If the U.S. Volleyball Association championship in Reno last week was not the best game in town, at least it was the biggest. With 114 teams participating, it was the largest USVBA tournament ever and, as usual, California-based teams dominated it, in both numbers and performance. There are four divisions of play at the USVBA championships: open competition for men; open competition for women; open competition for men over 35 (senior); and men's collegiate. Also, as a concession to its legacy, the top YMCA finisher in the men's open division is named the National YMCA champion.
The grueling schedule of double elimination matches began Wednesday morning, and when it ended about midnight Saturday, California teams had won all five championships. Chart House of San Diego, a team composed entirely of U.S. national team members and coached by Carl McGown, the national coach, won the men's open competition by beating a powerful all-star club from Southern California's Winston Volleyball League. A surprising team of young women (all under 21), the Adidas Volleyball Club, coached by former women's national coach Chuck Erbe, beat the Santa Monica Dippers. In the collegiate division Pepperdine prevailed over California State at Long Beach, while Captain Jack's of Long Beach won the senior title over the Outrigger Canoe Club of Hawaii, and the Malibu Palisades team was YMCA champion.
At USVBA meetings before and during the tournament, talk about volleyball's future in this country was decidedly optimistic. So optimistic, in fact, that the organization approved a $180,000 budget for the coming year, a figure treasurer Leonard Gibson said would have been unthinkable five years ago. More than anything else, what this nation's volleyball subculture wants is a team in the 1976 Olympics, and almost half of the USVBA budget will be spent with that in mind. There is even talk of an Olympic medal by 1980, heady aspiration for an organization that did not qualify a team for the Munich Olympics. This optimism is based on far-reaching changes in the men's and women's Olympic training programs, the growing strength of collegiate volleyball and the debut of professional volleyball next week in San Diego.
While these developments are helping to attract top-flight athletes and public attention, they are not entirely compatible. The defection of some national team members to the pro league has hurt U.S. chances for the 1976 Olympics.
The U.S. men have their best shot at qualifying for the Olympics in August at the North Central American and Caribbean zone (NORCECA) championships in Los Angeles. If the U.S. team wins it will qualify. McGown sees Cuba and Mexico as the teams to beat. " Cuba is one of the top six or seven teams in the world," he says. "They have all the advantages of Communist countries. They train year round and they face the best competition because they can go to Europe almost anytime they want to." Mexico also worries McGown because it has had a full-time Korean coach ever since January 1974 and its players have been in almost constant training. Mexico beat the U.S. three games to two the last time the two teams met, although the U.S. had beaten Mexico by the same margin earlier.
The new pro league has complicated McGown's task by negotiating contracts with two key players from the national team, Bill Wardrop and Dodge Parker. McGown says Bill is the best middle blocker in the country and Dodge is one of the top setters anywhere. USVBA Executive Director Al Monaco says, "We had invested four or five years of international exposure in those guys. That experience is pretty valuable when you figure the rest of the players in the world are averaging between four and six years of international experience and those are the guys you have to beat." Wardrop admits to having had second thoughts but says, "I had an opportunity to go where I wanted to go [ San Diego]. I might never have had it again. The organization of the national team at that time was not materializing like they said it would. Now it is good, but when I had to make my decision things were up in the air." McGown's feelings about his own program are mixed. "Our training is unprecedented. Never before has a national team trained this long, this hard. Still, the Cubans probably train at least seven hours every day. We feel good when we put in a six-hour day and even then we lose an hour."
The women's national team is another story. "There are a lot of people who, for different reasons, personal and other, don't wish to see the program succeed," Coach Arie Selinger says. A number of the better California players have chosen not to participate in the program, apparently unwilling to move to the training site in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Laurel Brassey, a Californian who joined the team, says, "I had to give up a lot. I had to move to Texas and I hate it. The workouts are hard." But she plans to stay at least until the match with Cuba in the NORCECA tournament. Brassey feels another 20 women might try out for the program if the training site were in Southern California, but no city has been willing to support the program the way Pasadena has.
The city fathers of Pasadena have given generously for the right to call their town "The home of the women's national volleyball team." Besides providing the practice sites, they also are paying Selinger $15,000 and furnishing him with an apartment and a car. Players are given apartments, and jobs are arranged for those who want them. The year-round training program is Spartan; workouts last six hours and are held six days a week. Like McGown, Selinger sees Cuba as the team to beat. "They are tough, tall and quite experienced. They have spent about five years together. I've been studying films of the Cubans, the way they play. If we can develop a fast offense, we can compete with them. With a little luck, we can beat them."
When Selinger brought his first and second teams to Reno, everyone was anxious to see the results of the long training. When both teams fell to strong California clubs, USVBA people were muttering in the stands. Protested Selinger, "Our goal is to qualify for the Olympics, not to win the USVBA championships." The training camp hasn't been closed yet and Selinger was hoping to see some of the California players at tryouts in Reno the two days following the USVBA tournament. Selinger believes he and his team can turn things around, but if his women couldn't win in Reno, how can they beat Cuba?