That’s what came to mind as I walked into the Denver Convention Center. There were volleyball courts as far as the eye could see with every team vying to advance through the brackets.
As a 16-year-old, I had the opportunity to view the Junior Olympics tournament from two perspectives — a player and a referee. I was the team’s setter and was also certified to referee matches, so during our off times, my coach, Scott Scherbenske and I would grab our whistles.
In my second year competing at the junior Olympic level, I was overjoyed to be back at Crossroads, the biggest volleyball tournament in Colorado. Now it was time to compete.
After sorting through a basket full of volleyballs, my teammate and I headed out to the court to warm up.
Pass. Set. Hit. Dig.
We rallied for what seemed like hours before it was time to compete, but as usual the jitters crept in. To calm the nerves, we huddled together for our chant.
“Can I get a oorah? Oorah.
We stomped our feet before falling backward and rolling over our shoulders. We were ready.
The down referee threw me the volleyball and I headed to the service line, waiting for the whistle. As I hit the ball into the floor before spinning it backward into my hands, the sound of the volleyball thunder disappeared. The referee’s whistle shattered the silence and as I served the volleyball through the air, our shoes started to squeak on the court.
Each volley happened within a few seconds as I rotated from the back row to the front row to set up the hitters’ attacks.
Whistle. Cheers. Smiles.
We ran to the center of our side of the court, giving each other words of encouragement and pats on the back. We scored.
As we worked through our rotation, we were in a contested match, scoring point for point up into the 20s. Someone needed to get the advantage if the set was going to end.
The opponent’s outside hitter spiked the ball hard cross court. With my momentum moving me toward the net for the set, suddenly, I bolted toward our bench. The libero, who is a defensive specialist, shanked the pass.
Extending my arm and closed fist outward, I jumped over my coach and knocked the ball back into the court. Free ball echoed from the opponent’s side of the court as a teammate passed the volleyball over the net.
The series of rallies continued until the opponent rallied to take a two-point advantage and win the set.
The second set would again be a series of long rallies and a close score, only this time, we pulled away for the win. Playing the best three out of five sets, we were in for at least four sets if we could win the next two.
With bright red knees and elbows, we slid across the floor digging every attack and keeping our hopes of winning the match alive. Working along the net, blocking was always one of my strength in volleyball as my vertical jump rivaled players who were 6 foot 2 inches in height, despite being 5 foot 7 inches.
Holding up two fingers with my right hand and one finger with my left, I yelled out two hitters and a setter, watch the tip. As the service flew over my head, their passer sent a rocket toward the net, pulling our middle and outside blockers together, in case of a tip.
As the setter’s shoulders turned out, I knew she was setting it up for a hit. Their outside hitter started her approach for a three, which is a fast outside attack.
“Outside,” I yelled and jumped into the air with my arms squeezing my ears to get as far over the net as possible.
Smack. The volleyball hit my hands and bounced back onto the floor of the opponent’s court. As my teammates cheered, suddenly I found myself on the floor face to face with the outside hitter.
During her approach, she landed under the net and I landed on top of her and rolled my ankle. Cheering stopped as I went to stand.
It felt like a jackhammer was pounding my ankle, but it was my turn to serve. After convincing my coach I was fine, I hobbled to the service line. After my jump serve, I could hardly walk back into the court and as the ball came over the net, I hopped on my right foot to the front row to set.
After the play, my coach benched me and put in the back-up setter.
With my coach telling me I needed to stay off my foot, I watched from the bench as the other team continued to find holes in our court and take the lead in the set. We were stuck in the rotation and the opponent was taking advantage of it. After managing to rotate through several rotations, we were fighting to overcome our 10 point deficit.
I leaned forward on the edge of the bench looking at my coach. I stood up and substituted for the back-up setter and headed back to the service line.
Whistle. The volleyball floated above my head as my right arm swung around. Skimming the top of the net, the volleyball rolled into the court.
Ace. Whistle. Ace. Tied.
After making a substitution, our opponent managed to return the ball and the volleys continued. With match point on the line, they tried to exploit my injury, sending the volleyball over my head. I jumped backward with my arm outstretched.
“Don’t move,” my teammates yelled as they ran toward me to set the ball up.
“Line, line, line,” I yelled as our outside hitter exploded into the air. The ball hit and it was over.
We had rallied back to win in five sets. While the match proved a test of perseverance for us, it also taught me how to overcome adversity for my team.