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USA Volleyball Brings World-Class Competition to Colorado Springs

You will be forgiven if you think bagels, pancakes and chicken wings sound like the makings of an appetizing family picnic. We'll let it slide if you think a facial disgracial involves an outbreak of acne before the junior prom. And we'll all pretend we didn't hear you ask if you should use butter or vegetable oil in the frying pan before sizzling your pits.

A lot has changed in the world of volleyball over the past quarter century or so, and it's understandable if the average soft-tossing rec-leaguer hasn't kept up with the developments at the elite level.

"The players are bigger, faster, stronger, quicker, more fit; they jump higher, the game's faster," says Doug Beal, head coach of the USA Men's National Volleyball Team, speaking to the Indy hours before leaving for the NCAA Final Four on a scouting mission. Beal has some perspective, having been a member of the team nearly 30 years ago before devoting his career to coaching. "The rules are much different than when I played. The scoring system is different. The jump serve has changed the game dramatically, the libero player. It's really a different game."

If things go as Beal and his team hope over the next month, the biggest change the sport may undergo here in the States could be a growing fan base, anchored by the surge in popularity here in the adopted home town of one of the world's top teams. In the earliest stages of rebuilding a team bent on restoring USA Volleyball to the glory days of the '80s and early '90s, when the team took home gold medals in two successive Olympics and the bronze in the third, Colorado Springs is hosting one of the most important events in international volleyball, a competition on par with the World Championships, the World Cup and the Olympics.

The World League features the top 16 teams in the world competing for $15 million in prize money, the highest purse of any team sport. The first six weeks will feature 112 matches in 46 cities throughout the world, bringing the pinnacle of competitive volleyball to an estimated 600,000 spectators. With our national team hosting an unprecedented six matches in Colorado Springs, local fans have the opportunity to embrace their newest hometown team as they take on three world-class teams and work to earn a spot in Poland at the end of June to battle it out in the finals.


Reviving the legacy

Although they were the dominant force in international volleyball for the better part of a decade, the United States is still a relative newcomer on the international scene. "If you measure our success by Olympic games, we didn't have any success until '84," observes Beal. After participating in the sport's first two Olympics in 1964 and 1968, the team didn't even qualify again until 1984.

Beal is in his second stint as head coach for USA Volleyball. He coached from 1976 to 1984, starting the team out on a triple-crown stretch that included gold medals at the '84 Olympics, the '85 World Cup, and the '86 World Championships. "We had about a 10-year run through '92 when we were either at the top or right next to the top in the world," Beal recalls. "The team we had from about '83 to '89 was one of the three or four best teams ever in the history of international volleyball."

It was the golden age of USA Volleyball, led by Karch Kiraly, Steve Timmons and Dusty Dvorak. But Beal credits much of the program's success to the inauguration of a year-round training center in Ohio in 1977, noting, "I think we got a jump on the world because we got more hours together."

Beal moved on to administrative roles with the program and spent time coaching in Italy's professional league before moving back to the role of head coach in 1997. While he was gone, the program fell into decline.

In most of the rest of the world, volleyball is second only to soccer in terms of being a built-in part of one's cultural DNA. Other countries develop volleyball players the way the United States spawns basketball players, generating hundreds of thousands of players who naturally select themselves to the top level. As a result, dozens of countries worldwide support thriving professional leagues, drawing the elite athletes with the chance to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in a five or six month season. Whereas USA Volleyball's old year-round program gave them a jump on the competition, these days Beals suspects, "We're probably behind the rest of the world because we don't have a pro league and the rest of the world does."

And the gap keeps getting bigger. As USA team members compete in foreign pro leagues, the foreign national teams get the ancillary benefits from the heightened exposure of the sport. "When those guys go abroad, they make a lot of money and they get to be good players," Beal acknowledges, "but they also help the other countries."


Going pro

After the USA Men's National Team won a gold medal in the L.A. Olympics, the floodgates were open for foreign professional clubs to pursue American volleyball players. Any team member that wanted it got terrific overseas deals throughout the '84 and '88 reign of gold, and U.S. players continue to be aggressively pursued by foreign clubs.

College students often head directly to foreign leagues upon graduation, trading a winter of training in the gym in Colorado Springs for a chance to be treated like a superstar on a foreign club. The recent routine for national team members has been to play for USA Volleyball from April through September, gaining exposure in international play and fielding off-season job offers when the foreign leagues kick off later in the fall.

Team captain Tom Hoff relishes the chance to hone his skills overseas, valuing the match experience that can't be replicated in a practice gym, but he admits that playing overseas, where he is looked upon as a one-season mercenary, not a long-term investment, can be dangerous. "You can go over there and get hurt," Hoff points out, recalling his own pre-Olympic injury last year. "But it's good for us financially, and it's good for us to come back because we all pool our experience together and we're a better team afterwards."

"Volleyball's a game that is right on the edge of the mainstream," team member Kevin Barnett explains, noting its popularity as a rec sport but its limited draw as a spectator sport in the United States. Overseas, however, volleyball is as mainstream as it gets. Though not the stadium-sized spectacle of soccer, volleyball has thrived in slightly smaller towns, where playing in front of a full house every night is the norm, a part of the civic identity. The well-run clubs, well-coached teams that take training seriously, can provide a good experience for U.S. players according to Beal, but there are just as many teams that operate in administrative and financial turmoil, leaving American players frustrated and disappointed by mid-season.

Veteran outside hitter Greg Romano recently returned from a positive experience in Italy, perhaps the strongest of all the foreign leagues. "They're a pretty fiery crowd," Romano recalls of the Italians. "Unfortunately sometimes I think volleyball fans in the United States kind of sit on their hands. Overseas there's no holds barred; they're wild. They'll come running out of the stands screaming at the referee. They're beating drums, they're throwing confetti, they're dressed up in the team colors."


Down and Out Down Under

Despite losing ground to nations with a thriving environment for volleyball, Beal makes no attempts to justify the disappointment his team felt in Sydney last fall. Team USA entered the Olympics seeded 5th, convinced they could contend for a medal, but they failed to win a single match.

"We were a good team that was not playing at our best," Beal recalls. "We were probably a tired, beat-up, injured, not terribly confident team going into Sydney. But we were a better team than our result indicated. ... I'd go back to Sydney tomorrow with the same team if we were 100% healthy, and I'd be delighted to play the tournament over again." For a team that wasn't very deep, a plague of injuries strained their resources, and, as Beal puts it, "We had some things happen to a team that probably couldn't afford those things to happen."

Hoff balanced the bitter-sweet experience of competing, but losing unequivocally, at the sport's highest level. But while other players saw the defeat as the end of their era with the national team, Hoff remains inspired to pursue gold in Athens. "It was my biggest dream and goal as a kid, to compete in the Olympics," Hoff recalls. "You can't let this thing drag you down and take away your spirit. You have to use it as a training tool. You have to use it, maybe the day you come to the gym and you don't feel like training, and you remember what it felt like to walk off the court and be like, 'Well, my Olympics is done.'"

Romano may be even more driven to endure four more years on the road to Athens. Romano was cut from the Olympic squad right before Sydney. "It kind of fired me up for these next three or four years to get ready for 2004," he explains. "The reason I started playing volleyball was to play on the Olympic team. I remember in '97, when we got our uniforms for the first time. To see a USA uniform that had Romano on the back was probably the best feeling I ever had in volleyball. I'm representing my country and I get to play volleyball for the U.S. as a living. It's a great opportunity, and it's something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."


The State of the States

World League play began last weekend, with USA's sound defeat of Germany in back-to-back matches in Germany. But it is still far too early to know the nature of the young team's character. Barnett is in the league's top 10 in scoring and serving and leads the United States in spikes and digs, while Hoff and Phil Eatherton anchor the defense with top-10 blocking in the first weekend of competition. The team's resurgence after falling behind Germany 16-12 in the first set and then surviving seven set points to battle back and win by a score of 36-34 may be a harbinger of the team's overall efforts at rebuilding their reputation.

There are now three returning Olympian's on the squad, and two other veterans who did not play in Sydney. The new sense of hunger is invigorating the team, and a new attitude is evident in the gym. "All the young guys that are here, they want to be here," Romano observes. "I think the five of us that came back, we also want to be here in Colorado Springs, and we want to be on the national team. I'm not sure if that was always the case in the past."

Tom Hoff is among the veterans expected to provide leadership in the coming quadrennial. He is fully aware of USA Volleyball's international game of catch-up, and he uses the Olympic champion Yugoslavian team to make his point.

"We are physically stronger, faster, jump higher, move better than them. But they've been playing the game since they were probably 8, 9, 10 years old. Maybe they turn professional at 16, 17. I started playing the game at 16, 17 years old. I started on the national team at 23 years old. That is late, late. It's like muscle memory for them, but we have to train and do so many repetitions and touches to get to that level. We're trying to make up lost ground."


Fantasy League

Ask any one of these guys about the prospect of fans supporting professional volleyball in the United States, and the reactions are universal. A brief moment indulging in the fantasy, a split second visualizing rabid American volleyball fanatics, and the inevitable rolling of the eyes signaling a return to reality.

"That would be a dream come true," says Romero. "Because playing overseas is a great life, except for the fact that you're not in the U.S."

Beal is the first to agree, despite his practical understanding of the unlikelihood that such a league could succeed in the States. "My number one wish is that we somehow start a professional league," Beal stresses. "I think it's the most important thing we can do to enhance the position of volleyball in this country. It's the most important thing if we're ever going to be a major volleyball country."

And although the prospect may seem far-fetched, Beal isn't beyond pointing out where the nation's governing body for volleyball is falling down in its responsibility to lay the groundwork for such a league. "We need to be the instigating organization. I'm disappointed that we don't do very much."

The market is pretty well saturated with the major sports already vying for fans' attention, and last week's demise of the XFL is ample evidence that even a big bankroll can do little to crack the glass ceiling. And although the recreationists are there to fortify a grass-roots movement, schools and colleges remain inconsistent in their treatment of volleyball, often enhancing the uniquely American perception of volleyball as a women's sport.

"We need young people growing up playing and understanding this sport in high school, boys and girls," says Hoff. "Girls already are a pretty big majority of the volleyball players. I tell people I play volleyball, [and they say,] 'Isn't that a girl's sport?' That type of mentality is not conducive for a men's pro league here."

Barnett uses his own experience in Belgium to try to constructively visualize the ingredients of a successful stateside league, stressing the importance of localizing the teams in smaller communities within a specific geographic region, like the Midwest. "It's very much a part of what the town is," Barnett explains. "I think a lot of small towns look for an identity, and they would really like to have their team in a league, albeit small."

"Some of it lies on our shoulders," Romano says. "Volleyball is a weird sport, because I know a lot of people play volleyball. Internationally it's the second most popular played sport. The junior level is just exploding with growth, but it hasn't taken off as a spectator sport yet."


Coming Home

The first stand in the new battle to spread the game's gospel begins this weekend in the team's adopted hometown of Colorado Springs. USA Volleyball moved to Colorado Springs following the '96 Olympics, after 15 years in San Diego, a player-friendly environment close to home for many of the players and at the center of the collegiate scene.

So far, Colorado Springs has yet to prove itself as an equally productive home. Beal finds himself balancing the advantages of the Olympic Training Center's full slate of amenities with the constant vying for space, beds, meals, etc. with all the other resident programs.

And then there's the altitude. "It's a different game at altitude than it is at sea level," says Beal. "Like golf or baseball or anything else, the ball travels farther. So the habits you develop are different habits training at altitude than they are playing at sea level."

If the entire NFL and Major Leagues could be psyched out by the mythical power of the altitude, perhaps USA Volleyball can turn the World Arena into a force in itself, scoring early points in the head game. "It's a lot harder to serve in Colorado Springs than it is at sea level," warns Romano, setting the stage for visiting teams to risk going long with their serves unless they take something off their normal game.

But foremost among the attractions of competing in their hometown are the unpredictable possibilities of a loyal fan base in Colorado Springs, turning on to volleyball, showing up in force at the matches, and taking responsibility for affecting the competitive environment. Last year, Team USA spread itself over three locations for World League "home" games, playing in Spokane, Milwaukee and Fort Wayne. They are one of only two teams in the World League who are using a single location for their home matches this year. The other team, Cuba, drew 32,550 fans to their first two matches last weekend.

"I think it's great that we're finally putting our money where our mouth is and really trying to build a fan base in the Springs," says Barnett. "We are the national team, but let's be honest. We can travel to Tampa and draw 2,000 fans in a 10,000-seat arena. That's not a lot of fun for anybody. I'd rather see us stay here."

"I would love to take a couple of our fans and show them what it's like when we play in Brazil, when we play in Poland, when we play down in Argentina," muses Hoff. "The fans are rabid. They're passionate about the sport; they're passionate about their national team competing. ... Twenty thousand people in a stadium made for 16,000. You see some things that would blow your mind.

"We want to create an atmosphere where we are comfortable and this is our home and we will do anything to protect our home," Hoff continues. "Our fans cheering for us, rooting for us, picking us up when we're down. They will be our seventh man out there. That's what we need here in the Springs.

"I think our game is exciting," Hoff concludes, and despite the fact that the world-class level of competition may be overwhelming for fans new to the sport, he promises there will be plenty to cheer about. "We just want people to be passionate that it's the USA. We are representing the United States. All these guys, we train six days a week. We put in a lot of hours to wear that uniform. We take a special pride in that, and it makes you feel real, real damn good inside when people are chanting for USA. It picks you up another percent or two, and that's what we need to beat these teams."


Coach Beal's Scouting Report

Brazil

Current World Ranking: #4

World Arena Matches: May 26 and 27

Players to watch: Giberto "Giba" Godoy, Andre Nascimento, Ricardo Garcia, Sergio Santos and Barcelona '92 Gold medallists Giovane Gavio, Douglas Chiarotti and Mauricio Lima.

Coach Beal's Scouting Report: "Brazil's maybe the most balanced offensive team in the world. All five of their hitters have good arms. They run a very diverse offense, a lot of combinations, a lot of back row; they move the ball around. They're a harder team to defense than some of the other teams because they have less pattern to them. Brazil is a very emotional team. They're not a great blocking team, they're not a huge outside hitting team, but they have great arms. Brazil may have been the best team in the [Olympic] tournament during the round-robin portion. Brazil could have all six starters back from their Olympic team."

NetherlandsCurrent World Ranking: #6

World Arena Matches: May 19 and 20

Players to watch: Reinder Nummerdor and Atlanta '96 Gold medallists Guido Goertzen, Bas Van de Goor and Richard Schuil

Coach Beal's Scouting Report: "Netherlands has a pretty big team, but they're also very fast. They set the ball very quick to the outsides. They've got a couple of world-class middle blockers. They're probably a stronger blocking team in the middle than Brazil is. Holland has two or three players still playing from their gold medal team of '96. They're a pretty experienced group. Holland's been tough for us to beat in the last couple of years; they're a very strong team."


Germany

Current World Ranking: #42

World Arena Matches: June 9 and 10

Players to watch: Stefan Hubner, Wolfgang Kuck, Ilja Wiedershein and Frank Bachman.

Coach Beal's Scouting Report: "We don't know as much about Germany. Germany hasn't participated in the World League for a couple years. They're in the middle of the countries in Europe, middle level, so they're probably just out of the top five of Europe, but Europe's the best zone in the world right now. All three medal teams in 2000 came out of Europe. Germany is a pretty big, slow team right now. They have some really big guys."


USA

Current World Ranking: #8

World Arena Matches: May 19, 20, 26 and 27; June 9 and 10

Players to Watch: returning Olympians Tom Hoff, Erik Sullivan and Kevin Barnett, and veteran players Greg Romano and Phil Eatherton

Coach Beal's Scouting Report: "Our team is really young, and we're going to depend a tremendous amount on the veterans that we have coming back. If I could change one thing it would be better ball control, which means less hitting errors, less passing errors. We need to be a pretty defensive-oriented team. We need to be a stronger outside blocking team than we were at the Olympics. We need to pass better than we did at the Olympics. We're not a huge team right now, although we've got some guys with some good size. Hopefully we'll control the ball a little bit better because we're quicker."


Volleyball Vocab -- Basic

Block, an attempt by a player to interrupt the ball before, as, or just after it crosses the net

Bump (pass), technique of playing the ball using forearms, hands together, to direct the ball

Bump (set), a forearm pass used as a set

Dig, to pass a very hard hit spike; a ball brought up (saved) with any part of the body, particularly from a spike attempt

Dink, a very softly hit spike; ball played just over the net or the blockers hands

Dump, when the setter, instead of setting the hitters, attacks the ball over the net

Kill, an attack that results in an immediate point

Pass, the first of three contacts on the offensive side -- overhead or forearm

Set, the act of getting the ball into the position for the hitters to attack the ball. Usually done overhead with two hands.

Spiked Ball, a ball hit forcibly from a height not less than the top of the net. Also known as bury, crush, hammer, kill, put-away or slam

Stuff, a block in which the ball goes straight down to the floor with no hope of being picked up by an opposing player

Touch, when the ball lands out of bounds, but not before contacting one of the players

Volleyball Vocab -- Advanced

Bagel, winning a game 15-0

Chickenwing, a last-ditch way to dig a ball using your elbow and a bent arm

Dig Lips, defending more than once and successfully an opponent's hard spike as if the attacker was saying beforehand where the hit was going and you read the attacker's lips

Facial Disgracial, a spike that hits the opposing blocker or floor defender in the face

Husband and Wife, when a serve drops untouched between two receivers who fail to move

Joust, when two players on opposing sides attempt to block the ball by vying to push it onto each other's side of the net

Pancake, a one-handed floor defensive technique where the hand is extended and slid along the floor, palm down, and the ball rebounds off the back of the hand, rather than the floor

Roof, to block a spike, usually straight down and for a point

Shank, to pass the ball badly

Six Pack, another term for getting a spiked ball in the face on defense. A Twelve Pack actually knocks down the defender. In the past the defender was then obligated to buy the spiker a six-pack of his or her desired beverage.

Sizzle the Pits, a spike that goes under, and past, the armpits of a big block.


Recent Rule Changes

The Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), the sport's international governing body, has instituted the following rule changes over the past four years.

Scoring System -- FIVB adopted rally scoring in 1999. Point-for-play scoring, or rally scoring, replaces the old system in which teams had to first win serve in order to win any points. With the inception of rally scoring, sets are now played to 25 points. Matches are the best three of five sets. If a match goes to five sets, the final set is played to 15 points.

Libero -- This new defensive and passing specialist was introduced in 1998. The libero can enter the match in the back row an unlimited number of times to replace any player. The libero cannot serve, attack or block. He wears a different colored jersey from teammates.

Serving -- Players are allowed just one toss on the serve and are given up to eight seconds to serve after the whistle is blown. Serves are allowed to touch the net if they continue into the opponent's court. There is no longer a service error on a "let" serve.

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