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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016

Lion king of the volleyball court

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's tough having a secret. That was made very clear this past weekend when my friend Pate asked me to play in a charity sand volleyball tournament.

At first I was reluctant. The last time I had played volleyball was 16 years and five months ago. I can give you hours and minutes, too, because performances like that are talked about for years and remembered in nightmares, err, dreams forever.

But we do all kinds of things for our friends and besides, who wouldn't want to take part in a sand volleyball tournament? Girls in tiny bikinis jumping and diving around in the sand and me in my new Speedos. I was all in. Well, until Pate told me we were playing in a cave in Crystal City. Yes, a cave, where the temperature is in the mid-50s. OK, who wouldn't want to play volleyball in a cave, especially when teams are asked to dress up for a costume contest?

So Pate put together the best team money isn't needed to buy. Four girls and three guys called Safe Sets. For some reason that I still haven't figured out we wore scrubs. I guess we were supposed to be like doctors and nurses and people were safe around us or something. Safe from losing maybe.

Anyway, as we made our entrance into the cave, I have to say it was impressive. We weaved our way down to the sand courts admiring the cave and all of its paths. There were plenty with do-not-enter signs. That's funny because those are just the places I wanted to enter.

As we reached the courts I realized we might be in for a little more than we bargained for. Especially when, as the tallest player on our team, I was looking up at one of the girls in a college volleyball warm up on another team. But Pate had a secret weapon to unleash: the scrawny guy in the scraggly beard. Me.

I was like a caged lion ready to be released. And finally we took the court to warm up. Since we were playing on sand our entire team shed our socks and shoes and hit the sand. It took about two minutes for this caged lion to want to curl up in a blanket in a warm living room. For those who aren't familiar with caves, it isn't warm in them. It is about 55 degrees which makes the sand 55 degrees and not the nice warm sand on the beaches of Florida.

I quickly put my socks back on my frigid feet and returned to the court. Still cold but better we warmed up, if you could really get warm in that cave. Of course, I tried to suppress my talents because you can't give away a secret.

Even warming up I think my talents showed because we were given a bye in the first round, meaning we didn't even have to play a match to advance in the winner's bracket. Maybe they had heard about me or maybe it was because we traveled the farthest, but I'm pretty sure it was my reputation.

So after waiting to play it was time to take the sand. Our knowledgeable coach asked if anyone was OK not playing at first since we could only have six on the court at once. I quickly raised my hand. Coach Pate and I were on the same page. Hide the secret weapon as long as possible.

Our first match we played the Scabs, dressed in their NFL official outfits. And I watched as the two teams exchanged points. It wasn't a fair exchange though as the Safe Sets were falling behind. Then it was time to uncage the lion.

In one of the greatest coaching decisions ever made, Coach Pate took himself out and inserted me into the lineup. Immediately it paid dividends as the first ball I touched actually went over the net and couldn't be returned. I could feel the crowds start to gather around our court.

The very next play the ball floated to my left and I dove with all my might and actually kept it in play. Funny thing about sand in a cave -- it's full of rocks. As I got up I looked at my knee which had a strange feeling. It was bleeding with a strawberry the size of a quarter I'm sure would have required emergency surgery to mere mortals but I'm a lion and played on.

Only the Scabs saw the injury and began hitting the ball my way over and over. Being less than 100 percent I wasn't able to properly hit the ball (that's my story and I'm sticking to it) and before I knew it we had lost, falling into the loser's bracket.

The great thing about double elimination tournaments is you have to lose twice before you go home. And this lion wasn't going to let us lose twice.

Our next opponent, Pounding Balls, looked imposing with their tall players but we were only mostly intimidated. We looked like professionals as we warmed up with players diving to get to every ball. Of course, Coach Pate was nowhere to be found.

As the match started I served first. That was going to work out well for us. My serve is illegal in 49 of the 50 states and it exploded off my hand and looped over the net. Somehow they returned, which shocked my teammates and the ball fell to the sand between us.

But all was well as we matched our opponents point-for-point. As word spread, Coach Pate finally realized we were playing and showed up. The Safe Sets looked like a well-oiled machine, taking the lead.

That's when Coach Pate decided to make a coaching decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He benched the lion. Just because I fell into the net at one point, costing our team a point was no reason to put the lion back in the cage. I could see our opponents breathe a sigh of relief as they retook the lead and began to find holes in our machine as I could only look on.

Coach Pate gave it his all, even diving for a ball at one point. The cave shook and stalactites fell. Now I know why there were rocks in the sand. But when the sand settled, Safe Sets lost to Pounding Balls. Such is life.

But besides having lots of fun and getting to play volleyball in a cave one other good thing came from the day. The secret is still under wraps, ready to be revealed next year. You can only cage a lion for so long.

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David Jenkins
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