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Net Success

The UA men's club volleyball team sets a winning standard for all to follow.

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The winningest athletic enterprise at the University of Arizona is not the women's golf team nor Lute Olson's youthful juggernaut. It's not even the beloved women's softball team. No, this monster was born of political necessity, toils in near-complete anonymity and fosters rabid anti-Wildcat fervor at colleges from coast to coast and from Texas to Canada. It is the UA men's club volleyball team, and a couple weeks back the squad won its third national Division I club-team championship in the past four years. And then, for good measure, its overflow squads won the Division II and Division III titles, as well.

Club volleyball is huge on college campuses, and because of the financial realities of the age in which we live, will undoubtedly get even bigger in the next couple decades. While many universities have men's volleyball teams that compete at the NCAA varsity level, the number of such teams isn't likely to grow in the future. The existence of Title IX (the law, which I support, that says that women must be treated as closely to equal as possible in terms of athletic scholarships and opportunities by universities that receive federal funding) and general belt-tightening pretty much preclude the addition of any men's sports teams to university rosters in the foreseeable future.

Club sports have been around at the UA for decades. The most visible one is the Icecat hockey team. While I will never be a fan of a sport where fighting is not only a regular feature, but is openly encouraged by fans, players and coaches alike, one can't help but be impressed by the way Coach Leo Golembiewski built that program from the ice up, elevated it to national title-contender level and has managed to keep it there for 20 years.

Likewise, UA football and basketball announcer Dave Sitton started the UA rugby program back in the late 1970s and quickly built a reputation that is not only national, but international. People in New Zealand wear UA rugby shirts! Of course, people in New Zealand do all kinds of strange things, but we'll leave that to the Discovery Channel.

Now comes the UA men's club volleyball team, a winner with such stunning regularity (they went 45-0 this year) that the national championship games are played in arenas filled with thousands of screaming fans whose favorite team is officially listed as "Whoever's Playing Against Arizona."

While the men were avenging last year's shocking loss in the finals (even in a down year, the worst they finish is second), perhaps the biggest surprise at the tournament was how well the UA women's club team did. In only its second year of existence, the women's team finished ninth in the nation, and did so after going into the tournament seeded 42nd out of 60 teams. They also did so without their best outside hitter, who missed the national tournament due to personal reasons.

"I'm very pleased at how well {the women's team} did," says Andy Jaeckle, a former star on the men's team who now coaches both the women and one of the lower-level men's teams. "Last year, we finished 25th in the country and this year ninth. Next year, we want to win it all."

The guys benefit from the largesse of some super-secret benefactor who pumps enough money into the club to allow, among other things, the team to fly to Hawaii for an invitational tournament and to travel en masse to the Nationals every year. This person's generosity, in effect, allows the men to focus on volleyball without having to sweat the ever-present financial details.

Not so for the women, whose school year is basically one long fund-raising effort. The club collects monthly dues from its members and gets some money from ASUA (student government), for which they are eternally grateful, but for the rest of the bucks, it's car washes and ... well, more car washes. Oh yeah, they also try to make some money by selling programs at UA basketball games.

Have you ever tried to sell a program at a UA basketball game? The non-regulars in attendance, those who got their tickets from a neighbor or their dentists, seem to think that it's declasse to buy a program. Meanwhile, the people who actually paid for their season tickets find it cumbersome to try to handle a program with one hand, seeing as how they had to give their right arms to get the season tickets in the first place.

Jaeckle loved competing for the men's team, but a back injury that just wouldn't heal forced him to call it quits. (Bad backs are nature's way of telling white guys not to jump so high. As proof, I submit that in all my playing days, I never had a bad back.)

The coach says that he has a couple women on his team who could definitely play NCAA Division I volleyball and several others who could play D-II or D-III. "A lot of the players were good in high school, but for one reason or another, just didn't get athletic scholarship offers. So they came to the UA for academic reasons, but they still want to play. This gives them the opportunity."

The team regularly scrimmages with (and beats) the varsity team from Pima College. Jaeckle figures that if they practiced every day, his squad could probably win the Arizona junior-college league title. As it is, they practice from 8 to 10:30 p.m., three nights a week, at the Rec Center on campus. They're hoping to hold a couple practices this week to serve as a symbolic springboard for next year.

Jaeckle says that at next year's nationals (in Columbus, Ohio), he wants the women's and all three men's teams to win championships.

"We want all four teams to be hated equally."

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