Column: Volleyball shows why it’s a special sport

Published 10:27 am Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

While the Shelby County volleyball season kicked off on Thursday with many area teams in action over the weekend, my volleyball season didn’t start until Tuesday when I covered Chelsea’s road game at Homewood for my first game as sports editor.

Since the game had a special 1:45 p.m. start time, I expected that Homewood would probably do something to get some students to show up during the school day.

What I didn’t expect as I walked into that gym was a sea of red, white and blue complete with kids with their chests painted, students heckling Chelsea players by name and a blaring marching band that set off my Apple Watch’s loud noise alert on multiple occasions.

I’ve been to playoff basketball games with less atmosphere than that. It was honestly one of the loudest, most raucous crowds I’ve ever experienced.

On the opposite side, however, were Chelsea’s JV and freshman teams cheering on the Hornets from behind their bench with equal enthusiasm. And as the game went on, Chelsea channeled that atmosphere and were in control for much of the game, taking a four-set victory that could have easily been a sweep.

Homewood’s stands were lined with students and created a hostile environment rarely seen in volleyball, but Chelsea controlled the match and overcame the rowdy crowd. (Reporter Photo/Andrew Simonson)

As I stood there and took in the Hornets overcoming such a hostile environment, I thought my week had peaked right there. I was completely wrong.

Afterwards, I drove straight to Thompson to take in their tri-match against Briarwood and Montgomery Academy. While each match was great, the final match of the night was extra special as Thompson coach Judy Green, a legend who is hailed around the county as not only one of the best coaches in the game, but one of the best people as well, earned her 1,000th victory.

The surprise presentation after the Warriors beat Briarwood was touching because she never wanted the night to be about herself. That night was to honor setter Olivia Kelly, who hit 1,000 career assists less than a week into her second varsity season. Both were fittingly honored for their accomplishments, and both ceremonies happening on the same night made each honor more special.

All of these games were rushing through my head when I turned on Nebraska’s game against Omaha on Wednesday night and witnessed 92,003 fans fill the Cornhuskers football stadium, break the global attendance record for women’s sports and rock the stadium from first serve to match point.

Nebraska women’s volleyball broke the all-time attendance record for a women’s sporting event after 92,003 fans packed Memorial Stadium to watch Nebraska play Omaha on Volleyball Day in Nebraska on Wednesday, Aug. 30. (Contributed)

As I sat there taking in the scenes and reflecting on the last couple of days, I found myself thinking about how far I had come since I started following volleyball.

This week wasn’t my first time watching volleyball. Back when I was in high school, I had multiple friends on the varsity volleyball team. I didn’t know a thing about volleyball, but the team was good enough to reach the state semifinals, so I wanted to watch and learn more to keep up with them.

I grew to love going to their games, and that prepared me for college as I joined the production crew for Samford volleyball games and continued to follow the sport after high school.

I even got a chance to cover Thompson’s area championship win in 2021 as a freelancer for the Reporter and interview Green after the Warriors won the title. It was one of my favorite memories of my three years freelancing.

As the years went on, I came to respect and love the game of volleyball. It’s a fast-paced, deeply strategic game with all of the action and storylines of any other sport.

One of the first things I think about with volleyball is the joy that the players and coaches frequently display. While every team huddles after a point to congratulate their teammates, some teams support each other more than others.

I saw that with Chelsea as the JV and freshman teams cheered on the varsity girls and counter the Homewood fans who outnumbered them. I also saw it with Briarwood in their win over Montgomery Academy as I could tell the Lions players truly enjoyed playing with each other and had fun during the game. I even saw it when Thompson’s players and fans erupted as Green cleared the benches in the closing points of the Warriors’ win over Briarwood.

I’m not going to act like volleyball is the first sport I watch when I go home. I may know my kills from my digs, what each position does on the court and even why that one player in the back wears a different color jersey, but I couldn’t tell you who’s going to contend for the national title this year.

What I do know is this: volleyball is a phenomenal sport, as we saw on display across the country this week, and the more chances we give sports we may not know a lot about, the more amazing athletes and stories we discover right under our noses.

In one of my volleyball recaps for my high school paper, I framed my interview with one of the players as her and her teammates standing up to the big, tough, state champion football boys and showing they deserve to be recognized for their success too. Was it a little bit dramatic? Definitely. But now that I live in Alabama, I see that it’s a little accurate too.

While football understandably dominates the spotlight in the fall, let’s make some room for other sports like volleyball as well. Alabama may not be like Nebraska and be ready to put Alabama vs. Auburn in a sold-out Bryant-Denny, but this is a fantastic volleyball state and it’s past time that we treat the players, coaches and teams here like the stars they are.