Switzerland This Was Not
They really tried. They honestly did. When the NCAA was faced with the fact that the Men’s Volleyball Championships would be held on the home court of one of the final four teams, they forged ahead and did what they would normally do at a truly neutral site. They allocated equal seating to fans of each of the four finalists. They filmed and showed on the videoboard promos from each team – separately and equally. They held their breath. But this is Stanford, and they don’t do neutrality well.
It was calm when I arrived at Maples Pavilion on the Stanford University campus, but then again it was still 45 minutes before the first national semi-final was to start. It was still relatively quiet at 6:00 when Penn State and Cal State Northridge began play, and I watched in relative solitude from a prime seat in the upper deck as underdog Penn State staked their claim to the national title in straight sets, 30-21, 30-23 and 30-28. By 7:45 it was no longer calm nor quiet. The crazies had arrived.
The tickets that the NCAA had allocated to Stanford were in a prime location, but that’s not where the action was. The Stanford band, which had been supplanted from its usual game location near the court, had set up shop behind one of the end lines, in the upper reaches of the General Admission seats. And just below them assembled a collection of people whose dress could only charitably be called “eccentric”. It was as if a tag sale had been pillaged and turned over to the most creative minds in a university known for ingenuity. And those that couldn’t cram their way into this section took up residence wherever else they could. Loud it was – neutral it was not. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself here…
No matter your opinion of the NCAA, they know how to conduct an event. The well-produced video highlights show that played on the scoreboard during pre-game was every bit as full of MGM’s (Major Goosebump Moments) as any professional team puts together for their fans to enjoy – and the especially cool thing was that the video clips covered the full spectrum of sports for which a national championship is conducted. This was true scholar-athlete stuff played at very high levels, but noticeably absent were highlights from The Final Four or any of the BCS bowls. It was a very subtle way of reminding everyone that college sports matter intensely, even those sports that don’t receive mass market attention.
Another nice touch: Prior to the introduction of the teams at each semi-final game, the scoreboard displayed short video recordings of the coach and several players on both teams, each of whom thanked their fans for coming out to support them. The production quality was excellent, and every message came across as sincere and heartfelt, with just the right mix of hokey-ness – kind of like a series of toasts at a wedding reception comprised mostly of very tall guests. One of the more creative spots featured Cal State Northridge’s 5’7” Ali’i Keohohou barely occupying the same video frame as his teammate, the 7’2” Jacek Ratajczak.
Lastly on the fan interactive front, a neat idea which I would have to assume the NCAA came up with involved a wrinkle added to the player introduction ceremony. The entire squad was individually recognized on each team, and upon being introduced, every player jogged onto the court and threw a foam replica volleyball about the size of a grapefruit into the section of stands that housed their fans.
I spent the first semi-final game being schooled by Penn State and Cal State Northridge on exactly how much this brand of volleyball differs from that which was practiced by my college intramural team (Ithaca College 1980 Co-Rec Champs, for those of you scoring at home).
Strategy is everything at this level of the game, and very much like you see in basketball, the teams run a continuous string of pre-set plays. Each player has a specific assignment and the result is a sequence of choreographed actions involving constant movement and a good bit of decoying regarding which player would actually be hitting the kill shot. It was a perfect mix of sport and theatre. In other words, it’s nothing like you were taught in gym class, where you rotated into one of six well-defined spots on the court and those that left the general confines of their starting spot were generally considered show-offs or ball hogs.
As I watched I began to form the impression that the college game had dispensed with the oh-so-familiar-to-me “over the net” rule, which limits blocker’s hands to their own side of the imaginary vertical line that rises above the net. Conversation with more knowledgeable fans revealed that no, this was still a rule, but it only occasionally gets called – kind of like traveling in the NBA.
By the time Stanford and their hopelessly out-supported opponent Ohio State took the court the atmosphere was electric. And from the start it was obvious that Stanford was on a mission. For some reason I had developed the impression that Stanford’s volleyball program occupied near-royalty status, but I learned from those around me that in fact they hadn’t even won a league title since they ran the table and captured their only NCAA championship in 1997. And the team that I now saw dominating the game had compiled a 3-25 record four years ago in their freshman season together. So not only were these fans nuts, they were hungry. Hell, if I were in their place I probably would have worn a skirt and a Darth Vader mask myself.
With Stanford up two sets to none, and the score 25-22 in the third set, an impressive rally by both teams was extended by a truly awe-inspiring horizontal dive and back-of-the-hand bump by Stanford’s defensive specialist, Erik Shoji. The subsequent kill for a back-breaking 26th point of the game brought down the house, and the crazies started with their “warm up the bus” chant.
A little advance warning to you Penn State fans as you prepare for the national title game against Stanford. If it’s remotely possible, the championship venue will be even less neutral than what I witnessed. But look on the bright side – the odds of you securing one of those foam volleyballs that the players toss out during introductions are exponentially higher for you than they are for fans of The Cardinals.