Varsity, Unqualified

I hold the volleyball in my right hand, arm extended out and angled slightly down. My left thumb tucks into the fingers of my fist. The opposing team smirks, creeps forward, relaxes their stance. The whistle blows. I serve, underhand. The ball lands in the right-back corner, six inches from where I aimed. The opponent doesn't know what to do with this trajectory; they don't know how to predict what will happen. Three more serves go in before they catch on.

I wasn't, and never would be, good enough to play varsity volleyball. I wasn't good enough to play varsity basketball either, but every season found me lacing up my shoes (the same shoes I wore during middle school basketball, mind you) and proudly donning a purple jersey for my high school's varsity squads. To clarify, this wasn't an inspirational sort of situation and they weren't taking pity on me: they were desperate. There's no way to play a game without players, and at Ka'ahumanu Hou Christian School, finding players was a numbers game. At 5'3" and 100 pounds, I was a qualifying freshman with the grades to play in every game. In basketball, I didn't get fouled out because there was no way to sell the story that I had fouled someone a foot taller than myself, a hundred pounds heavier. In basketball, I played when someone needed a rest, either from exhaustion or because their temper was heating. In volleyball, I played the back row, and junior year, when there were only six players, no one got benched. There was no bench. There was only moments. 

I think about playing varsity a lot, the fear, the certainty that I didn't belong. I loved basketball (I still do) and I learned to love volleyball season when it came around. As a kid, I loved soccer and baseball too (I played in the co-ed league). But in high school, it was all about volleyball and basketball. And it was all about filling out a roster, knowing that if anyone was going to get to play, everyone would have to join the team. And I wanted to be on the team. I wanted to run up and down the court and (hopefully) make a basket at least once every season. We couldn't field a junior varsity team in any sport. Instead, everyone played against the other schools' varsity teams. We'd shrug our shoulders, scream our wild team cheer, and hope to give the crowd a good show at the very least. I didn't -- couldn't -- play to be the best. Instead, during basketball. I gritted my teeth and did what I could, remembering not to bite my tongue and to take heavy falls on the shoulder when I was defending. In volleyball, I learned that if you can't spike, you can roll the ball, and that most defenders don't bother to learn to defend against those. 

The basketball years, I was tiny. Tiny enough, in fact, to rip the ball out of the very surprised hands of the opposing point guards, who thought they were holding the ball low and clever, when they were holding it right in front of my chest. I scored one basket a season, maybe two if I was lucky,but I lead the team in steals. I earned myself a nickname: I was Bandit.

The volleyball years, my coach didn't ask me to learn to serve overhand. She taught me how to aim the underhand serve until it looked like an overhead. I didn't have the power, but I had the focus, and the sweat. I love the game; I've always loved playing with a team and watching miracles happen. I played my sports during the off-season. I never got great, but I never gave up on playing. 

The more invested I am in writing, and the more I work in theatre, the more I remember what it felt like to lace up my shoes and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was both as ready as I could be and entirely unready. I remember the preparation, the practices, the warm-ups. I remember the adrenaline and feel it all over again - I press publish on the blog. I upload the poem. I lace up my shoes and work out. I get out of bed.

See, I didn't get to play with people at my level. I learned how to rise up; more importantly, I learned how to fall well. I learned that nothing makes me better like being the worst player on the team. Nothing makes me better like knowing someone is counting on me to cover my corners, or finding the one thing I can do that no one else is going to do quite so well. If nothing else, I learned to love the game, whatever it is, whether or not there are many wins. I can count the number of games our teams won -- combined -- on one hand. I can't remember a single practice I truly hated. I never lost the love of the feeling of the ball in my hand, the knees bending, the world falling into silence around me while the moment began again. Breathe. Focus. Work and work harder. Fall, rise. Ready, aim, serve. 

Point. Set. Match. 





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Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash