SOFIA, Bulgaria — It was at 9:04 in the morning when I heard the first whistle.
By the time it had made it over the courts, around the hotel, and through our window at Bulgaria’s Sofia Beach, it was barely a whisper of it’s usually-shrill self. But it was a whistle nonetheless: A tune that has become one of my favorite sounds.
It’s developed an almost-Pavlovian effect on me, those whistles.
Whistles mean it’s game day.
In an instant, I could feel a small uptick in my heart rate. The familiar tingles of nervous excitement began racing through my chest and down to my fingertips.
It had been a long time since I played in a qualifier.
Of all the nerve-wrenching moments I’ve had in sports — standing over a two-foot snake of a putt, standing on the blocks of a 200 individual medley, standing at the free throw line with little time left on the clock and a team of your best friends needing you to make both, standing in the batter’s box with runners on base — there has been nothing that gets the nerves going quite like a qualifier day.
They’re brutal, qualifiers. Single-elimination. A weird day from you or your partner, a good serving day from the other team, and that’s it. In 40 minutes, your trip across the world could very well be over.
I don’t say this to invoke your sympathy. I say this simply as a matter of fact: FIVB qualifiers are for the borderline insane. Particularly the one-stars. There is relatively no money on the line. If you’re from Canada or the U.S., even if you win, you’ll be down close to a grand, probably more. But you’ll have traded your dollars for volleyball’s most valuable currency: Points.
It’s a brutal exchange rate.
Then again: What other choice do we have?
If international volleyball is your goal — and it is mine — then this season presents a particularly thorny issue. If you don’t have enough points to get into four-stars, one-stars are basically your only option. Typically, I or Corinne Quiggle or Allie Wheeler, both of whom competed alongside me in Bulgaria — they are, as of this writing, in the quarterfinals — wouldn’t have put one-stars on our calendar this season.
(Editor’s note: Quiggle and Wheeler went on to win the tournament. More on that follows at the end of this story.)
In a typical year, we wouldn’t really be able to benefit much from them, unless we win. Even if Adam Roberts and I were to win, my points would only bump a total of 20. Hardly worth the exchange of time and money.
But COVID has ravaged the FIVB schedule in a way many might not notice. The FIVB has, understandably, loaded the schedule to prioritize the Olympic race, putting on a glut of four-star tournaments to ensure the Olympic race had enough events to make it legitimate. It had to do this. There was no other choice.
Left in the breeze, then, were the athletes who would typically compete in the three- and two-stars.
There are no three-stars this season. There were two two-stars, though one, in Prague, was postponed indefinitely, and the other, in Rwanda, is forever-iffy.
Which left a menagerie of one-stars.
With the 365-day clock ticking once more, there was no other choice but to compete, lest we lose all of our points sitting on the metaphorical bench, waiting for higher-point events that may or may not appear this year.
The result was actually quite cool: The Sofia one-star was the most talented one-star I, or anyone I spoke to in Bulgaria, have played yet.
“It is inevitable,” Onur Kara, the owner of the Sofia Beach facility, told me over breakfast one morning. The CEV and FIVB, seeing the list of a staggering 178 teams registered, actually wanted Kara to make the event a two-star. To you, the CEV, and the FIVB, this seems quite obvious: Why wouldn’t you want to expand to a two-star, with that type of field?
To the promoter, it would be nonsensical. Why bear the brunt of more prize money, why cover the costs of the hotel for the main draw athletes — in one-stars, the promoter does not have to do this — why add expense after expense when, in reality, they get the same tournament for a reduced cost?
It’s an unforeseen flaw of the star system, one specifically designed to help lower tier players climb the ladder, until the promoters saw these inherent flaws. There’s nothing nefarious, no malintent with either the FIVB or the promoters here, just simple common sense.
Why put on five-stars that costs millions when the same top-tier talent will show up to four-stars that cost half the price? Why put on two-stars when the same field must come to one-stars?
So it was that a one-star in Sofia, Bulgaria, the first event this country has ever hosted, included men such as Valeriy Samoday, a Russian who has won two events on the FIVB, took second in the Qinzhou three-star in 2019, and third in that same event in 2020. It included Maciej Rudol, a 27-year-old from Poland who, in a single tournament in Cancun, knocked out Bill Kolinske and Miles Evans, then upset both Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb. It included Mariusz Prudel, a two-time Olympian from Poland, the 2011 FIVB Most Improved Player of the Year, a 35-year-old who has played and succeeded on the game’s biggest stages.
He was in the qualifier.
He didn’t make it out of the qualifier.
Such is the awesome competition that is now featured at the lowest rung of the FIVB ladder.
We drew an impressive team as well. It was not a two-time Olympian we faced, but France’s Jeremy Silvestre and Niels Philippe-Daniel boast an impressive resume for an 11 seed in a one-star qualifier. Adam Roberts, my partner for this event and, ideally, many more to come, played Silvestre a little while ago, in Ios, Greece. He and Andrew Dentler lost in the first round of the qualifier to Silvestre and his partner, Romain Di Giantommaso, 14-21, 20-22.
Silvestre went on to win the tournament, one of three gold medals he’s won on the FIVB.
A three-time gold medalist was our first round draw.
He’s every bit as good as advertised, Silvestre. Maybe even better. We did everything we could to keep the ball away from him, and for the most part, that worked. Philippe-Daniel is a good player. Good arm. Good jump serve. Just new is all. Little nervous. A lot nervous. He handed us a few errors here and there, and Adam and I were able to dig into his trouble-shooting pattern fairly well, calling the right plays at the right times, baiting when we should, playing straight up when we should.
We won the chess match.
In four hours, we’d lose the next.
It’s a funny trend in volleyball, what happened next: We drew the team we’d practiced against all week, the team we broke bread with for every meal, the guys I recorded a podcast with just the day before. In the final round of the qualifier, we were to meet Canadians Will Hoey and Jake MacNeil.
I don’t know why it always seems to work that way, but it just does, one of those funny twists of karma that seems inevitable. In the two practices leading up to the qualifier, neither of us really showed our cards to the other. We both served the other team about 50-50 to each guy, which is the polite thing to do in practice. We didn’t strategize a whole heck of a lot, though Adam and I did frequently discuss what we would do in certain scenarios if we were playing a match. But for the most part, we tinkered: I messed with different serves, different swings, different sets, different block calls. It’s nice to win in practice, but it isn’t necessarily the point.
The point is to win in competition.
Against France, it worked rather well. Adam played one of the smoothest matches I’d seen him play. He was the rock. I haven’t done the numbers, but I’d guess his side out percentage was above 80 percent. He passed perfect, dug perfect, sided out in serve receive and transition. He was, frankly, the reason we won so comfortably.
We didn’t trail for a single point the entire match.
On the heels of that, we were confident heading into our final bout with Canada. MacNeil and Hoey, meanwhile, were the opposite. They had struggled against a Bulgarian team they really had no business struggling with, and they knew it. It would be wrong to say they took them lightly, but they were sleepwalking a bit.
They did not sleepwalk against us.
They came ready to play a little chess.
They played us entirely different than they did in practice. In practice, MacNeil was dancing a bit on defense, jabbing here, feinting there, baiting us into certain shots. In the match, he was disciplined, still, quiet. Hoey is 6-foot-10. He’s a big block, and a good one, two traits that don’t often go hand-in-hand. There was no need for MacNeil to be feinting or jabbing or faking. If Adam were to hit line, it would have to be almost perfect: high enough to get over Hoey, fast enough to beat MacNeil to the sand. If Adam were to hit angle or cut, it would have to be sharp enough to get around Hoey’s block, and fast enough to beat MacNeil to the sand.
They executed almost flawlessly.
We hadn’t been down a single point against France. We started out down 0-4 to Canada and, after scoring three straight to make the switch down 3-4, we never got within one point for the remainder of the set. MacNeil was awesome. Hoey was awesome. This was not the team we saw in practice. This was not the team who played Bulgaria earlier that morning.
This was a bona fide rising Canadian team, one I’d expect to see become the third, maybe even second, team in Canada in not too long, should they get a little more consistent.
Down we went again in the second.
It’s tough, being down. You begin pressing, doing things you wouldn’t, anything to pick up a few points: serving more aggressive, hitting different angles, taking risks on defense. Sometimes this creates a landslide effect: You press too much and get out of control, and you lose whatever slippery grasp you had over the match. Sometimes it works: You pick up an ace, a block, a dig. You come back. You flip the script, turn momentum back in your favor.
For a brief moment, that’s exactly what happened.
We knew, from practice, that Hoey and MacNeil can be streaky. We knew we could go on runs. We did — just never the big one we needed. Up 11-9, I missed a line block I needed — absolutely needed — to seal. MacNeil made an almost perfect swing, finding the sliver of window I left open for him, and he banged it by, one of many low lines he blasted by me, one of many points I left on the table.
It isn’t an easy block, and I want to give MacNeil credit: It is a difficult swing to execute. He takes his set off the net, further off than any American I play against. He’s smaller, standing 6-feet. He’s a student of the game as well, watching film on elite players of similar stature, primarily Grzegorz Fijalek, Bruno, Guto. Taking the set off the net creates more angles for him, making it a more difficult task for the blocker, who now has more angles under his jurisdiction.
To be frank, I’m awful when players can side out well off the net, which is a problem, seeing as more and more players are doing it — Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb being the perfect examples of this, if you’ve watched them lately — a necessary survival mechanism as blocks get bigger and bigger.
I practiced against Guto and Saymon Barbosa two years ago, and I can’t recall a single time I proved effective against Guto. MacNeil takes a similar set, and has a similar arm. He can put pace on a ball from five, six feet off the net. He can hit sharp angles from well off the net.
He did just that. Maybe a better blocker would have sealed them off, maybe not. I didn’t. On the surface, sure, it may appear I blocked well. I averaged more than two blocks per set in the qualifier, an exceptional rate. Statistically, I was fantastic. But you can make statistics say whatever you want. The stat that doesn’t get written is the blocks I should have had — the blocks an elite blocker, like a Bourne or Theo Brunner would get — but missed. I’d estimate that number to be no less than four in our match against Canada.
Because I missed so many blocks, I made Adam’s job exponentially harder: Now he felt he had more court to cover, seeing as I was doing so little at the net. He had to take risks, which opened up court for MacNeil.
And MacNeil carved away.
Every time we began a run, MacNeil put a band-aid on the bleeding and made a play on defense. Still, we had steadied out on offense. We were holding onto a 13-12 lead until we weren’t. In a blink, it seemed, we were down 18-13, a devastating run. Hoey made his presence felt at the net, picking up a few big blocks, forcing a few errors. MacNeil transitioned well.
We were pressing again.
This time it had the reverse effect. I turned to my jump-serve, which had worked when I hit it in bounds.
I didn’t hit it in bounds.
Down 19-14 we went.
An insurmountable deficit, especially given how much I was still pressing. I gifted the Canadians with a net, pressing for a block I needed, though I didn’t need it at all. MacNeil hit it out of bounds, and what would have been 17-19 instead became 16-20 because I hit the net. We lost two points later, 17-21. It was a good match. A clean match. We didn’t play all that badly. The Canadians played fantastic. They deserved it.
Typically, there’s a sometimes-brief, sometimes-not-so-brief grieving process after you lose in a qualifier. We didn’t have time for that. In six days, we had a bigger tournament to play, a bigger match to win.
In six days, we’d be in Russia.
We’d be in a four-star, a country quota against Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner. The only direction we could go was forward, and eastward.
To Sochi, Russia.
In the semifinals, they knocked out third-seeeded Dorian Klinger and Ronja Klinger of Austria (3) 21-17, 18-21, 15-10. Then in the final, they beat second-seeded Venezuelans Norisbeth and Gabi Brito 21-18, 21-16. Quiggle, who played at Pepperdine, and Wheeler, who played at USC, split 1,000 Euros, roughly $1,218 U.S. dollars.
“The qualifier was super strong and we played great teams the whole tournament. I believe this was a strong one-star and our first international tournament in over a year and a half,” Quiggle told us. “Winning this tournament was one of our goals at the very start of our training segment.
“We had a tough first few months in 2021, I was out for almost three months so being able to recover and get back to work with this goal in mind and achieve it feels absolutely amazing! We’re fired up & hungry for more.”
The men’s title went to Russians Maskim Hudyakov and Alexandr Kramarekno. They were seeded fifth and beat 10th-seeded Jakob Novak and Maciej Rudol of Poland 21-18, 21-13.