Cheering for the Home Team

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Matt Garthoff welcomes the national team bus to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid.

At first glance, the format for the Intercontinental (preliminary) Round of the 2015 FIVB World League tournament appears fair: each country faces the other three teams in its pool four timesplaying host to two matches and visiting the opponents country for the other two contests. But an unusual mix of American sports culture, where volleyball sits squarely outside the mainstream-media landscape, and our rich heritage as a melting pot of immigrants from around the world, conspires to ensure that Team USA gets the visiting-team treatment even at home. It means that Matt Anderson, Micah Christenson, Erik Shoji, and company play in front of a vastly pro-Iranian crowd at the Galen Center in L.A. and one could easily mistake Hoffman Estates, Illinois, for Krakow as Polish partisans overwhelm the Sears Center Arena outside Chicago. It’s been this way for so long that very few people bother to question it any longer. But as it so happens, Im one of those few people.

On June 6, at the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State University, the U.S. Men’s National Team got to experience a true home match. The Vol-B-Que, an annual (except when the national team didnt play in the U.S. in 2013) volleyball-fan tailgate party I founded in 2011, brought together almost 700 patriotic partygoers to support the team in every way we could think of. After tailgating at the venue for hours before the match, hundreds of fans mobbed the team bus as it pulled up. The stands were filled with giant signs, including likenesses of the American players, along with coordinated chants, cowbells, and huge star-spangled banners. Costumed characters made their way inside the arena from the lawns out front, representing classic American film icons like Rocky Balboa and Forrest Gump and comic book superheroes like Captain America and Wonder Woman. We cheered Team USA on to a resounding sweep of Russia (25-23, 25-21, 25-16) and had a tremendous time doing it.

Vol-B-Que 4 raged on the lawn outside the Pyramid from noon until the 7 p.m. match time and featured a little bit of everything. Six grass courts (three for adults and three for kids), a tri-ball court, and volley pong (imagine beer pong on a much larger scale) gave attendees plenty of volleyball-playing options. DJ Roueche, DJ cleanR, and DJournee spun tunes all afternoon long. We had food trucks, a professional face painter, contests and giveaways, a silent auction with autographed merchandise, and, of course, the team bus greeting.

Three-time Olympian and 2008 gold medalist Tom Hoff served as this year’s Grand Marshal and made his entrance to the party in a brand new red Tesla as kids threw red, white, and blue confetti at the vehicle to create a ticker tape parade. Mr. Hoff brought his gold medal for the crowd to see and talked about his experiences with the national team, touching on the rivalry between the USA and Russia and describing the feeling of winning the gold in his third Olympic appearance. He was joined at the party by a cavalcade of current and former USA players including Bev and Kim Oden, Kevin Barnett, Clay Stanley, and Cassidy Lichtman, as well as the families of several current men’s national team players who would take the court that evening.

To get in on the party, volleyball fans purchased $30 Vol-B-Que 4 tickets, which included entrance to the match (a $19 value), a custom event T-shirt, a Mizuno goody bag with sponsor swag, party access, and a $7 donation to the USA Volleyball Foundation.

USAV began partnering with me on the Vol-B-Que in 2012 when Lauren Schoenherr, the Foundation’s coordinator at the time, saw potential in the idea after I brought 330 people to watch the U.S. men qualify for the London Olympics with a win over Canada. With her extraordinary help and the support of USAV, weve been able to double that number in just two years. This year, a forward-thinking club director named Daniel Reighter, who runs the Volleyballerz club in Chino, brought 60 people. If I can find a few more like him, we can fill the entire venue with Vol-B-Quers.

All in all, the event was a great success again and I couldnt be happier with its continued growth. I received a really nice congratulatory note from USA Volleyball President Doug Beal thanking Lauren and me for the four months of planning and effort we put into it. I also received some very meaningful handshakes from many of the players who love playing in front of a home crowd and know how rare the opportunity is.

But the most satisfying feeling is when someone I knowusually someone who came out for the party more than the volleyballhunts me down afterwards and says, Wow, I had no idea it would be that fun to watch. I knew the national team was good and all, but that was incredible! Those guys are amazing! When that happens, I know the feeling I get from watching our team compete is spreading to others and growing the game.

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