of league volleyball. They may not have scored a single point, unless their opponents made an error. Even that possibility is lost — probably by design — to the element of memory that protects one’s fragile psyche.

“Set Two” — The Birth of “Poet’s Pride”

Steve met brothers Mike and Jimmy Keegan at a day camp long ago. The four of them — two sets of young brothers — were all close in age, and a lasting friendship between and among them began almost instantly. Little did they know, then, how volleyball would bond their friendship even more tightly.

At 8:00 PM or so the following day, Thursday, the telephone announced its summons, inserting as always to Steve’s ears a tone of urgency, possibly fomenting unpleasantness. As usual, he remained unmoved. Gigi raced toward the repulsive instrument. “Hullo.”

Gigi’s audible half of the conversation was as usual provocative, causing Steve to lay aside a novel. She began, “Hi Mike. They are? You’re kidding. I didn’t know that. Wow, that’s great. And they’re willing to work with us? Oh, that’s terrific. When? Saturday! Where?”

“Huh?” Steve asked. A rare reaction, not known for laconic discourse.

Returning to the living room, the echoing “Huh” and Steve, Gigi said, “Jimmy and Carol are excellent volleyball players. They’ve been playing league volleyball for years. That’s what Mike called to tell us.”

“Yeah,” Steve responded. What does that mean for us?”

“They’re willing to coach us, teach us how to play, how to bump and set. Drills. We’re meeting them at (a west side Middle School) on Saturday at 11:00 in the morning. The six of us… and Jimmy and Carol of course. This is just great!”

Steve said, “Yeah, but… ”

“I’m calling Joan,” said Gigi, as she walked away from his unheeded beginning of a protest, a questioning of any Saturday plans they may have made, obligations. Steve’s mouth remained open, silent and ineffectual, his hand raised, index finger pointing upward, a mime hailing a taxi.

Saturday arrived. Steve and Gigi, having donned shorts and sweat pants, T-shirts and sneakers, motored off to the school, named for a famous poet. There were eight gathered on the floor of the “borrowed” gymnasium. They greeted one another. The women chatted. The men were eager to begin “the lesson,” more so the physical exercise portion of “volleyball camp 101.”

Jimmy seized everyone’s attention without preamble. In a commanding voice he began, “First let me show you the right way to bump-pass a volleyball. You can practice this with each other, or against a wall. It’s a great drill. I suggest you do this a lot.” He demonstrated. “Here’s how you receive a serve. It’s really important to pass the ball correctly to your setter. Remember, it all begins with the pass. I mean, if you pass the ball correctly to the setter, she, or he, can then set to one of your hitters. If you do it right, if you start with a good pass, the rest flows easily. You’ll score points.”

They drilled, and drilled that first day of practice. They passed to one another, passed against walls to themselves. For Steve — the wall, a garage roof, the side of a building, his wife, Gigi — all became frequent training partners.

Carol was, still is an excellent setter. She demonstrated. “Frame the volleyball like this.” She set to herself, hands just above her head, framing, head tilted toward the ceiling. “In a way you sort of catch the ball using mainly your thumbs, index and middle fingers. Bend your knees slightly when doing this. Your body sort of acts like a torsion spring. Your hands and arms — in one fluid motion — meet the ball and send it up to the hitter. No, no,” she coached, reacting to one who tried the technique poorly. “Flex your wrists like so. They too receive the ball in a kind of spring action, as if catching and passing in the same motion.”

The rest of the novices practiced the technique. Drilling and passing and setting to one another, back and forth, over and over. “OK,” said Carol. Let’s try to play a game. Jimmy and I will stand the six of you.”

“What!” said Steve, reacting in shock amazement. That’s not fair.” It was. They murdered the “new kids,” the two of them, beating them easily, embarrassingly so. “Good god,” Steve said to Gigi and their four partners. “They’re really good. Unbelievable.” Trite, but the only words that seemed able to escape Steve’s flabbergasted brain. “I mean, holy mother of Henry Wadsworth, they beat hell out of us. Just the pair of them!”

The practice sessions went on for weeks, stretching into months on a succession of Saturdays. They practiced and drilled and practiced some more. Eventually, they, the six novices, began to “get it,” to understand and then execute the passing, setting and hitting techniques. And then they practiced the overhand serve, or the underhand or sidearm service, and, of course, receipt of service. They practiced “digging” the ball, or receiving and sending aloft a hard-driven serve, or a hit, spike or kill, the latter term now used most widely in volleyball circles, especially by professional announcers. They all truly wanted to learn how to play, the right way — not like “backyard” hacks who “carry” the ball or receive service with feckless, against-the-rules open-handed lifts — but like “real” volleyball players, Olympians and college varsity players and beach volleyball pros. They never stopped practicing and playing, until — like so many who have fallen in love with the game — all six were hopelessly hooked.

The new team of six continued to play in the Wednesday night league, actually beginning to win matches, not many, but a few. They learned a good deal of trivia about volleyball, the net and the court, its dimensions. The net is about 8-feet high, or to be precise, 7′ 11-5/8″ for men, 7′ 4-1/8″ for women. The court is approximately 60-feel long, 30-feet wide.

As they began to acquire skill from hours of practice and drilling, their confidence grew, along with a certain level of bravado. They decided to name that first team. Because of the learning experience, and because the school’s name seemed to some of them remarkably obvious, they dubbed themselves, “Poet’s Pride.”

Steve doubted whether the namesake would have been proud; more importantly, they were proud of themselves, a pride of lions ready to challenge rivals and to pursue their quarry relentlessly. They’d become emboldened, fearless, a band of big cats, strong and proud. The new team wanted a symbol of hard-won skill and determination, an emblem of collective pride. “Wait! T-shirts! We have to have team uniforms,” announced John with authority.

Soon they had team jerseys, green and white “uniforms” with the newly adopted name emblazoned on left chest position in white lettering. Each had a number on the back in eight-inch high print, using heat-sealed numerals. They were magnificently attired for battle. Now they not only had the training, the acquired skill, the chutzpah and heart, they had the look. Uniforms, unity of purpose, precision and a keen sense of momentum, a bravado that lasted until the next time they were roundly trounced by an opposing team.

The team that vanquished theirs, on one memorable occasion contained a remarkable oddity. All were aware of it, but it was Steve, always bright and observant, who was willing to give voice to his team’s collective astonishment. He discretely pointed out the anomalous individual. “See that guy? His name is Milan, I think. Do you know how old he is?”

“Uh, no,” John replied. “But he’s certainly a heckuva lot older than the rest of us.”

“He’s in his mid-forties,” Steve continued.

“Come on,” said John. “I mean, he looks a lot older than us, but mid-forties. Can someone that old really still play league volleyball. I mean, he’s their best player. He’s exceptional. What a hitter!”

“He’s about 46,” said Steve. “That’s what one of his teammates told me.”

“Holy jumpin’ up and down,” said John. “That’s incredible. Do you think we’ll still be capable of playing volleyball at his age? I mean, that guy plays like he’s 26, not 46. Good god!”

Steve pulled a quizzical face, shrugged and shook his head. “Who knows,” he said, as we both turned to stare at and admire that “old man,” perhaps the best player either of them had ever seen, live and in person. And he and his team had just beaten Steve’s team flat, making it look way too easy.

But then, in the following week’s match, “Poet’s Pride” rebounded. They regained confidence, momentum and the winning side of the ledger. Such is the up and down, the ebb and flow of league volleyball play. Win or lose, it didn’t matter as much as playing, getting better, gaining experience. In the end, of course, to most who play competitive sports, winning DOES matter, and in time they began to win championships. And they won lots of them, along with useless trophies, eventually replaced by T-shirts, a much vaunted and far more desirable symbol of volleyball achievement. None of them recalled or even cared about the win / loss record of that first pivotal season. It launched most of them — some of them — into a lifelong love affair, an innamorata, a secondary love perhaps, but real, enduring and consuming.

“Set Three” — “Sand and Storm”

Not content with indoor volleyball, exclusively, usually played on hardwood courts, the newly formed team of six decided to venture into spring / summer sessions, outdoor court play, and eventually onto the sand of “beach volleyball,” well, to be accurate, sand volleyball, as most courts available for league play were — and are increasingly today — in rear or side enclosures of tavern and bar properties. It began in the Summer of 1975. Gigi was pregnant with her first child.

Amusingly illustrative of her growing passion for the sport, Gigi had asked her pediatrician, “Can I play volleyball without jeopardizing my baby in the first trimester? What about the second? The third? Can I dive onto the court for hard-hit spikes?” The doctor, while judicious in his advice, in the end gave in to Gigis demand for truthful answers and compromise.

“Just be cautious,” said Dr. Ken. “Do what your body tells you to do.” Gigi continued to play until a week before she delivered the couple’s first-born child, a daughter. Their teammates bought their newborn daughter a tiny T-shirt. It was green and white, and imprinted on the left side of the front were the words, “Poet’s Pride.”

Prior to their devotion to sand-court volleyball, in the spring and summer seasons of 1975, “Poet’s Pride” played on green grass and on asphalt-paved city park playground courts. In one of their outdoor park seasons, teammate, John, caught an out-of-bounds hit by the opposition, simultaneously shouting, “Time!” They were locked in a tie, but the timed session was running short, and John thought his team could re-group and perhaps win that season-ending championship game. The thing was, however, if one contacts a ball hit out of bounds, that is, any contact of that nature results in a point for the opposing team.

“Point,” the referee shouted. The game and the championship were lost in that instance. Deflated but ever optimistic, Steve’s team resolved to learn by their mistakes. “There’s always next season.” The words were spoken with faint confidence and without much enthusiasm by a few of the six as they retreated from the court, heads bowed and shaking in disbelief.

As summer surrendered to fall and fall to the invasive chill of winter, the prideful band of ever-improving volleyball combatants played at a variety of venues, high school and middle school gymnasiums — including one that was part of a religious order’s facilities in suburban St. Francis — grade school gyms, anyplace that was devoted on a weekday evening to league play. They even played in an indoor sand facility, built specifically for co-ed team volleyball. Wherever league play and obsession beckoned, they’d enjoy the usual three game set, and then repair to a sponsor’s tavern or a sponsoring facility’s bar for post-game drinks and seemingly endless conversation about the evening’s play, teams and the skill, or lack thereof, of individual players. Players were analytical and philosophical, endlessly fascinated. Volleyball became, if not actually “their lives,” at least a significant and key element of those lives. And volleyball — it was Gigi who first observed the obvious — “is like life itself. A metaphor for life. A microcosm of the human experience.”

As if calculated to prove the assertion, teammates would come and go. Some lost interest and dropped out of the sport. Partners, husbands and wives split up and eventually divorced. Fellow players with whom Steve and Gigi developed friendships came and went, moved away or disappeared from their spheres of consciousness.

Personalities in volleyball are as diverse as the teams and individual players themselves. Fond of them as Steve especially was — certainly more than most — nicknames were attached to certain players and their idiosyncratic behaviors. John, the original catalyst to begin playing the grand game, was a lefty, became an excellent hitter, or master of the “kill,” and thus was dubbed, “Captain Southwind.” “Florence of Arabia” was famous for her dramatic dives onto sand courts in her valiant efforts to dig hard-hit spikes, creating small sand storms as she landed and then rose up triumphantly. “Sasquatch Sam” had huge feet and was continuously imperiling opponents. He would leap, land unceremoniously and regularly commit “foot fouls,” sometimes wounding ankles and feet in the process, causing opposing players to howl in pain and issue loud, often obscene protestations.

“Did you see that?” Someone would call time and launch a harangue at the referee. “He might have broken my foot. Didn’t you see that? Pay attention to the (expletive deleted) game, fer crying out loud!” Referees, like the players themselves, were sometimes well trained and excellent, in tune with the game and its rules, or mediocre and occasionally downright inept. Needless, perhaps, to add, player protests and complaints would frequently assault the ears of patient referees, and quite often players would be cautioned or even threatened with expulsion, at times ejected from the game.

Steve and Gigi’s participation has gone on and on, despite injury, pregnancy and the proclivities of a great variety of teammates and fellow enthusiasts. After some 20 years, or so, into their team volleyball experience, having gained and lost their original and many subsequent teammates, they eventually reunited with their mentors, their original “teachers,” Jimmy and Carol.

Gigi and Steve encountered Carol at a social function, perhaps at a coffee shop, might have been a grocery store. “Are you two still playing volleyball?” Carol asked.

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