QINZHOU, China – A few weeks ago, I bailed out of the Qinzhou FIVB three-star. Told Mike Boag I didn’t want to play. And when I sent that text, sitting in the shade at an AVP Next in Huntington Beach, I must admit, I was wholly relieved.
It had been a long season. Upwards of playing in 30 tournaments and writing hundreds of stories about beach volleyball. When I sent that text, it felt as if the world was lighter. Off-season was coming.
And then I thought about it, and I thought about it some more.
How many opportunities can you really get to jump from a NORCECA guy, the doldrums of the FIVB ranks, to an FIVB three-star?
And as my new Canadian friend, Julie Gordon, told me on the bus ride back to the hotel from our Tuesday practice, “You have to take a shot.”
Boag and I took our shot.
And on Tuesday, it paid off with dividends I quite honestly wasn’t sure it would. Neither of us have many points, almost all of which have come from NORCECAs. If this were in the middle of the season, we wouldn’t have made it into the qualifier. But this it October, and it’s China, and few want to play in October, and even fewer want to play in China in October, especially for a three-star.
We got the 16 seed, which put us in the bracket with top-seeded Japan, whom we’d only see if we beat 17th-seeded Israel. That was far from a guarantee, seeing as Israel had a fair amount of FIVB experience and Mike and I had only played once together, in a country quota on Friday against Billy Kolinske and John Hyden.
Mike and I had never won a match together, and here we were, thousands of miles and around a thousand dollars spent, needing to win two. The one loss we did have on the ledger, to Kolinske and Hyden, was one that came accompanied with a dreaded but valuable moral victory. We did lose, yes, but we lost in three sets — 21-16, 19-21, 11-15 – to a team that, had they entered this event, I’d consider podium favorites.
I told our coach, Evie Matthews, afterwards that we wouldn’t see a better team than Hyden and Kolinske in the qualifier. If we played like we did in the country quota, we should qualify.
For perhaps the first time in my 29 years of life, I was actually right.
We played the same, if not even a tad better, here in Qinzhou. We handled a solid Israeli team of Sean Faiga and Netanel Ohana, 21-16, 21-18, before meeting Japan’s Katsuhiro Shiratori and Yusuke Ishijima.
Before our match, I compared Shiratori to a Japanese Sean Rosenthal: a two-time Olympian, having played in Beijing and London, along with more than 100 other professional events. Ishijima, a mountain of a physical specimen, competed on the indoor national team.
A few months ago, at the Tokyo four-star, they took Poland’s Michael Bryl and Grzegorz Fijalek to 14-16 in the third, which preceded a marathon three-setter with Dutch Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen. Poland and the Netherlands are two of the top teams in the world, and this Japanese team battled them both.
This would be no easy match.
Thing was, though, after dropping the first set, 16-21, I felt like Boag and I were legitimately the better team. I don’t know what the error count was — I’ll count it later when I watch the film — but I’d venture to say that we made eight to 10 errors as a team. We didn’t miss by much, an inch here, half a foot there. Our mistakes were aggressive, and we were always in system.
And we only lost by five.
Typically, when you make that many errors against a high-level team, you’re lucky to break double-digits.
The second set proved me — miraculously — right again. The balls we were once hitting inches out were tagging lines. We didn’t make any more plays than we did in the first set; we just didn’t gift-wrap half the set to them in the second.
We won 21-12.
I can’t remember a time I’d been more confident heading into a third set. There’s a strong headwind — one good side, one very bad side — and when we received on the bad side to start, winning the switch, 3-2, I knew we had it. We pushed the lead to 8-4 before Ishijima took over with big blocks and bigger swings.
Suddenly we were down 14-13, though for whatever reason — I swear we have some Chinese angels looking down on us — I still wasn’t all that concerned, even though we faced match point. Maybe it’s from playing 30-plus tournaments this year, and my nerves are just so fried they don’t work anymore. But Mike sided out like I knew he’d do, and we traded sideouts until 18-18.
We baited Shiratori into swinging angle, and he was kind enough to hit it directly into my right hand for a block.
Shiratori was then kind enough to hit it straight to Mike on another angle dive, and Mike dug it and sided out like I knew he’d do, like he’d done all day long.
Into the main draw, taking out Japan’s No. 1 team in the process.
Not a bad debut as partners.
Not a bad first day for a tournament I once tried so hard to quit.
Editor’s note: Boag and Mewhirter are now in Pool A as the No. 32 seed. They play top-seeded Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich of Switzerland at 8 a.m. local time Thursday (5 p.m. Wednesday Pacific).
Click here for all of the results and the schedule, courtesy of BVBinfo.com.
Boag and Mewhirter were also the featured match in the FIVB recap. Read about it here.