Final Four Road Trip

Turning volleyball’s championships into an annual pilgrimage

Leslie Hamann
Jack and his wife Leslie at Custer State Park in South Dakota, on their way to Omaha.

We spread the map and took a long, hard look. “Dang,” we sighed, “San Antonio is a whole lot farther from Seattle than we thought.”

It was December 2005, and the Division I Women’s Volleyball National Championships were just a few days away. As we had the previous season, we planned to report from the event for readers and viewers in the Pacific Northwest. And, once again, we intended to take the long road by driving to and from the host city.

But, man, this was one seriously long road.

We’ve always been long-haul travelers. In 1976, we fired up our van and drove the four corners of the U.S. (San Diego to Key West to Maine to Seattle) with a stop in Montreal for the Summer Olympics. We’ve made countless extended trips since; of late, most involve volleyball.

Our first final four was 2004, in Long Beach, Calif., a rather easy trip down Interstate 5. Since then, we’ve been to DI volleyball championships in San Antonio (twice), Omaha, Sacramento, Tampa, Kansas City, and Louisville. The only time we were forced to fly was to Florida. Otherwise, our volleyball tournament memories are at least as much about the journey as the destination.

On that 2005 trip to Texas, we folded the map and quickly threw cameras, computers, and clothes into a classic white VW camper van. That afternoon, we sped southeast through the snow-covered Cascade Mountains, spending a bitterly cold night outside Boise. We needed to average 600 miles a day to make the three-day trek in time for the first press conferences. Across high Wyoming plains, down Colorado’s Front Range, through Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, we arrived in San Antonio a little exhilarated and plenty exhausted. It hardly mattered as our hometown Washington Huskies swept Nebraska for the national title.

The route home was intentionally leisurely, starting with magnificent Big Bend National Park. Hiking soaring desert peaks along the Rio Grande, we shook off most of the muscle ache from all those days of frantic driving, later making several scenic side trips in the Southwest before turning north for home.

Thoroughly hooked on final four road trips, we resolved to do the same every season, albeit with better advance planning. On our many journeys to or through the Midwest (Omaha, Kansas City, Louisville), we detoured to intriguing spots on the map: Custer’s Last Stand, Deadwood, South Dakota, Badlands, Grasslands, no man’s lands. We braked for bison, were awed by antelope, and always got a chill when bald eagles soared past.

Each journey forced us off the grid, if even for just a few days. After each autumn’s nonstop grind of coaching, writing and/or blogging about volleyball, we looked forward to the chance to clear our heads before the big event. You don’t think much about blocking schemes or belligerent parents when you lunch alongside a roaring river or watch the moon rise over New Mexico.

On occasion, driving was downright nasty. The worst was a few miles west of Kansas City, when a storm laid a sheet of ice on the interstate. We hung with stranded travelers on the side of the road before spending the night in nearby Manhattan, Kan. Because the championships are a December affair, we’ve outrun our share of gully washers, windstorms, and whiteouts. Two years ago in Nevada, we saw a palm tree encased in ice.

Mostly, we’ve seen parts of America at a time of year when tourists are scarce and hospitality can be best. We toured a haunted lodge in the Arkansas Hills, joined a second line in New Orleans’ French Quarter, explored Chicago museums, combed Florida beaches, sipped Kentucky bourbon, took the A Train to Far Rockaway, and walked the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, all part of intentional detours after wild weeks of volleyball. Mostly, we’ve come to appreciate host cities we might never have otherwise explored: Sacramento’s shaded streets, Kansas City’s historic neighborhoods, Omaha’s vibrant new core, Louisville’s charming waterfront.

This year, for the first time, we didn’t need a map. Seattle’s KeyArena is literally blocks from our home, which made things incredibly easy, yet somehow incomplete. We stayed absorbed with volleyball with nary a break, and—as these words are written—there is a bit of a letdown knowing we won’t be seeing holiday lights in a remote Arizona plaza, or a midwinter sunset in Missouri, or seals on a beach outside Big Sur. Merely walking home is just not the same.

And, yes, we’ve already peeked at possible routes to and from Oklahoma City. The van is waiting.

On The Road Again

How far have Jack and Leslie Hamann driven? Here’s the mileage for the shortest route (round trip) to the final four host cities; they added another 25-50 percent to each total in the years they drove, depending on the sidetrips that caught their fancy.

YearRound TripDestination
20042,322Long Beach, Calif.
20054,378San Antonio, Texas
2006 3,680Omaha, Neb.
20071,505Sacramento, Calif.
20083,680*Omaha, Neb.
20096,322**Tampa, Fla.
20103,738Kansas City, Mo.
20114,378San Antonio, Texas
20124,684Louisville, Ky.
20131Seattle, Wash.

*Did not attend due to major blizzard
**Flew instead of driving

Originally published in February 2014

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