We all know about volleyball. It's the lunchtime sport at the YMCA, the bane of pickup basketball played by pudgy businessmen over a sagging net that matches their stomachs. Back in fourth grade, Mother Superior was pretty good at it. Honest-to-goodness athletes stayed away from it in such droves that one might have supposed it caused cancer in rats. Volleyball, in short, was becoming just another American invention, like the assembly line, that the rest of the world was doing a little better.
Maybe not for long, though. Last weekend the NCAA Volleyball Championships were held in San Diego, and instead of the familiar backyard, charcoal-grill, excuse-me game, the fans saw slashing, leaping, hurtling displays that sometimes were almost brutal in their ferocity. Talk about getting your bell rung. Get hit flush in the face by a volleyball moving at more than 100 mph and you'll wonder for weeks who's at the door.
"If I hit somebody in the face, it's kind of a psych-up for my team," explains San Diego State's Chris Marlowe. "A guy who is hit doesn't want to let the other team know it hurts. His eyes will water, but if he shows pain the other team will start yelling: 'How does it feel? Do you like getting hit in the face? Eat leather.' "
Before the spiking began, the event was assured of a measure of novelty. For the second time in its brief four-year history, the NCAA tournament had a fairly balanced geographical alignment. Army, the winner of the Eastern Collegiate Volleyball League tournament, survived some anxious travel moments to represent the East Coast in the finals, one of the few times this has happened since the game was dreamed up by a Holyoke, Mass. YMCA director back in 1895. In addition there would be a new champion. UCLA, which won the tournament the first three years but was decimated by graduation, lost to San Diego State in the finals of the district playoffs and failed to qualify. "We're building character this season," shrugged UCLA Coach Al Scates, who wishes he had Bill Walton in his lineup.
The other West Coast entry was Long Beach State, which finished first in the arduous Southern California Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, beating San Diego State in a playoff. And the fourth team was Ball State University out of Muncie, Ind., the only finalist to appear in all four NCAAs and, behind star Dave Schakel, the only college team ever to win the Region 7 tournament of the U.S. Volleyball Association.
Volleyball has been growing steadily for the last decade, spreading from the West back across the country to its origins. To save money, Ball State's team flew youth-fare standby to San Diego, and five of the players were bumped off the flight and had to come out on a later one. Army, meanwhile, did not arrive until late Thursday night, a little over 13 hours from the start of the round-robin play scheduled Friday morning to establish seeding for the tournament finals in the Sports Arena Saturday. The Cadets took exams from eight a.m. to noon Thursday, drove to New York, then endured a flight that lasted nine hours because of weather problems. They never really recovered and ended dead last.
San Diego State had what it thought might be the best player in the country, Duncan McFarland, a Ryan O'Neal look-alike who grew up within spiking distance of the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles' Manhattan Beach. That is about the same as Eddie Arcaro being born and raised in the Churchill Downs paddock, for Manhattan Beach is one of the meccas of two-man volleyball, a sport that flourishes like tawny skin, bleached hair and sandals along the southern California coast. Summer tournaments draw hundreds of spectators, and McFarland's youth was spent beating against the tide of the competition, much as a young basketball player does in Harlem. "Duncan is the type of athlete who gets called a superstar," says teammate Milo Bekins. "He's always in the right place at the right time. Nobody has to tell him anything."
But McFarland was exasperated on Friday. "We've had a lot of adversity this year," he said. "The players are kind of disappointed. We've had trouble getting good practice facilities and we've had trouble getting money out of the school." The players complained it was hard to find enough practice balls during the season, that they had to drive their own cars to away games, that scholarship help was paltry and that McFarland, in spite of his rare ability, could get only a partial scholarship at a university where volleyball outdraws the basketball team. All of which means volleyball is not about to replace more familiar pastimes in the hearts of athletic directors.
There are some vague plans for a professional volleyball league to be formed in the next year, but none of the college players seemed hopeful about that. They have learned not to get overly ambitious over something the rest of the country associates with girls' recess. It is too bad, because they are superbly conditioned athletes. For example, Ball State, which eventually finished third, works out from September through May, then the players keep sharp with tournaments during the summer. And that routine is piddling compared with the rigors Long Beach State imposes on itself. That team worked out twice daily for a total of six hours five times a week for much of the year. Many players also took part in a Wednesday night pickup league and played doubles in the school gym at lunchtime. Then there was the weight-lifting program and all the running and conditioning. "It surprises people that we really are athletes, and that we work hard to keep ourselves in shape," says Long Beach's Dennis Peterson, who somehow also finds time to play harmonica and piano in a rock band.
Long Beach beat San Diego State two of the three times the teams met this year. Still, they were rated as pretournament co-favorites. Although many of the players were friends from the beaches, their respective playing styles and appearance were anything but similar. Half the San Diego State players looked like Marjoe, the other half like Dr. John. With their long hair, bushy beards, bright headbands and seashell necklaces, the Aztec squad laughingly referred to itself as "The Freaks" and called the Long Beach team, anchored by Miles Pabst, a 29-year-old former Air Force jet mechanic, "The Jocks," a slightly snide reference to their zealous training methods.