Houston is America’s fourth-largest city and, not coincidentally, a gold mine of volleyball talent. College rosters the nation over boast players from the Houston area, most of whom during their club careers participated in the Houston Cross Court Classic.
The annual March tournament is bursting at the seams, staged not only in the massive George R. Brown Convention Center, but at various other venues in Houston. This year, the final tally was a whopping 720 teams, and that doesn’t include the finale of the prestigious Tour of Texas, which featured an additional 152 teams.
The tournament’s economic impact is huge, if for no other reason that unless you live in the expansive Houston area, you need to stay in a hotel. The organizers estimate they accounted for between 4,500 and 5,000 hotel-room nights March 21-23.
Before the first whistle blew on Sunday morning on the tournament, Volleyball’s Lee Feinswog caught up with Cross Court founder and director Mitch Casteel. He owns and runs the tournament along with Michele Hallimore and her mother, Ann Inlow, one of the founders of Houston Juniors. They also run the Houston Power League, which consists of four dates and 350 teams.
Casteel grew up in El Paso into a volleyball family and was an assistant to Mick Haley when Texas won the 1981 national championship, the last AIAW title before the college women began competing in the NCAA. Casteel has seen the volleyball scene in Houston and all of Texas blow up to the monster it is today.
VBM: Your first tournament was in 1991. Tell us how it got started.
Casteel: I was club director for Houston Juniors and we needed more money [laughs]. And we saw what [Front Range’s] Kay Rognes was doing with Colorado Crossroads and we decided we didn’t necessarily want to do a qualifier, but something similar in the Texas area with a two-day tournament. My board of directors allowed me to start the event.
VBM: Tell me about growing up in volleyball in El Paso.
Casteel: My dad was a volleyball guy. He was regional commissioner, national referee, good friends with Doug Beal, Al Monaco, Marv Dunphy, Mick Haley, all the titans of volleyball. He promoted international matches. In fact, in 1976 he brought the national team in against Russia in El Paso and sold about 7,000 tickets. Al and those guys didn’t think it could happen. Once they saw that they said, ‘Hey, can you do other events.’ It was pretty funny.
VBM: You went to Texas and finished up here and hooked up with Houston Juniors. Was it a small club then?
Casteel: Actually, it was the only club. It was the first club in Houston. There were three clubs in Texas, Houston Juniors, Austin Juniors and Mid-Cities. When I came here we had about 18 teams at the time. It was amazing because it was under the old UIL, which is the University Scholastic League and kids weren’t allowed to practice. Coaches couldn’t coach them during warm-ups but could coach them during matches. It was very bizarre.
VBM: You said that once you got the rule changed volleyball started to explode.
Casteel: Because of the nature of the thing, at one time we were probably responsible for all the club development in Houston. Meaning that a coach or a parent broke off and somebody started Club Texas. Somebody started Texas Elite. Somebody started Tornadoes. And they were all Houston Juniors at one time and did their own thing. At the time, being a volleyball guy, we thought it was good. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re taking away players.’ We didn’t like losing the kids, but we thought the competition makes everybody better. We either had to get better to retain kids or we’d go under.
VBM: It’s hard to believe from that there are now three huge regions, Lone Star, North Texas and Sun Country. How many clubs in Houston now?
Casteel: Maybe a hundred (shakes head and laughs). I think you’re seeing a lot of one- and two-team clubs pop up and that’s interesting but the more interesting part is there’s a lot of development in the rural areas between here and Laredo. I was talking to Oscar Segovia from Rio Grande Juniors yesterday and he said now there are three or four clubs in the Rio Grande Valley and they’re good-sized clubs. And that’s driving the growth of this event. They want to come to Houston to play it. I always think we’re going to see a plateau, but we always see a 12- to 18-percent growth in this tournament.
VBM: It’s got to make you proud to see what Texas volleyball has become and the way the college recruit Texas.
Casteel: Absolutely. I started playing when I was 13. I’m 56 now and somebody asked me that after 43-some-odd years, aren’t you tired of it? I said no because the development of the game has just skyrocketed.
VBM: So back to this tournament. When did you come to the convention center? Because before that you were all over the place.
Casteel: About eight years ago. We had some tense internal conversations about what we wanted to do. Because we knew that once we went to a convention center event we could never go back. One of the gurus of convention-center events, (Austin Junior’s Glen Lietzke) said to be careful what you wish for. Once you go there you’re going to expand and expand and expand. In the late ’90s we actually got the alumni center at the University of Houston and put about 15 courts in that. It ran very well. But it isn’t the easiest thing to do. You have to deal with the costs of the convention center and you have so many entities to deal with, like the city of Houston.
VBM: I bet they deal with you well, considering the economic impact.
Casteel: The city looks at how many hotel room nights do you book. Although we’re getting into (the convention center) looking at competing shows wanting to come in and how much money do your people spend at restaurants and clubs. Because the volleyball families, they’re going to family-oriented restaurants. Three weeks ago there was an oil and gas convention here and for the whole week long everybody was at Vic and Anthony’s, they were at Tony’s, they were at Pappa’s Steak House. So the economic impact of those guys, they’re bringing in a little bit more money on the high end, but on sheer volume we outdo them. The vendors that are here, like Aramark, tell us that this is their most profitable event. And we get none of that money. We get no money from food sales.
VBM: 720 teams. How many courts?
VBM: Is this the biggest non-qualifier other than post-season play?
Casteel: We’re right up there. I know that Capitol Hill Classic has 850 teams but I know they’re maxed out. Other than that I can’t think of anything that’s bigger. And we would be bigger but we are out of convention center space. And there’s another underlying problem for us growing and that’s officials.
VBM: How many do you employ at this tournament?
CasteelVBM: C’mon, there’s another convention center in Houston, the Reliant. Not ready for that?
: There’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room during our dates, which is the rodeo operates during the time we’re here. There are three weeks where they average 60 to 70,000 a night while they’re there at Reliant. We can’t come close to anything there.
VBM: Thank goodness, right?
Casteel: Yes (laughs).