OSHKOSH, Wisconsin — It’s possible that even Joe and Gage Worsley’s parents wouldn’t have recognized their boys. Faces and arms caked in mud. Tank tops soaked in all manner of slop. Scraped. Limping off the aches of eight consecutive grass volleyball matches, culminating in one of the most unexpected — to everyone but the Worsleys, of course — wins in the Waupaca Boatride’s storied history.
So you can’t really blame the bartenders for asking who they were, when they came gimping to the bar, ordering a few celebratory drinks following their victory.
“We said ‘We won!’ And they said ‘What tournament did you win?’ ‘We won open!’ ‘What’s your last name?’ ‘Dude!’” recalled Gage, a senior libero at Hawai’i and the younger of the two brothers. “I know we’re kinda underassuming, but the court’s right there!’ We were the champions, and here comes me and Joe, limping up.”
It is not the first, and far from the last, occasion in which someone has guessed wrong about the Worsleys. On the surface, there is little about them that would suggest elite athlete. Joe, formerly a setter for Hawai’i and now competing in Germany, is 6-foot-1, as is Gage. They’re fit, to be sure, but they’re not rippling with muscles, either. When surrounded by myriad gigantic men at Waupaca, where most lineups were filled out with players 6-foot-4 and up, it is easy to peg them as underdogs.
Nothing new here. Just the same old tired narrative for the Worsleys to prove wrong.
“Every time I go to a new team or a new program, because of my size, I always have to prove myself,” said Joe, who won the Lloy Ball Award as the nation’s best setter following his senior year in 2019. “I’m back to ground zero every time, whether it’s overseas or whatever, I always have to do that. That mindset has always been with me.”
Joe moved the first mountain. As a high school recruit, he narrowed his list of potential schools to UCLA, Ohio State, Pepperdine, and Hawai’i. It’s no small matter, to be choosing from those programs, all of which are in the nation’s top tier of volleyball schools.
Yet only one, Hawai’i, gave him the chance to set. Even then, coach Charlie Wade was far from guaranteeing that spot to Joe.
“He wasn’t telling me I was going to be the guy. Nobody was telling me that,” Joe said. “The program at the time, it was right before 2015, they hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in a while, I didn’t know many guys there, didn’t know a lot about the school, and it was a last second decision that I went to UH. But they gave me a shot.”
A shot is all he needed. A shot is all the Worsleys ever need. Joe quickly became the guy, and Hawai’i soon became one of the most formidable programs in the country. Soon, the Stan Sheriff Center was selling out, with more than 10,000 fans watching as Joe led UH to a 27-6 record in 2017, then 19-8 in 2018. Then came the peak: 28-3 in 2019. The only losses came to Long Beach. Two went to five sets. The National Championship went four.
“I still think that team is the best we’ve ever had,” Gage said.
Count them out if you will. As the evidence mounts, and the wins pile, it simply gets harder and harder to do so. The year Joe was named the nation’s best setter, he did so in a year when his competition included Josh Tuaniga and Micah Ma’a, both of whom have been traveling with the United States National Team.
“I knew I was a setter. I knew I could set at the next level, I just needed to work my butt off,” Joe said. “I had a lot of work to do. Hawai’i is the one who gave me an open door, at least an opportunity.”
Gage, too, has capitalized on his opportunity. He’s been named the nation’s best libero for two years in a row. All of this is due to a number of variables: work ethic, an enviable number of touches, having played the game for most of their lives. And creativity.
To watch Joe set is the sporting equivalent of watching someone paint. To watch Gage dig is to see an inexplicable prescience. To watch them compete in grass is to see two brothers who know they have every measurable stacked against them — and then use that to their advantage.
“We love that part of it, just thinking of creative new ways to win,” Joe said. “That type of volleyball — our personalities, we love playing in anything. We’re not picky about stuff. We just love the grass game because it’s so creative. It allows you to do things, and there’s no system to it. Just figure out the best way to win. Every team there was doing something different. It’s the speed of the offense of indoor, and the defense is more of the beach side.”
They’ve played plenty of both. They’ve won on whatever surface you’ll put them on. Sand? They’ve won there, though both laugh at the idea of competing on the AVP Tour together. Indoor? Peruse Hawai’i’s records since the Worsleys joined the program. They’ve won their fair share.
Grass? Take a quick dive down their YouTube channel, Out of System, and you’ll see just how creative an offense can be.
“Who are these freaks?” wondered Theo Brunner, one of the best blockers on the AVP, after watching a few highlight clips.
They’re just the Worsleys. You might not immediately recognize them. You might not peg them the favorites of a tournament (those days may be over). Heck, you might question, as the bartenders in Oshkosh did, that they actually played open.
And, of course, you’d be wrong.
Everyone is always wrong when assuming about the Worsleys.