Am I as good as my finishes?

It’s a question I invariably wonder after a tournament, whether it be a successful one or a not so successful one, like AVP Manhattan Beach. It’s also not lost on me that many ask the same thing about me, particularly after flops like this weekend in Manhattan, in which Hagen Smith and I lost a tough one to a very good team from Northern California in the third round of the qualifier.

My answer, of course, remains the same: I am neither better nor worse than the collective sum of my finishes this year or the last four.

I just am.

I don’t think results are much an indicator of how good or bad someone is playing at any particular moment. They can be a telling sign, sure, but far from the complete picture. And the picture I paint, anyway, isn’t exactly the prettiest.

I’d equate the way I play volleyball to the way Rocky boxed in the first of the Rocky series. Everything he does is just plain ugly. Most of it is wrong. He can’t jab, just slugs away. He brawls. He takes punches he shouldn’t because he doesn’t know otherwise. No way he’ll throw in the towel, because he’s a Philly boy and Philly boys don’t wave the white flag.

When Apollo Creed, the No. 1 boxer in the world, challenged him to a fight, and he agreed, he didn’t even know how to train. Hell, the guy chased chickens in a street alley to quicken his feet (similarly, I learned how to hit line shots from my buddy Judd Smith, putting a trashcan in the corner and telling me to hit balls into that trashcan, by myself, with one replica volleyball from Wal Mart; I loved it).

Yet Rocky didn’t go down. Not for the full 10-count at least. He’d just stand there and take his punches, leftrightleftright, straight to the dome, to the nose, to the body, and he’d go back to his corner, bloody and bruised, and the bell would ring and he’d answer it, and Apollo would be looking on from his corner, aghast.

How is this guy still upright?

I am not so different. I am about as skilled in volleyball as Rocky was at boxing. My swing is an ugly, hitchy thing. My passing can resemble a matador sometimes, me just waving my arms this way and that. My blocking oftentimes looks more like I’m going up for a rebound than it does pressing and taking space. The vast majority of the skills I’ve worked on have come from attempts to replicate what I’ve watched a million times on YouTube. I’m still working to emulate my blocking off of Tim Bomgren and Tri Bourne, the chop line from Trevor Crabb, footwork and patience of Piotr Kantor, wrist-away angle from Taylor Crabb, press from Anders Mol and Theo Brunner.

The result has been a strange amalgamation of things that won’t come together for quite some time. I know for a fact that every time I step on a volleyball court, be it in a qualifier, main draw, or CBVA, I’m going to be playing against people who have played longer, have had their games refined by coaches either indoors or on the beach, who know the ins and outs far better. Time and reps will slowly change that.

For now, what can I do?

I simply take punches better than everybody else.

I do not find it to be coincidental that, in four of my past five three-setters, I’ve come back to win. In all four of those, Hagen Smith and I were down rather significantly, 10-8 every time, at least. Sometimes it was worse. In Austin, too, with Raffe Paulis, we were down 10-8 in the final round and won 15-11.

I am not going to out-skill or out-talent many people on a volleyball court. My volleyball game, aesthetically, looks a bit like Jim Furyk’s golf swing: ugly as all hell, hitchy, homegrown, yet strangely, somehow, weirdly, against all conventional wisdom, somewhat effective. I’ve known that since day one, and that’s something I can’t control just yet. What I can control is this: I can outwork them. In Hagen, I’ve found a partner who’s willing to do the same, and the best part is that he has the skills to go with it.

That mindset, I think, is the most important skill I have, to be honest. It’s something I took from years and years of golf, and being raised by a Pittsburgh boy who’s the toughest man I know. Anybody who has played golf knows that, on any given day, you will not have every piece of your game working just right. If your driver is on, your irons couldn’t hit water out of a boat. If your irons are phenomenal, your putter will misbehave. If your putter is hot, it’s only to bail out your shit wedge game.

So what can you do?

You grind.

I think if you asked my father one of his proudest moments of his middle son, he’d point you to the state golf tournament my junior year of high school. We went undefeated that season, winning the county and conference and I had personally won the district tournament two weeks before the grand finale.

We were hot.

And then comes that grand finale, the state tournament, and I open up the front nine with the worst front nine I’d had since I was a ninth grader: 49. I had to save par on the hardest hole on the course just to break 50. I was almost in tears making the turn. And here’s the thing about golf: You’re on an island. No teammates to bail you out. No coaches to give you advice. It’s you, the course, a hyperactive brain, and a skillset that has apparently prematurely gone south for the winter. Nothing, at the time, was working. Drives sprayed. Irons shanked. Wedges, well, I can’t even tell you what the wedges were doing. Putter had stayed at home, in bed.

So I did what I could do: I grinded. I made it a mission to simply be within 100 yards out to give me a chance at getting up and down to save par. That was all I asked.

It wasn’t pretty, but somehow, someway, I finished my last nine holes one-under par, made the cut, and as a team we took third. The look from my playing partners that day wasn’t a whole lot different from the look Apollo gave to Rocky: How is this guy still standing?

I’d imagine the McKibbins had the same thought when Hagen and I battled back from down 17-13 in the first set to win, and after we had gotten stomped in the second and dug another 10-7 hole in the third, only to come back and win, 16-14.

I’d imagine Lev Priima and Jake Landel, our undoing in Manhattan Beach, thought similar things, too. After smoking us in the first set, 21-12, we returned the favor in the second, and then took a 6-2 deficit in the third and scrambled and worked and grinded to 13-12, then 14-14, until we missed too many opportunities to score – trust me, we had plenty, me especially – and they took advantage of theirs.

Such is sports.

Priima and Landel are excellent volleyball players. I have disappointment, sure, but no shame in that loss, just bullet points to learn from, to improve upon. Nobody, after all, ever told me I shouldn’t hit a cut shot directly to a blocker stuck in defense with the match tied 14-14 in the third.

Four times in a row.

I did that.

Hopefully I won’t do that again.

Slowly, my volleyball skill set is developing. My swing is less hitchy than it was. My blocking is roughly 475943709 times better than it was a year ago, and it still needs to be another 83904258096 times better for me to get where I need to be. My platform is getting there. My passing still provides some comedy, but a little less so now.

But I’ll always have the ugliest, truest, purest aspect of my game: I can always grind.

Am I better or worse than my results?

Shoot, I don’t know.

I just am.