Belfast, Northern Ireland, might not be well known for volleyball. But that’s where two volleyball teams from the United States found themselves this summer, competing in the World Police and Fire Games.
The first WPFG were held in San Jose, Calif., in 1985. Since then, this biannual, multi-sport event could be considered the “law enforcement and firefighter Olympics.” And this year’s competition felt no less fierce than last summer’s games in London.
One of the American teams consisted of New York City firefighters. The other team’s roster was comprised of state troopers from upstate New York and police officers from the NYPD, nearby Nassau County, Toronto, Canada, and Virginia. AVCA Hall of Famer Jerry Matacotta coached both teams.
The two squads played well. But faced with stiff competition, they came away with a combined 1-10 win-loss record. The firefighters’ victory over the Irish Garda team produced the only win of the tournament for the two squads. (Garda is the national police force of Ireland.)
But that 1-10 mark is deceiving.
“The record definitely doesn’t show the level of play that we had. Everybody fought tooth and nail for every point,” said Kevin Kozub, NYC firefighter, Engine 326.
It didn’t help that Kozub’s team was shorthanded, missing two key starters. One of the team’s best hitters had a family conflict and couldn’t make the trip. That meant that Rob Zucal, a libero, had to fill in at strong side.
Perhaps the two teams should have deputized Karch Kiraly, or granted him temporary firefighter status? “Absolutely. In the blink of an eye I would have done that,” Kozub joked.
Alas, the competition was only open to active and retired police officers, state troopers, firefighters, and prison and border security officers. Both American teams faced a high level of play. The police team played in the more competitive Division I, while the firefighters competed in Division II.
Matacotta said the level of play the police team faced was comparable to some teams in NCAA Division I volleyball.
According to Kozub, Division II in Belfast was on par with, at least, NCAA Division III in the U.S. Kozub played volleyball and baseball for John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. (He also played beach volleyball in the WPFG.)
There were only four teams in the top level in the WPFG volleyball tournament – the U.S., Brazil, and two squads from Russia. In the 2011 WPFG, which were held in New York City, the police team beat Brazil to win a bronze medal. But this time around they were handicapped by a lack of height.
Matacotta said his tallest players stand at 6'4", compared to one Russian team with middle blockers who were 6'9" and outside hitters who were 6'6".
“Our middles were where we had some height.” But, continued Matacotta, they struggled against their taller opponents. “Our blocking schemes were based on our middles trying to block everything, which is very, very difficult,” Matacotta said.
Six-foot-seven George Matthews, a Nassau County police officer who played on the ’11 team, saw limited playing time due to an Achilles tendon injury. Matthews played college volleyball at Long Island University-Southampton. In addition to a lack of height, the police team didn’t have a true opposite.
“We were in a lot of long rallies, but we didn’t have the terminator,” Matacotta said. “In men’s volleyball, a terminator is a necessity.”
The two teams practice on Wednesdays at Maspeth High School in Queens, New York, and are sponsored by Mizuno and Molten. Mizuno provided the team with the sneakers and uniforms they wore in Belfast; Molten supplied the warm-up shirts and volleyballs.
But when the firefighter’s team packed for Belfast, they took more with them than just uniforms and volleyball shoes. They carried photographs of two former team members, fellow firefighters Mike Carlo and Tim Welty, who both died responding to the 9/11 terror attacks at the World Trade Center.
Bill Miccio, a lieutenant with Ladder 49 in the Bronx, talked about Carlo and Welty’s continued presence on the team. “We have photos that we take with us all the time,” he said. “We write on our shirts: We miss you, we’ll never forget, you’re always with us.”
Kozub echoed that sentiment, even though he didn’t personally know the two first responders.
“I only know them through stories the guys told me and the pictures,” Kozub said. “[I know] we’re always going to take them with us no matter where we go. I thought that was phenomenal.”
Despite their record in Belfast, both teams are determined to play well when the WPFG comes to Fairfax, Va., in 2015.
“We want to put together a Division I police team that can win a gold medal,” Matacotta said. They will also be looking to pull talent from border guards, customs officials, and the FBI, he added.
The firefighter team might be facing more international competition even before the 2015 WPFG. Matacotta is hoping to bring a volleyball team from the Emerald Isle and Northern Ireland stateside, perhaps in the spring of 2014.
“We spoke to them about coming to the United States. They wanted to try to get a combined team of some policemen from Northern Ireland and Ireland and come over to the United States to play the fire department team here in [Queens],” Matacotta said.
The AVCA coaching legend also talked about returning to Northern Ireland to do a camp and some clinics, possibly next summer. He hopes to deepen the teams’ skills so that they are ready for the challenges the 2015 games are sure to bring.
Even though the police team didn’t have a powerful opposite and the two squads won just one of 11 matches, it was still a worthwhile trip to Belfast.
Firefighter Dave Hayes summed it up nicely: “We made lots of new friends from around the world and I look forward to seeing them in Fairfax.”
Originally published in January 2014