High School Sports – The Epicenter of Passion
California is a big state. And in fact, many Californians think it’s too big to be governed as one entity – too vast a geographic area, too diverse a population and economy. And so it was with Solomon-esque wisdom that the governing body of high school sports in the Golden State, the California Interscholastic Federation, created ten regional Sections, each independent of the others. Excluding the major metropolitan areas of San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego, which each have their own Sections for major sports like football and basketball, these Sections cover geographic areas that are more or less the equivalent of a separate state. So while for a handful of sports there is a California State Championship game or meet, for the majority of high school athletes, the pinnacle of success is a Section Championship.
Utilizing the basic Sports Fan algorithm of “Championship = Drama”, on Saturday I talked The Bird into accompanying me on a 45-minute pilgrimage to Cypress College, the site of the CIF Southern Section Boy’s Volleyball Championships.
From a viewing perspective, especially if you are a partisan fan, there is no better sport to watch than volleyball. Think about all of the most popular sports, and the time spans that elapse between “fan outburst moments”. In baseball, soccer, and hockey there are often lengthy periods of time between occurrences on the field of play that evoke almost involuntary expressions of either momentary joy or disappointment. In football, that potential exists on almost every snap, but at best there is a full minute of time between cheer-able events. Basketball is a bit more brisk, but with all of the foul shots, time-outs and other stoppages in play there is quite a bit of fan down-time. When taking in a volleyball match though, if you look away for a moment there is a better than even chance you’ll miss seeing something fairly remarkable. So fans don’t look away. People are engaged throughout, creating a fast-paced, fun environment. And with a championship on the line, a volleyball match is pretty much a consistent rolling wave of crowd roars.
We arrived on campus just as the Division 4 Championship game was beginning, and we could actually hear the roars loud and clear while walking across the quad from the parking lot. Once inside it was like walking into a vortex of sound. By far the most intense environment I’ve encountered in my travels to date – the Lakers crowd at the Staples Center was muted by comparison – it evoked fond memories from my own high school playing days of just how loud a small gym can get.
Once we got settled into seats in the old-school wooden bleachers it was easy to go right into rooting mode, for one of the Division 4 finalists was South Torrance High. I don’t track these things closely, but crack inductive reasoning tells me that since the school is located just down the street from the Ralph’s where we do our grocery shopping, I’m pretty sure that if we had kids, they would be attending South. So out of all of the schools in the Section, it was quite convenient that our local school was in the championship game. Better yet, they were healthy underdogs to El Segundo, the team that had beaten them twice on the way to the Pioneer League championship. And adding yet another layer of passion to the atmosphere was that neither team had ever won a Section Volleyball Championship. Everyone in the gym was emotionally invested, which makes for the best possible environment. I even got butterflies as the drama unfolded – but then again I care deeply whether or not the animated catsup bottle wins the condiments race on the Angels Stadium scoreboard.
El Segundo looked like the team and school that you see in the television show Friday Night Lights – blue-collar working class types with hearts of gold. There was even a contingent of fans right out of central casting as the Tough Guys in town, who had one of their own on the team now playing for that coveted first title. The coaches wore jeans, sneakers and ball caps and at a glance looked as if they came directly from their shift with the volunteer fire department. In other words, you couldn’t help but love these guys – unless of course they were playing against you. Then they were a bunch of thugs.
Torrance South was clearly over-achieving early on, barely losing the first game and at one point pulling ahead in the second. Drunk on momentary success, the South fans started up the dreaded “O-ver-RAT-ed” chant. Sitting near the El Segundo bench as we were, I just knew that this cheering decision was going to end badly for them. And sure enough, it pretty much defined the high water mark in South’s chances at a title. El Segundo started clicking on all of the cylinders that had propelled them to their evidently “CORRECT-ly-RAT-ed” #1 status, and dispatched South Torrance in three straight games to claim the championship.
The post-game celebration was that of a first-time winner. Enveloped in the pure joy of their accomplishment, nobody wanted to leave the court – even after the award ceremony and even after the mosh-pit celebration with their fans. There’s nothing in sports quite like a good post-Huge Win milling about.
The whole Friday Night Lights scenario was perfectly played out when, while heading out for a quick bite before the Division 1 Championship game, we were passed by a car full of the victorious El Segundo players – still in uniform and with at least one player smoking a cigarette. I’m not sure, but I think I saw Dillion High School fullback Tim Riggins riding shotgun.
To be continued…