That picture above – that is what the process looks like.
Sometimes it’s fun. A lot of times it’s not. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose 15-13 in the third set at FIVB Huntington Beach after blowing leads of 8-5 and 12-10. And then you have to watch the film and relive it all over again and learn from it and build on it and exactly none of that is fun but all of it is necessary. Wins are wrought from losses.
Wednesday was another loss.
But what made this one worse, what added lemon juice into that wound, was that I woke up Wednesday morning knowing with 100 percent certainty that I was going to qualify. No question about it. Skyler McCoy and I had played good ball against a good team, Eric Beranek and Garrett Wessberg, the day before. We won 25-23, 21-15, playing our brand of volleyball – small touches, crafty shots, long rallies, few errors – and never letting the momentum swing too wildly in the wrong direction.
Early that night, we figured all hope was lost from there, seeing as we were seeded No. 32, dead last of Wednesday’s teams. We should have had Brazil’s Alvaro and Saymon, whom I’d argue are one of the top 20 teams in the world, though an argument can certainly be made against that. I don’t know how the seeding worked out, to be honest, but when I saw that we played Norway, and not Brazil, and a couple of guys who have not won a five-star event, as Alvaro has, I knew it. I just knew it.
We were going to qualify.
While my good friends Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens had to deal with a Brazilian team of their own, I had a Norwegian pair I’d never heard of.
I knew we were going to qualify because Huntington Beach is my beach. That’s where I train. That’s where I set up the lines by myself at 7:15 a.m. four or five days a week. That’s where I’ve lost and learned and lost and learned.
And these Norwegians think they can just roll up to my beach and beat me? I concocted an image of these Norwegians, taking it as a personal affront that they dare come to my country and my beach and think they could beat me in front of my friends.
I was confident, though not in a way that turns into complacency, a cocky assuredness that I’d win. I was confident in the way Mike Tyson was: I just wanted to go out and punch somebody in the face, whatever the volleyball equivalent of that might be. It was a strange feeling for me, entirely foreign. I typically suffer from a crippling fear of failure, of losing quickly, humiliatingly.
On Wednesday, I wanted to win, and not just win. I wanted to beat them 21-0, 21-0. I let lines from some of my favorite movies pass through my mind, though this one, from Remember the Titans, rang the loudest: “We will blitz. All. Night. And you make sure that they remember, forever, the night they played the Titans.”
I wanted the Norwegians, and whoever the next team would be, to remember the morning they played Skyler and I.
I just wish they weren’t such nice and genuine human beings.
I wanted to hate them. I wanted to be like some little petulant beach volleyball Sith Lord and let the hate flow through me and make me jump higher and hit harder and swat shots and not give two shits if they thought I was a dick or not, because I was.
I even stared the blocker down once, after I ripped a line swing around his block, nodding at him, telling him that’d be happening all morning if they kept serving me. Trevor Crabb was delighted. The blocker politely clapped and told me it was a great swing.
Goddammit why do Norwegians have to be so nice?
We lost the first set, 21-18, and I can’t really pin down a reason why. I missed a few blocks, got called for a lift, didn’t make enough plays in transition. None of that diminished my total and complete conviction that we were the better team, and that we were going to win, and then win the next one and qualify.
And true to my thoughts the second set was some of the better volleyball I’ve played Tied 1-1, I tooled the block, turning line on him, aced the left sider in his corner, swatted his next shot, blocked an attempt at an over on two, jumped into the angle and roofed the next and just like that we were up 6-1.
We finished with a 21-14 win on an ace down the seam.
No way we can lose now. Sorry. Momentum’s ours. Beach is ours.
All day, I hadn’t second-guessed a single decision I made. Until then.
I won the toss and chose to receive rather than take the good side. My reasoning was that we had the momentum, and we had been siding out well, and if we won the bad side, as I thought we would, we’d certainly win the good side, build a two- or three-point lead, bring it home from there.
With the loss still so fresh in the rearview, I can’t help but wonder if that choice was a mistake, if the Shane Falco mindset of “Winners want the ball” may have been a little too prideful. We had earned the vast majority of our points when serving on the good side, including the previous ace down the seam. My jumper was hot. They were cold, particularly in the passing department.
The one wise move I did make as team captain was switching the serving order, with me going first, since most of our points were earned, sometimes out of mere coincidence, while I was jump serving.
And they were in trouble right away. Even a mediocre jump serve produces a spinny pass, and mine did, which caused the setter to push it too tight. Earlier in the match, on that very same set, I had jumped and dropped my hands, thinking the hitter was going to tool me, and I was right. His hit sailed 20 feet out of the court, with my hands nowhere close to being used.
On the second point of the third set, I did the same thing again. This time my read was wrong, and I gave him a freebie swing on a tight set which he buried. On our livestream, you can hear the incredulity in Tri Bourne’s voice – “Oh, Travis, you gotta smother that.”
Yes. I do.
I gave away another on the next point, shanking a gnarly float serve that Skyler did well to set and the Norwegians did well to dig and transition.
A similar event on the next point – bad pass, overset, easy kill.
Skyler put away an angle shot to get us to 3-2 and onto the good side. Three-two is manageable. Three-two is fine, particularly when considering our success on the good side – why didn’t I choose to start on the good side?
An error from the left-sider tied us up.
They sided out and missed a serve, which made it 4-4 with me serving again on the good side, the exact combination that had pushed us to a commanding win in set two and what I was relying upon right then.
An error, and then an excellent defensive play from Skyler made it 6-4 switching to the bad side. Yes, we were going to qualify. Win this side and it’s game over. No way they can recover from that.
I screwed up a peel dig but they missed a serve, and then I blocked their next on a dive into the angle.
Whatever they said, I suppose it worked. They sided out and picked up a block to switch to the bad side only down 8-7 instead of 9-6. A monumental difference.
Skyler put it away for 9-7, which preceded the play that, in the moment, I had no idea how massive it was. I dove again and blocked it, but the right sider made a good cover and the left sider made a decent poke set. The right sider hit the ball into the net, which made the net swing wildly.
I didn’t hit the net. They called it anyway. I tried to argue but the effort was futile and a waste of my waning energy supply.
Instead of 10-7 it was 9-8.
Then they tied it 9-9.
We sided out, and then, in the moment, came the play I thought sealed it for us. Skyler dug an over-on-two and I set it right on top of the net, which was convenient because nobody but Skyler was at the net.
He banged it home for an 11-9 switch.
All we have to do is score two, switch up 13-12 to the good side and it’s ours. Easy. Momentum’s ours. Beach is ours.
Match is ours.
We missed our serve; I sided out with an option.
A block slipped right through my wickets. I’ve watched it about 100 times and it chips a small piece of my soul away each time.
Could have been 13-10 had I not turned my shoulders, my worst of many bad habits as a blocker. Instead it was 12-11.
Then the ref blew his goddang whistle again.
Skyler pushed his pass in front of him, which is fine, because I’m a fair hand setter and I can put it where he needs it so long as I can get my paws on it, which I could and did.
Just as he did in the first set, the ref, despite the set coming out clean, as it did in the first set, thought I caught it for a bit too long.
Skyler made the same pass, and instead of tempting the ref I bump-set this one, spraying it about three feet further back than I wanted, giving Skyler little chance of a side out, and they took advantage, scoring in transition, taking the lead, 13-12.
The next point may haunt me for years.
The first five times I watched the film, and knew the shot I was about to hit, I covered my eyes as if I were watching a horror movie when the bad guy is right behind the main character you really really really don’t want to die, peeking through my fingers, knowing the impending stomach-dropping feeling that was coming.
I hadn’t been served in quite a bit, and offensively, I had been fairly consistent in the match, hitting the right shots, swinging well, giving them little reason, aside from a few poor passes here and there, to give me the ball. They served seam and I took it and I knew it was a mistake for them, because Skyler set it perfect and I hit the same line shot I’ve hit thousands upon thousands of times, a smooth little line roll. Easy peasy.
Two match points for Norway.
They served me again and I buried it.
Skyler served the left-sider, who had struggled the past two sets. He tried to loop a short line over me but I swatted it down – too straight down. It clipped the net, giving them an extra beat to cover, which they did, and the left-sider put the next one away.
I laid there. Kneeled there for as long as I could until the Norwegians – why are Norwegians so nice? – offered a hand, picked me up, hugged me, told me they’d be seeing me on the FIVB Tour soon. I nodded, hugged them back, sat and stared in my box for a long, long time, thinking, questioning, replaying every point.
Everybody was incredibly kind afterwards. Great match. You’ll get them next time. Hey, at least you got a cool jersey!
I didn’t care about the jersey, even if it is cool. I didn’t care about next time. I cared about it being 11:50 and my day being over, my tournament being over. There was no next time, not on Wednesday. I confided in a few that the line shot I pulled would eat at me forever.
Don’t sweat it.
Just one shot.
But is that not the difference? Is that one line shot, down 13-12 in the third set, not the difference between a qualifier player and a mid-level main draw mainstay?
Is that block at 12-10, the one where I turned my left shoulder too early and blocked it on my one foot line instead of theirs, not the difference?
Michael Gervais, the sports psychologist and excellent podcast host, likes to say that how you do the small things is how you do everything. A line shot is a monotonous, boring, small thing. Keeping your shoulders square on a block is a monotonous, boring, small thing.
Ben Vaught thinks similar to me, though his progress has been exponentially faster. I asked him how his match went. Tough draw. Good team. Played well, but they were on a different level.
What was the difference?
How about me?
Passing and missing shots.
We agreed to get back at it again on Friday. Ben’s probably going to jump serve a lot. I’m going to hit a lot of line shots.
We’re going to sweat the small things, like jump serving and line shots.
And we’re going to get better because of it.