On Saturday, October 17, 2015, I and about 320 other players competed in the USA Spikeball roundnet National Championships held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. It was the largest event to date in the sport and the product of countless hours of work by both full-time Spikeball employees and enthusiastic volunteers. In addition, it represented the likely swan song of the duo known as Chubby Bunny—a team spawned two springs ago on the warm green turf of a high school football field in Abilene, TX when I matched up against a kid in an orange shirt who hit eye-openingly hard and said, among few other words, that his name was Troy.
17 months, 14 tournaments, two titles, a few agonizing losses, a couple of career changes and three cross-country moves later, we arrived in Nashville with some name recognition (stemming partially from a runner-up at SE Regionals and a top 10 ranking for most of the season) but still lumped into the dark-horse category somewhere behind the top 8 presumed contenders. We fortunately were able to test our mettle against the nation's best in Power Pool 2, facing defending national finalist Handsome Beavers right off the bat. We took care of our return points, managed a block or two and benefited from some unlucky roll-ups to score a 15-11 upset. Next up was another top-shelf team, Nashburgh, whom we defeated 15-13 after some nice rallies and strong hustle plays all around.
At that point, well, Peter Jon happened. His team Monkey Business handled us 15-12 and we tried to quickly forget the barrage of barely glimpsed balls flying past. However, East region upstart Spicy Dirt's consistent hits and opportunistic defense led to our second straight loss. With the prospect of dropping down to a crossover game looming, Chubby Bunny bounced back to score wins over big-bopping Origin Unleashed, yearlong region rivals Bolivia, and the pink-clad Team Paul's Classy Vacuums (despite Victor serving a ball or two that spun and jumped about onto the next field over). We felt pretty good about the 5-2 finish as it turned out that only Monkey had a better record in either power pool—Chico Spikes and The Rookies finished atop the other power pool with two losses apiece, while Beavers posted 5-2 like we did.
Some technical difficulties contributed to an extended break between pool and bracket play, but competitors seemed to take the delay in stride. My consumption of a fully loaded Chipotle burrito certainly raised some eyebrows, but hey, I was hungry! The number of tough matchups in the very first round was staggering; Big Red vs Danger Zone, NC Spikes vs Kiss My Pass, Chi-beria vs Bear Necessities, etc. Some huge upsets also occurred as Southeast champ Shrimp 'n' Grits went down to semi-local duo Knightly Flip and the relatively unknown Mickginny shocked #7 seed Creamcycle. Troy and I notched a smooth win over Vandy C Team, then faced a dangerous Redbird Spike which had hung around the national top 10 for months. We made enough plays to win in two hard-fought frames and advance to the round of 16. At that point such regional and national powers as Team Paul's Classy Vacuums, Big Red, Spicy Dirt, Kool-Aid, Origin Unleashed, and Kobe or Lebron were already out of the running; the bracket matchups (top to bottom) consisted of Monkey Business vs Origin Dominance, Artificial Flavors vs Nashburgh, Chico Spikes vs Texas A&M, us vs Hopeless Bromantics, The Rookies vs Ball Blasters, Strange Embrace vs Mickginny, Handsome Beavers vs RIP, and Bunz & Gunz vs Origin Elite.
Having picked them as a pre-tourney dark horse, I knew Hopeless Bros would be a worthy opponent. We trusted our systems and possibly forced Chris and George out of their hitting comfort zone a bit, jumping in front and holding on for a 21-16, 21-18 win. Elsewhere, Kyle was making all kinds of stellar saves to help RIP spoil Beavers' hopes for a third straight run to the final. Nashburgh vs Flavors and Bunz vs Elite both went the distance, with the former teams winning after some entertaining and pressure-packed points. Not long after leaving the net, we found that our quarterfinal opponent would be none other than two-time defending national champion Chico Spikes. I didn't feel scared or even notably nervous, mostly just extremely psyched up for a shot at an unprecedented upset.
After another several minutes, Chubby and Chico took the “show court” in the closest corner to the main tents. The game went remarkably quickly for how close it was, as both teams not only handle return points well but can turn defense into offense immediately and ruthlessly. Troy's serve, inconsistent earlier, started catching near nets and putting a lot of pressure on Skyler and Shaun, though their own serves stole a point or two from us as well. I was striking my backhand with placement and force, and we eventually made plays on a couple of their good hits to take an improbable 18-16 game 1 lead. Chico then, essentially, pulled a Chico, using nearly superhuman defensive reflexes and perfect set-kill combos to regain the advantage. At 20-19 against, I took an incomprehensible hit on 2 which bounced directly into Troy to hand them the game. We rebounded and continued to play on almost even terms in game 2, but one or two late blocks sealed a 21-18 win and the favorites advanced. I still feel good about the way we competed in a match few, if any, gave us a chance to win. Making the top 8 at Nationals was overall a satisfactory close to the year-and-a-half-long, continent-crossing saga of Chubby Bunny.
Before I get too misty-eyed, back to the action. Monkey Business outlasted Nashburgh even after Joel commendably battled cramps to keep giving his all; RIP continued their massive resurgence by topping Bunz & Gunz; and Strange Embrace vs The Rookies went to a marathon game 3 with four great athletes (two tall and two small) making many instant-reaction plays and throwing their bodies around on both O and D. Tyler and Ryan fell just short of their second straight national semifinal as Devin and Jarratt advanced 45-43. I sadly missed most of the semifinal action, but Chico clearly found an effective counter to Peter Jon's demoralizing power hits while Strange made the most of their first tournament outside California, defeating RIP to set up yet another all-West region final.
Rather than abide my surely inelegant efforts to describe the final match, I encourage readers to view Drew Cisek's HD video of it above. Like they always do in the biggest moments, Chico Spikes left no doubt that they were the better and, indeed, the best team. Troy and I certainly weren't thrilled to have come up against them in the quarterfinal, but unlike many amazing teams at this tournament, at least we got our chance. There's a much bigger picture as well: an astounding 160 teams showed up for, in some cases, their first taste of competitive roundnet. Women, junior players, and casual entrants all played hard and looked to be enjoying the experience immensely throughout. I can't credit “SpikeballChris” Ruder, Thomas Summers, and the rest of the crew enough for their work on behalf of this sport and community. I'm constantly grateful for the ability to play even a small part in the early history of roundnet, and I certainly can't wait to see what the future brings.
Harding BrumbySpikeball® Ambassador ▪ Governing Board Member ▪ 2014 Travel Champion ▪ Chubby Bunny #26