Mud Volleyball
Home Up Mud Volleyball 2001

Third Time is a Charm:  How SSQQ Won Second Place at the 2002 Pasadena Mud Volleyball Tournament!

Written by Rick Archer, May 2002

On Saturday, May 18, SSQQ took second place at the annual Mud Volleyball tournament out in Pasadena. To quickly put our accomplishment into perspective, there were 116 teams in this tournament. That's right, 116 teams… and SSQQ finished second. 

And do not think it was easy either. We overcame extremely difficult weather conditions. We overcame a near-disastrous road construction surprise. We barely avoided losing our very first match of the tournament. We came from behind twice against the arrogant super-team that was seeded to win our Court Play bracket.

We fell behind 8-0 in the Quarterfinals before making an incredible comeback to win the game. We were essentially told we had no chance in the Semi-Finals - the referee pulled me aside to warn against getting our hopes up because we were going against the best team in the tournament.

We also overcame a referee who was so drunk he gave our points to the opponents on two different occasions. 

We overcame all these obstacles… only to just barely miss winning in the Finals after an ominous change in the wind.

We found we could beat mortals, but at the end of the day when the Gods got involved, maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I am proud of how well the team did. Our incredible run during the day was quite an accomplishment. 

What is a Mud Volleyball Tournament?

The Mud Volleyball Tournament is part of Pasadena's annual Strawberry Festival. Once a year in May, giant earth movers dig out 16 holes in the middle of the Texas prairie. Each mud pit is about the size of a regulation volleyball court, but it definitely seems bigger. Each mud pit is 3-4 feet deep filled with about two feet of water that comes up to your knees.

Once the pit is filled with water, the ground underneath turns to mush. Mobility is severely limited since it is so hard to get your footing. You can take maybe one good step in any direction or if you are desperate enough you can dive for the ball (more about that concept later…). Since the area is so hard to cover, Mud Volleyball plays 8 people per side rather than the expected 6. Even with the extra people there are still a lot of holes. The majority of points are won on service since this is the only time anyone seems to get any mustard on the ball. 

The most important skill is the ability to keep the ball in play. Once the volleying has begun there is very little offense; players find it is hard enough to simply hit the ball back to the other side to worry about much finesse. A lot of land volleyball skills are wasted in this sport since setting and spiking are non-existent. Anyone with athletic ability can compete no matter how little real volleyball they have ever played.  In fact, football players are perfect due to their upper body strength.

SSQQ had been to this tournament twice before in 2000 and 2001. Due to our lack of experience in 2000 we were sent packing pretty fast. We decided to try harder in 2001.    Story of 2001 Mud Volleyball Tournament

In 2001, we took not just one, but two excellent teams to this tournament. However to our total and complete disgust, both teams were soundly stomped.  Both teams collapsed.  We made a swift exit in 2002.

Despite two years of butt whippings, we still felt we were a lot better than the results showed.  Many of us - including me - carried a chip on our shoulder for an entire year.  In 2002, we decided we had something to prove.

2002: Putting the Team Together

SSQQ almost didn't participate in 2002.  After taking 2 very good teams to the tournament in 2001, we were pretty discouraged after both teams were eliminated so easily. The humiliation of 2000 was tough to take; but the double whippings we took in 2001 really broke our spirit.  We had expected to make progress, but didn't come close. Now the spark was pretty much gone. 

Fortunately one person still cared. Late in April, Shirley Grossestreuer saw me at the studio and asked if we were going to try again. I hadn't given it any thought till now. However the moment she reminded me, I was surprised at the heat flash that came over me. I was stunned to realize I was still angry a year later at the humiliation we had suffered.  There had been one jerk in particular that had made more angry than I had ever been in all my years in sports. I wanted revenge!

On the spot, I decided I wasn't ready to quit. I told Shirley I would
look around for some interest. I emailed our star player John Paliatsos to see what he thought. To my surprise, John and his very talented friend Len Messina both signed on. These guys were terrific athletes. I was pleased.  They had played in 2001 and didn't appreciate the results any more than I did.  It was interesting to realize I wasn't the only one with a chip on his shoulder.  I could tell both guys talked with an edge.  I smiled to myself. We were off to a good start. 

A week later John emailed to ask if his brother Matt Paliatsos and his buddy Matt Jackson could join our team. He said the two Matts were both very good athletes. Although I had never seen either man play, my attitude was if our best player says he knows two other players that can play in his league, then I should say yes. I said yes. 

Now we had 6. We needed 4 more players. Your roster must have 6 men and 2 women, but you are encouraged to bring one extra man and one extra women since invariably something happens to someone at the last moment. The tournament is very strict about the two women rule. Without the 2 women, your team cannot enter the water. Now finding 2 women who are good volleyball players isn't that hard to do, but finding two women who are good players and also willing to play in the muddy water is something of a minor miracle.  Let's face it, the charms of Mud Volleyball are lost on most women.  In particular, the women practically never have any fun.  This sport isn't volleyball really.  It's closer to tossing a medicine ball back and forth.  Most women lack the arm strength to be able to get it back over the net from anywhere but the front row.  So they rightfully get discouraged.

Nevertheless I came up with two more women in addition to Shirley - Nakia Harrison and Angela Armstrong.  Nakia's response was 'yuck, but okay'. Angela actually claimed to have had fun the year before and was pleased to sign on again.  Now I talked my volleyball friends Rocky Kneten and Brent Barker into filling out the team.  We were set.  Bring it on!


The Weather was Miserable!

The weather conditions for this year's Mud Volleyball Tournament turned out to be incredibly harsh.

That week a cold front had come into the city. On Friday, the day before the Tournament, Houston had its first good rain of the spring.  It rained and rained!

The next day o
n Saturday at least it was dry. The sky was overcast and the temperature unusually cool at around 55 - 60 degrees.  In fact the day nearly set a record for lowest temperature at this date ever. 

We had expected to fight sunburn and heat exhaustion, so at first we smiled at this nice temperature.

However it never dawned on us how cold the water would be or that the weather would not break all day long. In retrospect it seems ridiculous that no one of us anticipated the cruel fate the weather would play on us this day.

Nor did we ever suspect the extent of the physical suffering we were in for.

Like morons, we brought suntan lotion, but instead we should have brought coats and wet suits.

Moreover, the rains had left the area mired in mud.  Normally only the mud pits have mud.  But due to the heavy rains, the unprotected soil around the pits (little or no grass) became equally muddy (see picture above).  This world of mud was not a problem for the participants, but it proved to be a huge hardship for the people who had come to watch and support their friends.  In fact, later in the day, the mud on the sidelines would play a big part in our demise.

We were in for a long day.


Disaster Strikes Immediately!

Our first game was set for 8:30 am. Len, John, and the two Matts went in one car down I-45. Angela was supposed to meet us there. The rest of us met at my house and took the most direct route to the location.  Big mistake.

Despite all my careful preparation, we ran into roadwork construction that seriously threatened to end our chances before we even began. 

Rocky, Brent, Nakia, Shirley had met at my house in the Heights at 7:30 am to carpool.  Since I was taking my daughter Sam and my girlfriend Marla with me, I was bringing a tent, chairs, coolers and a card table for our comfort. Rocky had volunteered to carry these items in his SUV.  

By 7:45 am, we were all loaded and ready to go.  We had 45 minutes left to make a 30-minute trip.  Time to spare!

The fastest way for us to get to Mud Volleyball was to take the Sam Houston Parkway (Beltway 8) from I-10 over the Ship Channel bridge to Pasadena.

We were just 5 minutes from the Mud Volleyball location when we discovered to our absolute horror that the gigantic bridge spanning the Houston Ship Channel was closed for weekend repairs.

It was n
ot reduced to one lane - IT WAS COMPLETELY CLOSED!!! 

I was in shock.

1. There had been no warning on I-10 to alert us to this problem ahead of time.
2. We were 85% of the way to our destination when we discovered the bridge was closed.
3. There was no 'alternative' - you don't have feeder roads over the Ship Channel. 
4. It was 8:10 am when we discovered our route was cut off. Just 20 minutes were left!

Our only choice was to turn around and drive all the way back to Loop 610 to take Highway 225 back to the Sam Houston Parkway (see our new route in picture above).  But this would cost us a lot of time.

Panic-stricken, I called John on my cell phone to explain the problem.  I estimated we were 30 minutes away - there was no way to possibly avoid being late. 

I had a backup plan. If John could get a lady from another team to 'volunteer', he could use Angela plus the other three men to try to play 6 against 8. John told me that Gillian Tilbury, an SSQQ dance teacher, was on the premises to play with another team.  Since her first game wasn't till later, Gillian had volunteered to join us till the Cavalry showed up. 

But now we had another problem - Where
was Angela?????  

To my dismay, Angela had not shown up. I was sick in my stomach. You have to have 2 women to play.  So far we had one woman who wasn't even on our team.  The other two women were in my car!  Now even my backup plan was ruined!  This was pathetic.  I was quickly becoming a nervous wreck.

It was a Double Elimination Tournament.  I knew we could lose one match and still keep playing.  However I also knew from bitter experience how important it is to win your first match. The first part of the Tournament is called Court Play. You don't go home until you lose for a second time.  Seven teams play a round-robin at the same Mud Pit until only one team is left standing to go into Championship Play much later in the day. 

During Court Play it is murder to lose your first match because you are put in the Loser's Bracket right from the start. You are now guaranteed a near-hopeless struggle to get back in the thick of things. Teams in the Loser's Bracket may have to play two or three more matches than a seeded team in the Winner's Bracket to survive. The road back to win the championship of the Court is long and hard.  We lost our first match in 2000 and never recovered. The same thing happened in 2001 when both teams lost their first match and could not overcome the bad start. I had counted on a good start for a change, but now this seemed out of the question. It looked like we were headed for the Loser's Bracket for the third year in a row.  Then I had an idea. 

At a stoplight, I asked Marla to trade places with me and drive. The freedom allowed me to get back on the phone and call John. I told John that since each match consists of 3 10-minute games, he should ask the referee to forfeit the first game but delay the start of the second game till the end of the ten-minute allotment.  By not playing the first game, we could avoid having to forfeit for having only one woman.  Whether the ref would permit this plan was unknown to me.

My phone rang - John said the referee had agreed to this plan.  We had a second chance, but it was going to be tight!!

Court Play Round Robin Begins - The Green Slime

At 8:32 am our three cars pulled into the parking lot.  Nervously we ran half a mile to the Mud Pits. It was exactly 8:38 am when we found John, Len, and the Matt One and Matt Two anxiously awaiting our arrival.  

At 8:40 am the second game was scheduled to start. We had two minutes to warm up.

We jumped in the water to take on the Green Slime, automatic winner by forfeit of Game One of our three game match. 

Now we discovered another piece of terrible news.  We almost had a heart attack when we got in the water - it was freezing cold!!Not only was the water muddy, slimy, and disgusting, but the temperature was about 45 degrees. Adding to our pain was a wind that pounded the chill through our bodies.  We were instantly MISERABLE beyond description! 

Thank God for adrenaline. I was so pumped to play I would endure anything. With 9 players (no Angela) available, we sprang into action. We won the next two games 11-2 and 11-0.  Whoa!  They never knew what hit them.

This was the first time I had a chance to watch the two unknown Matts in action. These guys could really play!  I may have been nearly frozen, but I had enough sensation left to feel goose bumps as I realized just how good a team we had. I had expected John to find us some good players, but Matt Jackson and Matt Paliatsos were more than good - they were awesome!

This meant there was not one weak spot on our team. The Green Slime was so overwhelmed I don't think we rotated more than three times in both games. Each game was over in about 5 minutes.  With our 2 games to 1 conquest of the Green Slime, we entered the Winner's Bracket.

With this huge obstacle behind us, things were looking much better than 15 minutes earlier.  I felt a giant surge of relief. 

But things were far from perfect. The misery of the perpetual cold was setting in - we would play again at 9:30 so we didn't have enough time to put up the tent.  Sam and Marla were freezing as well, but they weren't even wet.  No had thought to bring a coat... it was mid-May in Houston, for crying out loud!   All three of us were shivering badly. The wind picked up and we just moaned with pain. This was not fun at all. 

I used the 30-minute break to go to the car and get our supplies. With two raincoats and some extra clothing I had brought, I was able to give Sam, Marla, and myself a fighting chance against the intense cold. Honestly though we didn't have the right clothes. Nor did we have time to put the tent up either. I have to give both Sam and Marla a lot of credit - not even my worst enemy much less two people I love should be forced to spend even ten minutes in that terrible cold with the wind, but these two spent over 10 hours that day shivering.  

Plus they had to be bored out of their minds because they were literally stuck in the mud with no place to go.  Had I known we would be there all day (8:30 am to 7 pm), I would have sent them home. Both my daughter and my girlfriend were good sports considering the circumstances. I felt so sorry for them when I wasn't feeling sorry for myself. The weather was so brutal and we were so unprepared! And it wasn't just us - everywhere we looked people were suffering.  It was a tough day all around.

The Muddy Turtles

At 9:30, we met our next opponents, the Muddy Turtles. I remember little about them other than we won 11-0, 11-1. We were vastly superior. With Len and Matt Paliatsos serving, we would get on a roll where we might get 5 points in a row without them even returning a volley. It wasn't exactly 'fun' beating teams like this, but it was grimly satisfying. If only it wasn't so incredibly cold!

Winning these first two games in the Winner's Bracket guaranteed us fewer games to play. As a result our next game wasn't till Noon.  We took this two hour break to put up our tent. It was a large canopy with a secondary covering that could be wrapped around three sides. Finally we could at least get out of this horrible wind!  The people next to us were happy too - we found them huddled right up against our tent which operated as a wind break for them. 

Then we set up our chairs and our card table and attempted to play some Spades. I wasn't warm, but my distress was at least manageable. Nakia and Shirley whipped Brent and me at Spades. I lost because I couldn't concentrate.  This clearly wasn't a Perfect Day - I was still a nervous wreck at our near-disaster this morning after finding the bridge closed.

Still the joy at being 2-0 made all other pains easier to handle.  I took Sam for a walk and decided to use the restroom. I have never been so grossed out in my life as I was by the port-a-potties. Yuck.  No, this definitely wasn't a Perfect Day. 

Kings Court I

I strolled over to the place where they kept track of the 116 teams in the tournament. There I made a nasty discovery.

Kings Court
, our next opponent, had only won one game to our two, yet they were even with us in the Winner's Bracket. Huh? 

Casually I asked why they had it easier than we did. It turns out the 16 best teams from the year before are 'Seeded'.  They were considered the team to beat in our bracket.

This is when I started to learn a little bit about the ins and outs of this peculiar tournament.  A 'Seeded' team doesn't have to show up early like we did to waste time on the Flotsam and Jetsam of the tournament. They get to show up late in the day after half the teams are either eliminated or nearly gone.  At this point they could proceed to practically Waltz their way to the Finals of Court Play. In other words, we were now going up against one of the best teams in the Tournament. I asked another question. "How did they do last year?"  Final Four. Hmm…

So this was going to be a real test. Kings Court was undefeated like we were. They were one of the best teams from the previous year. They had more experience. We figured we were good, but we didn't have a clue just 'how good'. We hadn't played anybody good enough to even let us guess where our weaknesses were.  Now we would be facing a team that had confidence based on previous success. This would be quite a challenge.

Our first game against Kings Court started poorly. It was obvious this would be a tough team from the start. For one thing, they had a lot of 200 pound guys. I have noticed that big beefy guys with a lot of upper body strength do very well at this strange game. A big guy may not be fast, but quickness is not that important in this sport. A powerful man can take a ball over their head deep at the back line with their fingers and somehow have the strength to send the ball back. Their power was a real advantage.

We fell behind immediately at 3-0. To make things worse, several of the players on this team acted like complete jerks. They protested many of the referee's calls, asked about the accuracy of the score, and thought it was funny to laugh at our mistakes. One man even accused us of deliberately playing 'Slow' so we could win on time instead of on points (first team to 11 points wins, but each game has a time limit. If no one reaches 11 points, the team leading at 10 minutes wins. Playing 'slow' is considered the slimiest of all Mud Volleyball strategies, but it works. Last year in 2001 we lost our most important game to this trick as one of their players deliberately threw the ball out of the pit on three occasions to protect their lead by taking time off the clock. In the final, game we lost about 2 minutes of playing time being forced to chase the ball down. If the ref had any guts, he should have penalized the jerk.

Last year we had fallen apart when faced with unsportsmanlike actions like tossing the ball away.  However this year we made the Kings Court pay for their arrogance. Once I saw how rude they were towards us, I got angry. And I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Watching from the tent, Marla later told me she was disgusted at the poor sportsmanship displayed by several of the Kings Court players. Their lack of respect made each of us more determined. After falling behind, we stiffened our resistance and began to fight back. We narrowly won the first game via the Ten-Minute Rule with a 9-7 score. This low score indicated that both teams were very good defensively. 

We switched sides only to get our butts thoroughly whipped in the second game. We got smacked something like 11-5. This was the lowest point of the day for us. These guys were very good; I definitely respected their game even though I didn't like them. After they beat us this bad, their swagger was back. To a man as they got into the water they were confident of a victory in the 3rd and decisive game. 

Things did not start well for SSQQ. The ball went back and forth. No easy points. Gradually we fell behind 4-1. But our star player John Paliatsos had begun to get the hang of this different sport. With his height and quickness, John was a dominant player who liked to play right in front.  He made several excellent saves out of the net and gobbled up everything else that was remotely near him. John's range allowed the rest of us to cover our own areas more securely.  Then he noticed one of their lady players was not very strong.  With some precision shots John was able to exploit this weakness.  Slowly the match turned.  We won 11-8.  It was a tough victory.  Counting the second game wipeout, over the three games Kings Court had actually outscored us. But SSQQ won the two close ones.  We had beaten a team that had finished in the Top Four the previous year!

We were so relieved to beat this team. It was obvious we had gotten very intimidated in the second game when they kicked our butts. We had fits handling their serves.  Even worse our nervousness carried over into the rubber match when we fell behind, but John's play at the net plus the serves of Len Messina and Matt Paliatsos had brought us back.

Now the good news was the next time we played it would be for Court Championship.

The bad news is that Kings Court would be our likely opponent. Oh great. 

We Play Kings Court for the Court Championship

There are seven teams on each of the 16 Courts, i.e. Mud Pits. 7 times 16 = 112.  Where on earth they came up with 116 teams was a real mystery to me the entire day. 

The real problem was that we had to face Kings Court again. I discovered that if we lost to them in the next match, we would immediately get to play them again since we had not lost yet.  Another words, at this part of the tournament, you were not eliminated until you had lost twice.  It was nice to discover this safety net, but the thought of playing this talented team back to back was depressing.  It is tough to beat a good team twice because they are spoiling for revenge.

As expected, Kings Court beat Faith in Our Eyes, the team my friend Gillian Tilbury played for, to move into the Court Championship game against SSQQ. The cold, the wet clothes, the mud and the wind were starting to take a huge toll on everyone. We were tired, we wanted a bath, we were sick of shivering, we wanted some warmth, and now we were facing an angry team itching for a grudge match. 

And you know what?  This time we kicked their butts, winning two straight handily. We took all the swagger out of their sails. We proved we were the real Kings of the Court. 

Let me add that the players on Kings Court were much more cordial the second time around. I do not know what accounted for the change, but the second time they acted like the true winners that they were and went out with style. I have no idea what accounted for the strange dynamics in this group. All I know is this team was just as good as the team that eventually beat us for the Tournament Championship. I had a curious encounter later in the day with a member of Kings Court who recognized me as he was leaving the grounds. He complimented our team and said he hoped we won the tournament. He also said next year he would try to talk the players into not drinking quite so much before the match. I raised an eyebrow at this comment. You can draw your own conclusion.

The Championship Round

We had to wait an hour while the other courts found their winners. Since we marched through our bracket undefeated, we finished before every other bracket.  At this point the sun started to peek out occasionally.  Some of the misery abated, although the water was going to be cold no matter what happened.

How Sam and Marla stood all the waiting is a credit to their basic human decency. During the break Sam asked me to play volleyball with her. As we bumped the ball back and forth I noticed the gaps between her toes were filled with dried mud and her matted hair didn't look too good. I knew her mother would have had a heart attack if she knew a water moccasin had been found floating just a few feet away in the water during one of the early games. Yes, this is correct - a deadly snake was floating in the water DURING one the games. But one of the players grabbed it by its neck and killed it on the spot. There were some tough guys in this Tournament!

Our impressive victory in the Court Championships had us wondering just how good we were. We figured we were going to be playing the big boys now. What Warriors and Amazons still awaited us?  There were only 16 teams left. 16 courts had yielded 16 winners. 100 teams had already met their defeat and had been sent packing. 1,000 players had gone home. The place was starting to look deserted. But SSQQ was still standing. 

Round of 16: Dirty Dawgs

Now it was single-elimination time.  Lose and go home. Live and play again. Just like the Gladiators. Our first opponent in the Championship Round was the Dirty Dawgs. They were good. They had a bunch of body-builders on their team. It was a bit bizarre to play against some deeply tanned, bleached-blonde bare-chested guys who wore gold chains as they played in the mud, but we getting used to practically anything at this point. 

The Dirty Dawgs were good. They got off to a huge 8-0 lead even though we theoretically had the advantage with the wind at our backs. Typically it is difficult to play against the wind, but whoever was serving for them knew what he was doing. Serve after serve suddenly took a wind-aided huge dip right in front of our lunging players. We looked ridiculous - the Dirty Dawgs were kicking our butts!  But somehow we crawled back in the match. Brent Barker got a couple points off serve. Matt Jackson played some great defense and broke their serve.

Then John Paliatsos got on a roll with his own serve. He noticed the Dirty Dawgs left the near line exposed with a very weak girl player practically all by herself. I know it doesn't sound very sportsmanlike, but I was thrilled to see John plunk one serve after another right down that line. The Dawgs were in big trouble. They moved several players over to protect the line so John went to the other side of the court. The next thing you know John tied the game up! 

I am proud to say I contributed a huge play during this run. The ball was spinning high right above the net. Since the wind made everything so unpredictable, I slogged my way as close as possible to the net. The man closest to me across the net did the same thing. The ball was coming to him. All he had to do was tap it down for an almost certain point. Although it is nearly impossible to jump for anything in Mud Volleyball, that's exactly what I did to block his shot at the net. I got three fingers on his shot which was just enough to make the ball spin crazily on top of the net and roll back to his side. Point, SSQQ.

The bad news is I slipped coming down and fell under the water. I got some muddy water in my eyes. Weird as this sounds, I literally saw the world as pure brown for about 45 seconds till my tear ducts managed to finally clear all the mud out. Shivering violently, mud between my teeth, seeing nothing but a brown world, and flush with excitement, I had one of those moments where you step out of your body and take a quick look at yourself.

As I awaited the next serve I realized for the umpteenth time this is not a sport for normal people.  Mud Volleyball is a sport for people with tattoos, rings in their ears, beer bellies, big muscles, bleached hair, gold chains in muddy water, gang-related bandannas, psych-ward refugees, and guys who catch snakes with their bare hands.

What in the world am I doing here? Who cares!  I just wanted to win!

And win we did. The final score was 11-8. We scored 11 straights points to come from behind. Their spirits broken by our huge comeback, the Dirty Dawgs were no match for us in the next game. We smoked them.

108 teams gone. Eight teams left in the tournament. 

Round of 8: Mud Slingin' Cherrypoppers

There was no sitting now.  We immediately played our next opponent, the dangerous Mud Slingin' Cherrypoppers.  Nakia Harrison told us she knew several of the players on this team. She warned us this was a pretty dangerous team.  Well, so were we. After that comeback in the previous match, we felt invincible. We beat the Cherrypoppers handily in two straight games. Spectators later told us we looked like a machine out there. Everyone knew what they were doing and we played as a team. We were good!

112 teams gone. Four teams left in the Tournament - SSQQ was in the Final Four!

Round of 4: Schnells Crew 

Our next match against a team known as Schnells Crew was quite bizarre. There are two referees for each match. One referee calls the game while the other keeps the score. As I watched Schnells Crew get in the water to prepare, the Game Referee turned to me and announced in no uncertain terms we were in a lot of trouble. He said this was easily the best team he had seen all day. I replied that we hadn't gotten this far by being pushovers. I promised him we would bring something to the party as well. He smiled. Was it pity we had to play them?

I liked the players on Schnells Crew. They reminded me of my own team. All of them looked to be in their 30s and up. They seemed alert and 'professional'. They were workmanlike in their approach to the game. No trash talking from these guys. One man wore a Rice Rugby teeshirt. I imagine all them were college grads. And I speculated these guys were land volleyball players just like we were. I would enjoy playing these guys on land!! They seemed like a nice bunch of people, not the kind to toss a ball to take time off the clock.  However no one on their team spoke a word to us, so I was left with my fantasies about who they were back in the real world.

The game got off to a slow start. There was good defense and no big service runs. We went ahead by one, they went ahead by one, and then we tied the score at 4-4. We went ahead 5-4 only to hear the other referee - the one keeping score - call out that the other team was ahead instead. We were shocked. Quickly we protested. The score keeper had obviously had one beer too many. In fact there was a can next to his feet as he watched. The head referee consulted Schnells Crew. Their captain, the Rice Rugby guy, turned out to be a classy guy.  He quietly agreed with us, so the head ref nervously changed the score to 5-4, SSQQ's favor.

After several hard-fought side-outs, we managed to win another point. Then we won yet another point only to hear score keeper announce the new score was 6-5 our favor, not 7-4. This was sad.  Again I have to thank the graciousness of the other team and their captain for supporting our protest the second time as well

Although Schnells Crew was a talented team, we were playing our best ball of the day at this point. Both games were close, but we were never in danger.

As we surgically dismantled a good team like Schnells Crew, I couldn't help but be so impressed with our team.  We were really good!  Only two teams left.  We were in the Finals!

About Our Team

The biggest question mark going in was how good John's two Matts were. I had never seen them before but they turned out to be excellent players.

Matt Jackson was a terrific defensive player. He consistently sent hard serves back over the net with few exceptions all day long.

John's brother Matt Paliatsos was an excellent all-round player, but I remember him best for his wicked serve.  In fact, Matt P and Len Messina scored so many points off their serves that the games were usually won before I even got a chance to serve.

Thanks to these guys I only got to serve twice the whole day!.  That's how good they were.  No wonder I hit the net on my first serve; I never got any practice!   Both men used overhead 'spike' serves. Because the water made the ball heavy and the cold made the ball hard, a good serve was a devastating weapon. Nailing about 80% of their serves, they consistently put the other teams in a deep hole right from the start.  We owed a lot of our success to these guys with the cannonball serve!

Nakia Harrison was not only good for a woman player, she was better than practically all the men too. This sport does not favor women. Because women are shorter, they have less mobility in the water. Because the ball is wet, it is extremely heavy. Few women have the strength to take the ball on their fingers and propel it back over the net, but Nakia was a strong woman. She could even return the ball all the way from the back row.  Her serves were strong too.  Nakia was a huge reason our team was so good.  I would have named her to the All-Tournament team if such an opportunity was given to me.  There was only one other woman I noticed the whole day who I felt was in her league. 

Rocky Kneten and Brent Barker both struggled a bit early in the day, but improved dramatically as they gained experience.  By the time we hit the Championship Round, both men were playing great defense and making a lot of points for us. 

Shirley Grossestreuer played well. She had a couple rough spots handling serves when the wind kicked up, but then so did the rest of us. Shirley was a major source of suspense to rest of her team all day long.  Marla had inadvertently discovered the night before that Shirley had made other plans for Saturday.  Shirley had a date to meet a certain young man at 2 pm for a drive up to New Braunfels. The idea was to connect there with a group of dancers from SSQQ who were meeting that night to dance at Gruene Hall. In other words, based on last year, Shirley was so sure we would be done with early in the day that she had cynically double-booked the day. Hmm.

The problem was, after Angela failed to appear, Shirley became indispensable. You can't play without two women and we were out of backups. Needless to say, we kept a good eye on Shirley all afternoon for reasons other than her looks. Trooper that she is, Shirley gave up her new-found love to stick around.  She played brilliantly all the way through despite the enormous risks to her social life.  Now that is the right attitude!

John Paliatsos and Len Messina were our stars.  Best friends, John loves to needle Len about anything and everything. Athletically John's height gives him an advantage over Len when it comes to land volleyball, but frankly Len was every bit John's equal in the water. As I mentioned earlier, Len got us so many points off serve it was ridiculous. And he easily made more highlight reel plays than probably the whole rest of the team put together.  Len was spectacular. 

John was our leader. Although in the past I have noticed he can have a temper at times, I never saw him get angry with anyone. It isn't always easy being the best athlete and being forced to watch your teammates make mistakes, but John was wonderful. He was supportive and confident and quick with the kind words. I can't imagine how we would have accomplished as much as we did without John leading with his encouragement and with his play.  He always hung in there and we followed his example. John's leadership was especially apparent after we got blown out by Kings Court in Game 2, then fell behind in the deciding game.  First he made sure everyone kept their head in the game and then he began to make the plays that turned the tide.  John was also the major force behind our huge comeback against the Dirty Dawgs. In the two situations were we were on the ropes, John Paliatsos was clearly the biggest star on a team loaded with exceptional athletes. 

As for me, I guess I played pretty well for an old guy (52). Now that I think about it, Brent Barker and I were probably the oldest guys in the tournament. All the other guys our age were either referees, guards at the front gate, or helping to run the Tournament.

You don't suppose that most men our age probably have the sense to stay out of the mud, do you? 

The Championship Game Against Stars on Mud

As we prepared for our final opponent, Stars on Mud, I was disconcerted to see the preliminary omens were not good.

I semi-believe in omens.  My favorite movie is 'The Man Who Would Be King'. One of the major scenes in this movie deals with all the bad omens that occur after Sean Connery defies the will of the Buddhist priests. 

Before the tournament started, I had a hunch we were going to be very good.  Let me add all the omens leading up to the Tournament promised a huge success. For example, I thought getting John and Len on our team right at the start was a very good omen.

However now as our final moment neared, the energies seemed to have turned against us. Three things bothered me about the Championship Game.

First my friend Mike Gerstenberger said something that made my blood chill.  Mike G is the guy who originally persuaded me to play on his mud team two years earlier.  I blame him in a good-natured way for getting me hooked on Mud Volleyball.  Mike couldn't play this year due to a shoulder injury (or maybe an attack of sanity), but he was still nice enough to drop by and check on us.  I know he meant well, but he spooked me by telling me how much better SSQQ was than the two teams he saw playing in the other semifinal match. I am too superstitious - it sounded like jinx talk to me. 

The second omen was that our game was switched to Court One. This is the same mud pit where my team had experienced so much trouble the year before because the water depth was very uneven. (Story of 2001) 

Now today a
s I got in the water, it seemed the court was just as bad this year. One side was much higher than the other. I had really bad vibes about playing on this court. I remembered how last year my team had LOST in the Court Championship despite being a better team. I wished the officials of the Tournament would have picked a better court for the Finals, but it was out of my control.  I could only frown.

The worst omen though was Marla's fall. During the previous match Marla had been sitting on a stool right behind the same score keeper who had been drinking so much he couldn't even keep score.

After an errant shot came right to her, Marla instinctively reached for the ball to keep it from rolling into the water on the adjacent court. Marla barely lost her balance, but that was all it took. Struggling to regain control, Marla slipped backwards into the filthy, cold, slimy muddy water.  She didn't just fall in - she was immersed.

I worried that the Marla Monster would emerge. I was right.  Marla came up spitting mud water out of her mouth. Next she began to scream un-ladylike epithets.  Everyone cringed in terror of her rage. It was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. 

Marla was furious that her brand-new white Calvin Klein shirt was ruined.  So was her cell phone - her pocket book had been wrapped around her wrist. 
Marla had suffered with dignity for over 10 hours in the most miserable cold imaginable, but now her spirit was broken.  She was filthy, coated with mud, soaking wet, and shivering.  Her hair was completely saturated with muddy water and the smell was driving her nuts.  Even worse, she was embarrassed.  All the men rushed to her aid, but she shooshed each and every one of them away.  She just wanted to be alone.  

Just between you and me, I would have taken a picture, but I sensed a snapshot of this final indignation would have forced her to hurt me.  My team needed me too much, so I kept the camera under wraps.  Let me add no one else dared take a picture either.

Ten minutes later, the Final Match was about to begin.  Marla was brooding in a chair all by herself.  She was sitting alone next to a deserted mud pit about 3
0 feet away.  I risked my life to go over and talk to her. I asked her if she would come stand near the court with us, but Marla said she had had enough. Marla added she could see just fine from where she was. She wished me good luck, then beckoned for me to leave.  I had been dismissed.

No, the Fall of Marla was not even remotely a good omen.  In fact, I considered it a Bad Omen of the Highest Magnitude. Unfortunately, omens or not, the game had to be played. To my surprise, we won the first game handily 11-5. The game wasn't even close.  We were in control from the start.  'So much for omens,' I thought.  Bad thought.  In the next game, I would be punished for having the impertinence to think 'Omens' were nonsense.

It was time to s
witch sides.  The moment we entered the water, we had a rude awakening. The water on this new side was so much deeper, we could barely move.  This was a huge handicap.  No wonder we had beat them so easily in the first game! 

As my punishment for disregarding omens, almost on cue a strong wind picked up the moment the second game started.  Yes, a strong wind was now in our faces. This was a very bad sign.

There are two keys to winning Mud Volleyball. If you are desperate to win, one key is to hit it to the girls (forgive me for saying it, but it is true). The more sportsmanlike key is to lob the ball to the very back of the other team's court.  The soaking wet ball is so heavy, only a very powerful man can even dream of sending the ball back over the net.  More often it requires two, even three hits to get the ball back over. This maximizes the chance of error - one mishit and we have a point. 

Now with the wind blowing against us, every one of our return shots was coming up short.  S
truggling in the deep water, even when we got to the ball, the wind held up our return shots. Either the ball fell just short of the net or it landed barely over the net in a spot where the other players could easily cut us to shreds with a well-placed return.

The combination of the wind against us and the deep water was too much to overcome. We didn't stand a chance. Our opponent Stars on Mud beat us in the Second Game just as bad as we beat them earlier.


It was obvious to me that even a vastly superior team would have big trouble winning when both the water and the wind were against them at the same time.   This particular mud pit was NOT a level playing field.  I did not like this development one bit, but it was out of my control.  Sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug.  We had just been smushed.

As the Game 3 Rubber Match started, we thought we had caught a break.  We started out on the high side and Stars on Mud were in the deep water. But at least they had the serve. We would only play 6 points before we switched sides. The wind was ridiculous.

It was imperative we get off to a good start, but we failed - they put their star player up at serve and he began the game by acing 3 points.  Although it is a huge handicap for the team to play against the wind, there is one exception.  During the day, I had discovered the hard way that serving against the wind actually makes a serve more effective. 

Returns are affected by the wind, but not Serves. It is easy to get the ball over the net because you are allowed to get out of the water to serve. By lofting the serve high in the air, the gusty winds turn the serve into a twisting knuckleball. The ball begins to float and spin only to end its trajectory with unexpected plummets.  And that's exactly what their server did- he lofted the ball in the air and let the wind play havoc with the ball's direction.

This guy had our number. We tried helplessly to field his serve, but to no avail. T
he wind made the ball take sudden wicked dips in front of our defenders.  On land, a 'platform' technique would handle this problem, but the water made using platforms difficult because the water level was at the level as the platform.  Hitting the platform meant the ball also hit the water - ball is dead!  The water forced us to take the ball with our hands, a technique that only works if the ball comes right to us or over our head. When the wind is up, a line drive serve is easier to handle than a floater, but no such luck right now. 

Down 3 points.  I was sick in my stomach.  Things didn't look good. 
We did get two points back, but they took a 4-2 lead on their next serve. Now it was time to swap sides and they still had the serve.  We were in a lot of trouble. 

Making things worse, moments after we switched sides, the sun finally came out. It was shining directly in our eyes!  That was our second BAD BREAK in a row.  Now even the powerful Volleyball Sun God was against us!

I was the first victim of the sun. 
The ball caromed off a player to my left and came straight to me.  But the ball disappeared into the giant orange ball behind it.  The Sun had managed to cut through the gray skies just at the exact moment I lunged for the ball.  I was completely blinded. I felt the muddy water splash me as the ball fell inches away from me.

Watching me lose the ball in the sun seemed to break us - we lost four more points in a row!  The Sun (Fire) had
joined the Wind and the Water in bedeviling me. Throw in the Mud (Earth) and we had all four Elements working against us.  We were pretty discouraged.

After losing five points in a row, we were in a deep 9-2 hole.  To our credit, we started to make a comeback. We made it interesting by getting it back to 9-6.  But then we quickly lost the next two points to succumb 11-6.  

At the end I felt like a moron.  As the other players griped about the difficulty of the deep end, I remembered that we were supposed to switch sides every six points.  Now I was really mad at myself - we should have switched sides a second time at 9-3, but it didn't happen.  I had gotten so caught up in the game I had completely forgotten about this rule... and apparently so did everyone else.  My blunder had doomed us to the Deep End.  Oh well.

Give them credit - Stars on Mud was a good team.  

I do not know if they were better than us or not, but I was not ashamed to lose to them.

I just know that once the powerful north wind kicked in, we were in big trouble.  Then when the sun appeared, the die was cast

If we had the Sun God on our side, the Wind God wouldn't have been such a problem, but now both Gods were against us. It was too bad this match had been decided as much by the elements as by the players, but tough luck.  

I was disappointed, of course, but I reminded myself we had made a good run.  I was very proud to be a part of a great team that had made it all the way to the Finals.   

This run had been very satisfying.  I had gotten all the revenge I had hoped for
.  After all, we had done better than 114 teams!  As a result, this was the first year I went home happy.  

Well, maybe not completely happy.  Make that as happy as you can be when you are caked head to toe with layers of mud, you are bone tired and so stiff you can barely move.  That's me there on the left... at the day's end, you can see I was one pooped puppy.


POSTSCRIPT, January 2007

-----Original Message-----
From: Rick B
Sent: Monday, January 15, 2007 3:51 PM
Subject: Mud Volleyball Tournament

I was reading your stories of the mud volleyball tournament. Sounds like you had a lot of fun.

But I have to say that I felt bad for your girlfriend Marla. I am guessing that she wasn't dressed for getting muddy that day?  How long was she able to stay clean that day before slipping into the muck?   Let me guess, part of her attire for the day was a pair of white tennis shoes? How new were they before the mud?  LOL

Great story! 

By the way, one question - what happened the next year?

 -----Original Message-----
From: Rick Archer
Sent: Monday, January 15, 2007 4:18 PM
To: Rick B
Subject: RE: Mud Volleyball Tournament

It truly was a miserable day. It was so cold I literally shivered as I played volleyball in the middle of MAY!  Imagine waiting for a serve with your teeth chattering and your knees shaking!

Marla's slip into the muddy water came right before the last game of the day. It must have been an omen since this was the only game we lost.

Sorry to say, but Marla's slip was the last straw for her.  She lost her temper and I can't say as I blame her.  Marla was so mad at me for all the suffering that day, she vowed never to return to this event again.  I think the drive home was the worst - Marla's mud started to cake on her skin and her muddy hair froze into something out of 'Bride of Frankenstein'.  All the way home, Marla reminded me she did not appreciate feeling miserable.

We had a serious conversation when we got home. Let me tell you, I got chewed out royally for getting her into that mess.  Normally Marla and I get along great.  I would estimate in the six years I have known her, we have had maybe four bad arguments. 

Considering my temper, rest assured this is a remarkable record (previous relationships have been far more volatile).  But sparks flew that night.  Marla told me in no uncertain terms how mad she was that I had put her in that spot.  I told her I didn't appreciate being blamed and yelled at.  I would rank that argument as the second worst of all our arguments. 

We eventually got over it.  We were married two years later. This fact alone proves two people who love each other can overcome practically anything.

Nevertheless, I have to admit this argument put the first nail in the Mud Volleyball coffin. Marla told me there was no way in hell she would ever come to another one of these events.  She said I could go by myself if I wanted to, but the thought of not having her there took most of the fun out of it for me. The thrill was gone. The fight had taken most of the fun out of our success.  I felt the enthusiasm drain out of me.

However, the fight was not the only reason there would no future tournament run.  The second problem was that our group had gone its separate ways. In my opinion, this was actually the major factor in giving up. We had originally become a group by playing volleyball together in my backyard on Saturdays.

Unfortunately during 2002, part of the the cement volleyball court in my back yard had been snapped in several places by a giant oak tree root.  Jagged edges protruded, making the surface too dangerous to play on.  Even worse, the repair was estimated at $10,000!!  I didn't have that kind of money just to repair a crack, so I had to call an end to playing volleyball in my backyard. 
(In 2006, I made some temporary patchwork repairs.  See pictures.)

As a result, none of us had seen each other in nine months as the 2003 Tournament approached.  This meant there was no one to prod me into trying again.  Nor did anyone go out of their way to suggest another try as Shirley had done the year before.  Apathy had set in.  If this was ever going to happen, it would have to be me stoke the fires.  And I was lukewarm at best.

I had heard our star lady player Nakia was pregnant. This was another reason I was hesitant to try again.  A talent like her would be impossible to replace! 

Despite these obstacles, there was one last chance.  I received an invitation in the mail from the Strawberry Festival inviting us back again.  This time we would be "seeded", a big advantage. This sparked a flicker of interest.

So I decided to try one last time.  I sent an email to John Paliatsos, our star player, to ask if he was interested.  John never responded.  Without him, Len, and the two Matts, we wouldn't have a prayer.  That was the nail that sealed the coffin.  We were spiked.

I had been given a first-hand insight on why many Championship teams don't do as well the following year - Injuries and Burn Out.  With great regret, I gave up the chase.  It was the end of an era.

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