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Eyes on the Ball
It’s powerful yet feminine—and the uniforms are cute. Girls’ club volleyball is exploding in Southern California. But it’s not cheap to chase the dream
On this rainy March morning, on a temporary court installed at the Anaheim Convention Center, Alexandra Reale is hitting the volleyball so powerfully that if any unprotected part of a defender’s body met up with the missile, it would hurt like hell—and draw audible gasps from the spectators. With graceful footwork and sweeping arms, the 18-year-old rises like a ballerina to spike the ball, but that final arm whip is rocketry. She’s enjoying the added bliss of controlling the game—for now. The opposing blockers are unaccustomed to a strong attack down the line and keep looking for the more traditional crosscourt hits. They’re caught flat-footed, too, when Alex, like a crafty pitcher at the mound, fakes as if she’s going to send in the heat and then softly taps an off-speed shot to a spot on the court where no one is home. Her mother, a New Yorker who moved to L.A. 22 years ago to compete on the pro beach volleyball tour, grins. It’s a money play in the sand game, which is precisely where Alex learned it.
The girls’ volleyball team for which Alex competes, the Club Troy 18s, runs a 6-2 offense (six hitters and two setters). This capitalizes on the fact that Alex, though emphatically a hitter, is also skilled at setting. The most difficult set in volleyball is the “quick”; it requires the setter to hang the ball a few inches above the net so the middle blocker can swiftly smack it down. The element of surprise is potent. Alex sets Ariana Stevens perfectly. Ari, who is under six feet, is short for a middle blocker. But her long arms serve her well.
At her post in the back row, Maddie Savant, daughter of Desperate Housewives star Doug, is nursing a sore shoulder. Because of the injury, this is her last outing as the team’s libero, the player who acts as a defensive specialist. No one wants to see her—or her handsome father—go. With Maddie at less than 100 percent, the group is at a slight disadvantage, but the girls never make her feel less than brilliant. The team’s blithe spirits, outside hitters Liz McKinley and Jessica Martin, start up a positive chatter whenever morale sags. Liz makes up for her own short stature—five feet seven—by playing smart, threading the gap that the blockers leave open. Jess displays her dynamic arm swing, second only to Alex’s in speed. Months earlier, when doctors looked for the source of her headaches, they discovered that Jess’s brain had slipped out of its cranium and become entangled in vertebrae, a congenital condition that should have killed her. Within four weeks after a difficult surgery, her passion had her back on the court.
Nowadays, to stand among a group of indoor volleyball players—say, Division I collegians—is like communing with a grove of redwoods. It’s hard to dominate without a six-footer or two. Or three. Club Troy is height challenged. Alex and Ari are the tallest, at five feet ten. Head coach Megan Jacobson has compensated by focusing on defense—and instilling in the 17- and 18-year-olds an undying determination.
Since the opening of club volleyball season in November, the Club Troy squad of ten girls has been working toward this day. Three times a week they commute from homes all over the region—Glendale, San Pedro, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica—to practice at USC’s Galen Center, where the club rents space. There they shake off end-of-the-day high-schooler fatigue to lift weights with the conditioning coach or listen to lectures from the nutritionist. They run sprints as their parents nap on folding chairs, waiting for practice to wrap. They schlep on the weekends to the four mandatory Southern California Volleyball Association tournaments, traditionally held in places beyond L.A.’s borders, such as San Bernardino and Corona, Fullerton and Huntington Beach.
The girls of Club Troy have joined about 10,000 other teenage volleyball players—995 teams in all—vying to qualify for the Junior National Championships. This SCVA tournament in Anaheim is one of a nationwide string of shoot-for-the-moon qualifiers at which club teams can earn the right to compete in Columbus, Ohio, in June, with hundreds of college coaches in the stands scouting for talent. California’s finest are on hand: Orange County sends whole platoons, as does the Bay Area, which is equally volleyball obsessed. L.A. County flexes its muscles with 245 teams. Players have come from as far east as Rochester, New York, and as far west as Honolulu. There are groups from Canada and Mexico. There are 18 teams from Texas, which has gone bonkers for girls’ volleyball.
To the uninitiated, the spectacle unfolding on the convention center’s 48 courts (and another 34 at the nearby American Sports Centers) is an assault on the senses. The uniforms—tight jerseys and tighter spandex shorts, the Club Troy girls in their trademark cardinal and gold—shimmer on thousands of toned arms and legs. Long hair is elegantly swept up in ponytails or woven into French braids. The soundtrack: the birdlike calls of thousands of girls, the screech of referees’ whistles, the high-pitched cheers as the players engage in a group hug each time they score a point.
With so many California teams here, the talent pool is deep. After a good first-day showing, Club Troy is hopeful, but the rest of the weekend will be a roller-coaster ride. The girls lose to teams they should beat and defeat clubs that should have pummeled them. In the end they fail to qualify for the Junior Nationals. Under the USA Volleyball formula, only the two top finishers in Club Troy’s age bracket and division—which has attracted 125 squads to Anaheim this year—will advance. In light of the numbers, Club Troy needed to be flawless to get to Ohio. They’re not. But then there’s always Minneapolis.
In June 1972, about a week after Washington, D.C., police nabbed five burglars working for his reelection campaign at the Watergate office building, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX, a piece of legislation that would change girls’ sports forever. Among its provisions was the mandate that colleges and universities award the same number of athletic scholarships to women as men. The historic act was a result of pure bipartisanship. Birch Bayh, a Democratic senator from Indiana, had championed the bill to right a long-standing gender imbalance. With Nixon’s signature, women’s college volleyball became a fully funded sport, which means each participating school doles out enough scholarships—12—to pay for a full team.
Soccer, the first youth sport to go viral in California, was already humming along well before Title IX. Once the American Youth Soccer Organization was founded in the early 1960s, parents flocked to the feel-good sport in which everybody gets to play. Volleyball’s equivalent is the U.S. Youth Volleyball League, a low-cost, low-pressure manifestation of the sport that’s conducted on grass in parks. In both endeavors kids start young, and by 11 or 12 they are deciding whether to jump to the next level, which are the clubs. Club soccer in L.A. is not cheap, given the membership fees and the expenses involved to transport kids to tournaments around the region. Volleyball requires an even larger commitment, since it encourages extensive out-of-state travel in pursuit of a Junior Nationals berth. Despite the high financial bar, the sport is exploding. This year roughly 14,000 Southern California girls ages 12 to 18 were participating in clubs that cost their moms and dads an average of $4,000 to $6,000 per season. What are their families thinking?
“To the parents, it’s an investment,” says Nabil Mardini, whose Los Angeles Volleyball Academy is expanding at a nice clip. Two years after LAVA’s founding, he owns club teams in Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks, and Studio City and is consulting for programs in Kern and Santa Barbara counties as well as in Florida. “Parents see volleyball as a route, an avenue to a scholarship. In my opinion it shouldn’t be the goal; it should be the icing on the cake. I definitely get the feeling from some parents that ‘I’m paying you to get my daughter a scholarship.’ ” Mardini had been working as an electrical engineer and coaching girls’ volleyball at night. The decision to leave his day job and launch a club was a gamble, but he was fortunate to secure a sweetheart deal—the use of the Harvard-Westlake gyms for a few thousand dollars a month—through an old coaching relationship. His story mirrors that of other L.A. club owners: In the battle for practice space at middle and high school gyms, it’s often whom you know.
Club Troy came into being two years ago when Mick Haley, the head USC women’s volleyball coach, and wife Carrie joined forces with Kris and Sam Maus—he’s the director of construction for downtown developer GH Palmer—and USC women’s associate coach Tim Nollan and his wife, Kristen. For their fledgling organization the Mauses book time at USC’s posh Galen Center, with its polished wood courts and floor-to-ceiling windows, while Mick serves as director of training and Carrie coaches.
Mick has won three Division I national championships as a college coach. He knows firsthand why parents are thinking scholarships, but when he talks about volleyball, he stresses how it builds character. “In volleyball you can only function well if you function as a unit, when everyone’s happy for each other,” he says. “It’s a high you can’t get anywhere else; you can’t get it taking a pill or a drink.” He’s put his finger on the other reason for club volleyball’s freakish growth. The athletes love being in an environment that’s not unlike a sorority and where the only player-on-player contact consists of a celebratory embrace. The cute uniforms don’t hurt, either. Any discussion of volleyball’s popularity must linger on the clothes. Close-fitting jerseys are advisable—it’s a violation if clothing touches the net. Lots of girls add to the Maxim vibe by hiking up the already short spandex bottoms into what’s known as a bunhugger. The practice compelled the apparel manufacturer Nfinity, which sponsors a club in the South Bay, to chastise the girls in a full-page volleyball magazine ad: “Unless you are a professional beach volleyball player on tour, let’s keep those cheeks covered.”
Of all the team sports, volleyball is the most feminine. It’s more intimate than soccer, where athletes are spread out across a giant field. There isn’t the constant running and bumping of basketball. “We are the sexy sport right now,” Mick says. “You get to fix up your hair. You wear nice uniforms that fit perfectly. It’s like the beach indoors. You go to any convention center in America for volleyball, and you see that everyone wants to be the Southern California beach girl.”
Speaking of the sand game—born at L.A.’s private coastal clubs—its youth-based numbers are also on the rise. Even before the electrifying performances of California gals Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh, Jen Kessy, and April Ross at the London Olympics, girls who had learned the game indoors were scampering onto the beaches as soon as school let out. Their newfound pastime now has an outlet on the collegiate level. Sand volleyball became a fully funded women’s sport last year—but not before much hand-wringing over the uniforms. Fifteen universities fielded teams, with Pepperdine finishing number one. Several L.A. clubs have already introduced summer beach training, which kicks in at the end of the indoor season in June. “College coaches salivate at getting the California kids because they’re raised on the beach,” says Club Troy assistant coach Chad Grossman, “so the perception is that they have a good skill set, that they have good ball control.” In other words, that they’re young Misty Mays.
I’ve been witnessing the phenomenon at close range. At 11, Malia, the youngest daughter of my fiancé, wrote a poem for school titled “I Love Volleyball.” At 12, she joined a South Bay club based at Carson’s Home Depot Center; it was dizzying to watch the cyclists whiz around the velodrome while the girls scrimmaged on the floor below. The club was more recreational than competitive, although it did send the girls to the Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Orlando at season’s end. That tourney and the June volleyball festival in Phoenix are fun, low-key alternatives for clubs that are not Junior National material. But scraping together the funds for Malia’s flight to Florida and the two nights in a hotel was tough, and one friend generously donated “snack money.”
Over the summer Malia’s club was absorbed into the Nfinity operation at Torrance’s El Camino College, which invited her to try out in the fall. She also wanted to look into sports equipment company Mizuno’s well-regarded club in Long Beach. Her father, who was a pro volleyball player and continues to be a high-level coach, guessed she might pick Nfinity, where her skill set would get her noticed. She chose Mizuno, impressed by the girls’ athleticism, even though she’ll be relegated to a lower-level squad. She thinks she’ll be more challenged.
I ask Malia, now 13, why she loves club volleyball, and she giggles and says, well, the girls like the shorts. Sure they do, but why does Malia love the game? “You can’t carry a grudge onto the volleyball court,” she says. “Everyone has to be involved for you to win. I might not like something Madison said to me off the court, but I have to set her as often as I set anyone else. Nowadays people judge each other for all sorts of things. We have to let that go on the volleyball court. It doesn’t matter who you’re friends with or how pretty you are. You can’t think about that when you’re playing. Everything happens way too fast.”
The $5,400 that the Club Troy parents pay each season covers the fees for the local tournaments and regional Junior National qualifier and the hotel costs and entry fee for one out-of-state qualifier, though not the airfare, food, or entertainment. L.A. clubs typically charge athletes a flat $3,000 to $4,500; it’s extra if a team opts for an out-of-state qualifier. Many do. A few hypercompetitive clubs hopscotch across the country, and their costs can soar to well over $7,000.
The Club Troy girls travel to Minneapolis for the Northern Lights qualifier, where they have one more shot at the Junior Nationals. Tanned for April in the Midwest, they stand out—but maybe not as much as the team from Kapaa in Kauai. The weather is sunny, yet the girls are hooked by the novelty of the glassed-in walkways that connect the surrounding hotels and the convention center. They use them almost exclusively to get to the games from their rooms at the Hyatt. The team mom for the trip is Helen Reale, who’s sharing a room and chores with Ari’s mother, Yvonne. Lynn and Gary Kious, parents of outside hitter Kate, are also in attendance. Helen and Yvonne’s room is command central and the dining area. Breakfast—cereal—is served every morning just before the lunch sandwiches are made. Snacks, though abundant, disappear quickly. The first night Helen and Yvonne make a trip to Target to restock the larder.
The Minnesota and Wisconsin teams are formidable—tall and skilled—and the ever- competitive Texans are here. Club Troy is playing a squad from Dallas. Kate Kious is getting more than her normal share of court time. Coach Grossman knows that a recruiter from Tulane University, where Kate has applied, is watching. Afterward the Tulane representative invites Kate to “walk on” if she arrives in the fall. It’s not a scholarship but a chance to practice with the team. That means if Kate fits in well, she might receive a scholarship later. Her parents are ecstatic.
Five-foot-two Stevi Brown, ensconced as the team’s libero following Maddie’s departure, is relishing her new role. As a high school freshman, Stevi showed promise as a sprinter, but she was soon hooked on volleyball. Her mom, who attended UCLA and USC on track scholarships, is mystified. Stevi chose Club Troy after languishing in a couple of less competitive organizations. Despite her lack of experience, she won the coaches’ admiration with her attitude.
After three days of competition, Club Troy finishes well enough to play for the championship in the silver division, which is essentially 13th place. The girls are no longer in the running for the Junior Nationals but for bragging rights. They face a team called the MN Northwoods Black Ice; the middle blocker is Kira Larson, a willowy six-foot-three blond with golden skin and sapphire eyes, who could be walking a runway yet appears to have no other interest but the ball. Her mother, Desire’e, sits next to the Troy parents, and they swap stories. Home is Fargo, North Dakota, and the Larsons drive four hours one way on weekends to Minneapolis so the girls can practice against other squads—they are the only team in their remote area. When asked what Kira does on the long trips, Mom replies, “Homework.” She relays that her daughter is being recruited by the University of Nebraska, which is a huge deal. The school is a volleyball powerhouse, and its games routinely sell out. Club Troy loses the match but consoles itself that the defeat came at the hands of a potential All-American, maybe even an Olympian. Days later Club Troy receives an e-mail from Fargo. “Of all the teams we played this past weekend, your girls, coaches and, more importantly, your parents were by far the nicest and most sportsmanlike. I am a Division I track and field coach and I know that sportsmanship comes from the top, and you guys are doing something right.” It’s signed “Desire’e Larson.”
As Junior National qualifying events go, L.A.’s has never been ideal; it’s the only one left in the country that isn’t under one roof. Families get split up, with daughters competing at separate locations. The college coaches are forced to divide their attention as well. SCVA director Ann Davenport had long coveted the L.A. Convention Center, but the site was expensive and booked solid, with a rumored ten-year waiting list. Lori Okimura, a sports marketing specialist with decades of experience in volleyball, thought it was worth a shot. She reached out to Jeff Leung of the L.A. Tourism & Convention Board. “When he answered the phone, he said, ‘Unless this is about one of those million-dollar volleyball tournaments that my competitors keep throwing in my face, I don’t want to be bothered.’ I said, ‘Funny you should mention that.’ ”
Leung was aware of the profits cities were reaping from volleyball contingents—the considerable airport and hotel taxes along with the jump in rental car, restaurant, and other business. He also has two kids who play volleyball for the San Gabriel Elite Club. His wife had just returned with one of their daughters from the Junior National qualifier in Denver. The Crossroads Tournament is a parent favorite: It’s held in the Colorado Convention Center—a state-of-the-art glass palace—and runs like Swiss rail. Vanessa Leung asked her husband, Why don’t we have something like that here?
We do now. Under a contract signed in September, the qualifier moves to the L.A. Convention Center starting in 2014 and continuing at least through 2020. Okimura predicts the response to the site change will be hundreds more clubs signing up for the SCVA event. Between Staples Center, L.A. Live, and the renovated mall at 7th and Figueroa with a ginormous new Target, families will have plenty to do within strolling distance. As for the club owners, “you’re talking about bringing your club into the heart of college volleyball,” home to top performers Pepperdine, UCLA, Long Beach State, and USC, says Okimura. “If you’re an athlete, at least one of those schools is on your wish list,” she says. “This is an iconic spot for volleyball. If you’re a club director, you’re thinking, ‘I really want to give my kids that option.’ It’s a no-brainer.”
When the teenager in my house waxes on about the sport, she’s got more than one sympathetic ear. At 12, I won a citywide doubles volleyball tournament. I remember I had terrible blisters on my feet and that my partner and I triumphed over two taller girls because I consistently looked for the open court and shot the ball there. I intuited this tactic; I had never been formally trained. It was the mid-1960s, and serious volleyball coaching wasn’t trickling down much below the collegiate level. Starting in elementary school, I took up basketball, did the long jump in track, played tennis (there was a court next to our Santa Barbara home), and threw a wicked spiral in football.
From the first moment I passed a volleyball, though, I was home. As I got older, a group of us beach rats would convene at the Miramar Hotel and stage games on a grass court. If a pro tournament arrived in town, I would bike down to East Beach and watch. Once Steve Obradovich—“OB” to the volleyball crowd—and Jim Menges were competing against each other, and every other word out of OB’s mouth was an F-bomb. I winced as he let loose. Menges went on to reign as one of the top sand players ever. Obradovich has daughters in club volleyball, and I’m praying he doesn’t swear as much now.
After moving to Santa Monica in the late 1970s, I dropped into the doubles scene at historic Sorrento Beach. Over the years my partners included some of the game’s biggest names—Ron Von Hagen, Tom Chamales, Gene Pflueger. Their professional careers had ended, but they couldn’t stay away from the courts. My favorite female pro at the time was Jackie Silva. The Brazilian was about my height, five-foot-eight, and ferocious. She had extraordinary reflexes. In volleyball they call a player with such athleticism “dynamic.” Silva won the first gold medal in sand volleyball when the sport debuted at the 1996 Olympics. She was in her midthirties then and competed well into her forties. In Brazil, where they worship volleyball, she is still a celebrity.
I also met my fiancé, Gary Sato, at Sorrento. He’s had a long and successful volleyball career. He coached the U.S. men’s team to a World Cup championship over the Soviet Union in 1985 and was named international coach of the year. The victory was epic—the Soviets had been regularly embarrassing the Americans and appeared invincible. Gary was the assistant to Pepperdine’s Marv Dunphy in Seoul when the United States again beat the Soviets, for the gold medal in 1988. Every time I watch video of the game, I get teary-eyed. Gary’s brother Eric serves the winning point.
In the 1990s, Gary switched his emphasis to the beach and was competing on the four-man pro tour and coaching model Gabrielle Reece’s four-woman team. These days Gary and I play near the Annenberg Community Beach House in a regular four-person game that’s a mix of weekend warriors with day jobs (lots of lawyers, a hotel magnate, a tabloid editor), collegiate All-Americans, and former pro players. For my generation it’s one of the more appealing aspects of the sport, that people play well into their sixties, sometimes seventies. The sand looks difficult to move in, but it’s a forgiving surface for the body’s joints. I want to pinch myself every time I’m on the same team with Jim Menges. He’s gracious to everyone. How great is that?
In june the Club Troy 18s are driven to Phoenix for the festival, which attracts 520 teams, primarily from the west. Troy’s strategy is to serve tough and put the other teams in trouble. The coaches also warn the girls not to expend all their energy if they come up against an especially strong squad early on; they need to save something for the important matchups later. Sure enough, Club Troy runs into a combative San Diego Volleyball Club team, whose girls talk trash through the net. Troy hangs tough but loses that one. Otherwise the girls beat all the teams they face in the first two days.
The squad is definitely benefiting from an unforeseen personnel change. Setter Sarah Metcalfe couldn’t make the festival because of her brother’s wedding, and the squad has picked up the backup setter, Juliet McClure, from a group of Club Troy 16-year-olds. She’s clicking with the team in a way Sarah never did. Day three brings skilled teams from San Bernardino and Bakersfield, which Club Troy beats. Now the girls are facing Legacy from Santa Clarita, founded by Tony Ker, one of the most dynamic players in UCLA volleyball history. They win the first game, 25-20, then get spanked in the second, 25-7. Jacobson and Grossman exhort the girls to take a deep breath and refocus. It works. They win the third game, 15-11. They’re on to day four and the final rounds—and perhaps their first televised matches: Fox Sports will be broadcasting the championship game.
Jacobson and Grossman make sure to get the girls to the gym for a proper warm-up, then exult as the squad fires on all cylinders, defeating a good club from Arizona. They’re on to the championship that night at seven. The coaches allot some midday pool time, order their charges to take naps, then apportion a generous period for hair and makeup. The girls are wide-eyed at the sight of the TV cameras. For the pregame show Fox interviews Alex, who looks nervous. Club Troy is up against a LAVA team from the Valley that has been coached in part by Jeff Stork, an Olympic gold medalist. The first game is close, 25-23, and goes to LAVA. Stork’s team has three strong hitters, and they elevate their game for the second round, triumphing 25-15. Under the festival double-final format, the girls play a third game where winner takes all. LAVA prevails, 25-21. Weeks later, watching the telecast with family friends, Alex bemoans the loss, but much of the sting is gone; she comments on how nice her teammates’ French braids look on camera.
For the festival middle blocker Josie Luck, whose can-do attitude impressed the coaches all season, took on one of the unsung hero roles, rotating into the back row to help on defense even though it was out of her comfort zone. She’s only 17 and is back in the fall at Club Troy. The experience must be especially sweet for outside hitter Maggie Dunn, whose attention was divided all season. She wanted to concentrate on school, but her parents were hoping for a scholarship. Also 17, she could stay in club volleyball; she won’t. Alex is the only member of the squad who’s recruited. She receives an invitation for an “official” visit to Whitman College, and the university flies her and her dad, Peter, up to Washington for a tour and sales pitch. In the end Alex chooses Columbia University, even though Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships.
Alex packs in a lot of volleyball over the summer, scrimmaging with the USC women’s team indoors and playing with her mom on the beach. Like May-Treanor, who was entering beach tournaments by the age of nine, Alex has memories going back to toddlerhood of sitting on the sand as large white balls flew past her head. “I was holding Alex at the beach one day watching some guys, and she says, ‘Daddy, nice ball control,’ ” Peter recalls. Alex was two. In her personal statement to Columbia, Alex writes an ode to Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica and its storied volleyball scene. “State granted me some of my most important life lessons. My adventures with the other kids taught me tolerance. The often exhausting game of volleyball taught me determination. The wide, wide ocean taught me awe. I cannot think of the word ‘home’ without envisioning a brilliant summer day at State.”
This feature was originally published in the December 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine.