Better With Age: Pickup Volleyball Not for the Faint of Heart

Davidson Recreational Volleyball Team

If you’re looking for some stiff competition, comradery and a chance to sweat, check out the Common Hour Volleyball games at the Baker Sports Complex. After a summer hiatus, the Tuesday and Thursday games played by students, faculty and staff have resumed. It’s a fun, time-honored tradition that’s now 40 years old. The best part? Grabbing lunch together afterwards.

This story was originally published in the spring/summer Davidson Journal.

Common Hour volleyball is a tradition that pre-dates Common Hour itself. What started with some faculty volleyball enthusiasts four decades ago has become an anticipated hour of "good clean fun" for students, faculty, staff and, occasionally, alumni. But it's not for the faint of heart--the competition can get pretty heated.

Claire Thompson learned this important life lesson playing pickup volleyball: Don’t take gray hair as a sign of weakness.

“Some of the best players are older so we try to separate them,” Thompson ’19 says. “You’d think, ‘I’m young and spry, I can beat them.’ But that’s not the case. They’re tough.”

Thompson left Davidson in May to become an investment banker in June. Though she’s excited about her new career, she’ll truly miss playing volleyball with the lively cast of professors, staff and students who serve, spike and slam their way to domination.

“It has been one of the highlights of my Davidson career,” she says. “It’s so important for my mental health and so fun to get into a competitive game with the faculty and interact outside of the classroom. We trash talk each other and make fun of each other—that’s the most fun part.”

What’s now a Tuesday and Thursday Common Hour tradition started 40 years ago when two professors recruited athletic colleagues and friends to play intramural volleyball against student teams.

The original members didn’t intend a picnic-in-the-park game; they played to win and claimed some highly skilled ringers in the ranks. The players included everyone from a local doctor to a staff plumber to volleyball and swimming coaches.

When players moved away or retired, the games eventually turned into pickup matches with blended teams of students, faculty, coaches and staff. Today, it’s a campus-wide, multi-generational, open invitational that features fun, fierce, comical competition.

The games are played with a lot of laughs, up to a point—the point when winning and bragging rights are on the line. But the laughs always continue afterward, sometimes for years—even generations.

And while they still occasionally divide teams by “youngers” and “olders,” history shows that the youngers often come up on the short end of the net.

“Students would get totally antagonized if they couldn’t beat us,” says Lou Ortmayer, a retired political science professor who alleges that one student got a staff job after graduating, “Just so he could find a team to beat us.

“He brought the basketball team after their season ended. They were much bigger than we were, but they weren’t volleyball players,” Ortmayer says. He still savors the memory of how the frustrated basketball players even tried dunking the ball:

“It was fun beating them."

“This has been such a fascinating group,” says Krentz, now W.R. Grey Professor of Classics and History and the Classics Department chair. “It’s really built a community out of whoever is willing to commit to come out and play.”

Creating Community

Though they may have been genteel academics in the classroom, the group’s founding members had some serious volleyball chops.

Before teaching at Davidson, Ortmayer played club volleyball in Europe. In 1979 he and newly hired professor Peter Krentz started the Davidson games. A few years before, Krentz’s Yale University team had made it to the NCAA Final Four.

“This has been such a fascinating group,” says Krentz, now W.R. Grey Professor of Classics and History and the Classics Department chair. “It’s really built a community out of whoever is willing to commit to come out and play.”

Krentz says he’s played with a few students he taught in class, but “I’ve also enjoyed the relationships I’ve built with students that I did not have in class and got to know on the court in completely different way.”

Eating lunch together after the games adds to the fun and embellishes the legends.

As students geared up for final exams in May, some, like Thompson, worked their stress off at the semester’s last volleyball game. An informal reunion took place, with retirees returning to visit friends before heading out to lunch together.

Retired religion professor David Kaylor sat on the sidelines (“They used to call me their token geriatric,”) while former colleague Tom Kazee played hard, but was heard yelling during a long match, “Hey Coach! Take me out!”

Physics Professor Dan Boye has played most games since coming to Davidson 30 years ago and only skips when he’s hurt or on sabbaticals. He is best known for “The Dan Boye shot” that goes something like this:

“He sets low, then goes and does a backward trick shot,” Thompson says, trying to demonstrate the sort-of-reverse pirouette Boye performs. “It’s my favorite of all time.”

Boye says he’s adjusted his routine over the years. He always wears kneepads, not because he dives for the ball anymore, but to warm his knees so he can jump a few inches. He also now serves underhand.

“You gotta adapt as you ferment,” Boye says.

And sometimes a little trickery helps.

If for example, you want to distract the other team, you might call out, “I smell cookies!” Or if you’re really tired and hungry and want lunch, complain that “Nothing’s left in the freezer.”

What Goes Around

Roberta Quis Fox ’03, whose four years playing volleyball for the Davidson women’s team included two conference championships, remembers longing to join the pickup games as a student.

“I had to wait for four years because my coach wouldn’t let me play until my last season was over,” Fox says. “So I worked my class schedule around it that spring.”

Fox, who now lives in Charlotte, rejoined the group for the final May game. It was her first time playing with them since her graduation, and she hopes to do it a lot more often.

“It’s really fun to be back and reconnect with this group,” she says.

There’s also a bit of a generational circle here.

When Fox was a student, Krentz had three young sons, including twins. Now they’re grown—the oldest just got married—and Fox has three young children, including twins. “I want to get some twin parenting advice from him,” she says.

Playing volleyball again reminded her of how much she loved competing with her professors and seeing their outside-the-classroom personalities. And occasionally schooling them:

“Dr. Krentz gave me the worst grade I ever got at Davidson, so sometimes on the volleyball court I feel like I can take it out on him with a kill or a block,” she says with a wide, innocent-looking smile. “But I’m not aiming at him or anything.”

Pick-Up Volleyball Tradition Offers Fun, Fierce, Comical Competition

Common Hour volleyball is a tradition that pre-dates Common Hour itself. What started with some faculty volleyball enthusiasts four decades ago has become an anticipated hour of "good clean fun" for students, faculty, staff and, occasionally, alumni. But it's not for the faint of heart--the competition can get pretty heated.

Published

  • September 17, 2019

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  • History
  • Physics
  • Political Science
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