OSHKOSH, Wisconsin — The crowd knew.
It knew early, in the quarterfinals. Even when there were half a dozen other fantastic matches going on throughout the muddy and wet and wonderful grounds at the Waupaca Boatride, they knew there was only one team truly worth watching.
It was that of two diminutive — by volleyball standards — brothers, Gage and Joe Worsley, and their not diminutive former teammate and good friend at Hawai’i, Dalton Solbrig. And then, after an ankle injury to Solbrig, it became that of those two diminutive brothers and their coach/teammate Luke Lau– and then, after Lau cramped, it became that of those two diminutive brothers and a guy Joe had met once. Name was Chris Shaffer. They saw him sitting in the crowd. He hadn’t played and was therefore eligible to do so and, well, they had to pull someone, didn’t they?
It was one of dozens of magic tricks those Worsleys pulled out in Wisconsin, putting on a show every bit deserving of the mobbed crowds around their court for the final four hours of the evening on Saturday, an evening in which they won in every single type of way, including the $3,000 for winning the triples grass tournament, annually the biggest draw at the Boatride, which has been held since 1984.
What a tournament it was, too, for the women’s winners: Delaney Mewhirter, Katie Spieler, and Carly Skjodt. A year ago, Spieler won the beach tournament with Carly Wopat and followed it up with a runner-up finish on the grass with Wopat and Deahna Kraft.
Back to the men’s side, before the crowd knew they were witnessing something special, the Worsleys and Solbrig knew they could make a run. Do something memorable.
“We trained for about three weeks, we said ‘All right, we can do this, we can do this,’” said Gage, a junior libero at Hawai’i who has won the Erik Shoji Award for nation’s best libero two years in a row. “We knew this was something we could do. The more people watched us, they were like ‘OK, maybe they can do it actually, maybe they can do it.’ Then we kept going, and we kept going.”
Anybody who watched their first game of the day, against Andrew Dentler, Chris Vaughan, and Jon Ferrari, would have had an inkling of what was possible. They cracked open a 20-9 lead — games were played to 30 in pool play — and that was against a team that would go onto make semifinals.
20-9? Against a semifinal team comprised of AVP main-draw players?
Six straight matches they won, against past champions of this event, against men who train exactly for this event, against AVP professionals and men who play indoors overseas, before word finally trickled out that there was quite the show to watch.
Then came that quarterfinal, where the entire crowd ignored the other three men’s matches and pair of women’s and watched those Worsleys work, against Cody Caldwell, Lev Priima, and Andrei Belov. Caldwell is a NCAA tournament MVP and national champion out of Loyola Chicago who is also playing beach professionally. Priima is a main draw regular on the AVP, and Belov routinely took top 10s in his prime, once being named the AVP’s best server, in 2013.
They proved every bit the adversary for the Worsleys, pushing them to three sets — the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals were played in the standard 21-21-15 format — when the worst possible thing could have happened: Solbrig rolled an ankle. The guy who convinced them to play the tournament, the 6-foot-6 middle with the big jump serve, bigger swings, and still bigger block, was out.
Coach? You ready?
Up 10-5 in the third, their coach put down his notebook, set the 6-foot-1 Worsleys a few balls, and stepped on. The lead dwindled. Then it was tied, 12-12. A side out. Who’s serve? Coach’s.
Who else’s could it have been? Not Joe’s scud missile, or Gage’s hooking lefty, but coach’s jump-float.
A block from the 6-foot-1 Worsley on Belov made it 14-12. Match point.
To Belov they went again, and who would it be with the scoop to save the match? Coach. Because sometimes sports produce magic you just can’t explain.
Gage buried the match-sealing win, and from there, you’d be hardpressed to find a single individual who wasn’t rooting for those Hawai’i boys.
“I’ve never had a game where a decent amount of people were rooting for us,” Gage said. “It was incredible.”
But there was a problem: Coach was hurt, too. Cramping. Solbrig wasn’t going to be able to return. Even if he could have played, he just signed a contract to play professionally in Luneburg, Germany. Solbrig was out. Coach was out.
Another magic trick was needed.
What would they grab out of the hat this time?
The Worsleys surveyed the crowd. Joe recognized Shaffer, a 23-year-old from Thousand Oaks who played club at UCSD.
“We’ve met before,” he said. “We saw him sitting around, and we grabbed him.”
They had a team again.
The first set was a blowout in the wrong direction. The offense that Joe knows so well, the quick, flowing, fluid offense he had set so expertly at Hawai’i was thrown off. Sure, he’d met Shaffer before, but he hadn’t set him a ball before, let alone nearly win a national championship with him, as he had with Gage and Solbrig during their phenomenal 2019 season.
But they found their rhythm. Gage, a lefty, moved from the right side to the left. Shaffer slid to the right. Joe flowed. They rolled through the rest of the semifinal, three scrappers no taller than 6-foot-1, in a game that values, above all, physicality, height. Big swings, bigger jump serves, and still bigger blocks. The exact kind of play provided by Solbrig. Or so one would think.
In the final, against veterans Tim and Brian Bomgren and Troy Field, Gage proved that the best of volleyball players can come in every shape or size or position and score in ways you didn’t realize one could score. Don’t think a libero can carry a team by hitting? Think again.
Gage was the final act, the crescendo that this event deserved. He dug balls that ought not be dug. He hit from the left, from the right. He hit over Field’s block and under. He hit it by one Bomgren and around the next. He poked, rolled, and ripped he and Joe and Shaffer to a two-set win, in one of the most spectacular displays of athleticism and sheer grit you’ll see on a court of any kind.
Joe returns to his German pro team VB Friedrichshafen in just three and a half weeks. “You see our connection,” Joe said. “We literally always know where we’re going to be when we’re on the floor. He’s just a ridiculous player, unreal. I love playing with him. My brother was absolutely unreal. I told him, ‘You’re going to have to carry us.’”
He did. And there’s no shame in Shaffer or Joe admitting just that.
“This is our biggest tournament all year and boy, oh, boy, what a tournament it was,” Gage said.
Back to the women. This year, Spieler and Mewhirter took second on the sand and claimed first on grass with Skjodt, who transferred after finishing her indoors career at Michigan to play beach for Pepperdine, where Mewhirter coaches.
Skjodt was a recommendation from Kraft, in fact, a teammate at Pepperdine who is now playing indoors for Wisconsin. She deserves every last penny of her referral fee, as it was the hard-hitting Skjodt to whom Spieler turned most often, bombing away to a 21-14, 22-20 championship win, the first grass win for all three of them.
“I told her that when Katie comes to Waupaca, she gets a first, and a second,” Mewhirter told Skjodt before Saturday’s tournament, “and I only got her a second on the beach this year, so you gotta carry us to a first on grass.”
Skjodt followed her coach’s orders.
Orders for Spieler next year?
A first and a first.
The true, final magic trick.