I recently spent a weekend in Indianapolis at a National Qualifier for club volleyball. For those of you who are unaware of what a volleyball national qualifier is, sit back and relax because this might take a while. A national qualifier is exactly what it sounds like: a huge (and I mean HUGE) tournament that attracts club volleyball teams from all over the nation to travel to one large city and compete for a bid to nationals. At a national qualifier there are over 100 courts in one convention center, where over 300-400 teams play; it gets a bit overwhelming at times.
There are many different divisions at such qualifiers for each age division, which consist of Open (the highest and most elite division- this is for the big time volleyball players), American, Club, Patriot, and so on. In each division there are different brackets that each team will end up in based on how they play all 3 days– Oh yeah… did I mention a national qualifier is 3 days of ongoing matches? These individual brackets start with gold being the best bracket (if you make it to the gold bracket you’re pretty darn good), silver comes next, and then there is bronze, copper, jade, and nickel. The first day of the tournament you are put into a pool of four teams and automatically guaranteed three games; like I mentioned before, your record determines which bracket you will move on to the next day. For example, if my team went 3-0 on day one we would move to the gold bracket because of our undefeated record. On day two, every team is then seeded into a new pool of four teams where they are again guaranteed three games. Just like the first day, a team’s record determines whether they continue to go up in the brackets or if they move down. So, going back to the first example, if on day two my team went 3-0 again we would be competing in the upper half of the gold bracket on day three, hoping to make it to the championship game. However, if on the second day we only went 1-2, we would be seeded in a lower bracket, like the copper bracket, and would be out of the running for a bid. On the third and final day of a national qualifier you basically play until you lose. You never know how many games you will end up playing so it’s basically a mad house on every court because every team is dying for the win. The great thing about national qualifiers is that no matter what bracket you are in on the final day, you are able to finish out the tournament. This means, like instead of just ending in the copper bracket without a bid, you get the chance to win the copper bracket- or whatever bracket you are in. For instance, at this particular national qualifier in Indy my team ended up in the Jade bracket- which, let me be the first to tell you, it was not ideal for anyone on our team- but instead of just quitting because we had absolutely no shot at getting a bid, we pushed through and won the entire Jade bracket! Like I said, it wasn’t ideal for our team, but it was definitely a proud accomplishment and we got a nice-looking plaque out of it, too!!
The atmosphere at a national qualifier is so tense, but yet so surreal. You are in this ENORMOUS convention center with what seems like a gazillion other teams, all competing for the same opportunity. You can’t help but get this sudden urge of competitiveness as you pass several teams. The ‘who are you looking at, I’m way better than you’ facial expression that some teams gives you makes you just want to shrivel up in a ball and hide for the rest of your life because they seem SO INTIMIDATING and you’re like ‘wow OK I really have no shot at this… why am I here? I’d much rather be at home’, but really they’re not even that good, they’re just trying to convince you (and themselves) that they are. These little, negative feelings are certainly overwhelming at the time, but don’t even matter in the long run because the feeling you get when you step onto the court is so much more powerful and really reassures you as to why you’re playing such an incredible sport.