There was a lot going on at the 2014 Far Western National Qualifier this year. Held in Reno, Nevada, over two weekends in April, the qualifier had everything: an IMPACT certification clinic for new coaches; USA Volleyball High Performance tryouts; and more than 80 college coaches recruiting players for their upcoming seasons. Vendors selling professional photo packages, jewelry, workout and training equipment, and recruiting-video services added to the fun and festive vibe.
The Northern California Volleyball Association (NCVA) staff runs the tournament and has for many years. Attendance hit its highest point this year, with more than 1,100 teams coming from all over the West to compete.
“We have several teams that come from Hawaii, and some from Salt Lake City,” said NCVA chief operations officer Tom Donaghy, whose wife Donna is the commissioner of the association. “Dallas is the farthest U.S. city that’s represented this year.”
The Far Western tournament was not always a big event like it is today. It started as a small tournament near Palo Alto, California.
“Donna became the commissioner in 1994, so this is her 20th year,” Donaghy said. “She took over Far Western when it wasn’t a national qualifier. It was run at Stanford with only about 100 teams.”
Soon after, the NCVA turned the tournament into a national qualifier and moved it one state east.
“We’ve been coming to Reno for about 15 years,” Donaghy said.
An estimated 15,500 players and coaches came to the city to compete, and the total number of attendees doubles when you account for parents, siblings, and other spectators. NCVA also hosts a much smaller regional tournament in Reno the second weekend of May, and the total economic impact of the two events in 2013 was more than $9.2 million. The numbers for 2014 will be calculated by this time next year, according to Robyn Nichols, director of national accounts with the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.
“The NCVA is the largest sports convention and one of the largest space users overall at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center,” Nichols said.
The ultimate goal for many teams who participate in Far Western is to win a bid to the USAV Junior National Championships. Many of the best teams in the country will travel to Minneapolis in June to compete there, with hopes of earning the National Champion title in their division. Each division at Far Western—Open, USA, and American—had up to three bids to award for Junior Nationals, and the teams that finished in the highest places got first crack at those bids.
There was one team in attendance, however, that wasn’t trying to win a bid. The Bavarian Youth National Team, composed of girls from different parts of Germany, made their first appearance at the tournament this year. Although technically a 16 and under team, the girls played in the 18 division called No Dinx. This is a specially created, non-bid awarding division for teams like the Bavarian Youth National Team who want the Far Western experience but can’t be awarded a bid to Junior Nationals.
“Far Western has never had an international presence before,” Donaghy said. “The girls are really having a good time with the people here.
“We have to realize that their big tournament maybe has 16 teams, so when they come here and see what we do, they’re amazed by the number of people that are playing, and the joy of the people that are playing.”
Dieter Ittlinger, head of the German group, met the Donaghys for the first time four years ago, during an initial exchange trip to Northern California. Their bond was fast, and Ittlinger has returned with a team every two years since.
“If I ask the players from 2010 what their best experience was as a team, they always remember the great time we had in Northern California,” Ittlinger said.
This year’s group of 14 players flew into San Francisco on April 17. They competed in a tournament in the Sacramento area and had a week of sightseeing in Northern California and Nevada before competing at Far Western. The three nights while they were in Nevada, seven families from Northern Nevada Juniors Volleyball Club, based in Reno, hosted the team.
“The best word to describe our trip is ‘awesome,’” Ittlinger said. “The girls as well as the host families gave me very positive feedback.
“The girls already have an invitation for the next year to visit the families again.”
The host families were happy to have the German players for a couple of days. It provided an uncommon experience for them to share their lives and bond over things they have in common.
“It’s not every day that you get to take in two foreigners and show them around,” said Kate Castro, a 17-year-old student at Spanish Springs High School in Sparks, Nevada. “I enjoyed exchanging music the best; they showed me a bunch of cool German music and vice versa.”
Bernadette Flocchini, Kate’s mother, wasn’t sure what to expect in agreeing to host two girls. She did know, though, that she was excited for her family to learn about a new culture.
“We enjoyed getting to know [the girls] and about their life in Germany,” Bernadette said. “Kate is an easy person to get to know and is not shy at all, so it took no time at all for the girls to bond. They became giggling teenage girls quickly.
“We all hugged to say our goodbyes as if we were long-lost friends or family.”
This was the first trip to the U.S. for many of the German players, including Nadja Roth, a 14-year-old setter who stayed with the Flocchinis. The experience of spending time with an American family is something that will stay with her.
“It was a new and great experience and very interesting to see how life is in America,” Nadja said. “They were so nice and friendly to me, I really felt like I was at home.
“The friendliness of all the people we met was so amazing.”
Aside from the hospitality of their host families, the Germans were also very interested in learning about the American club system and way of playing volleyball. A tournament like our national qualifiers is not common in Germany, where competitive volleyball is less accessible.
“It’s a whole different world for them,” Donaghy said. “Their clubs are usually connected to the professional teams, so they’re like minor leaguers coming up through the system.
“They don’t have all levels of playing like we have.”
At national qualifiers and tournaments all over the U.S., there are often more than 150 teams in a division. Coaches sign up their teams to compete even when they know the chance of winning a bid to Junior Nationals is slim. Once the tournament reaches its second and third day, the field of teams is filtered so that teams are grouped with others of similar level and ability, so it becomes a very competitive experience for all participating teams—even if they’re not competing for a bid.
“In Germany they don’t have this many teams,” Donaghy said. “They cut it off and make it small, and if you’re not [playing at a really high level] then you don’t get to compete. In getting to know people and talking to them over the years, [I’ve learned] they appreciate the ability for everybody to play over here.”
The German players were recruited from a young age and have been playing for several years already. For some of them it has become more like a job, and seeing the joy of players at all levels at Far Western was a nice change for them, Donaghy said.
“I was chosen in elementary school when I was nine,” Nadja said. “It’s now my seventh year of playing volleyball. The American players celebrate all the points, and that is really impressive. To be a part of this tournament with more than 1,000 teams playing in a big indoor hall is just great.”
Unfortunately, because the visiting team from Germany didn’t encounter much challenging competition in the No Dinx division, and international teams aren’t allowed to compete in the qualifier divisions, it’s unlikely they’ll return to Far Western in future years, Donaghy said. But there is something special about exchanging cultures through volleyball, and the NCVA continues to plan for other trips ahead.
“The special thing is that we got the opportunity to play against other cultures and this opens the minds of the players,” Ittlinger said. “If you play against very different teams, with different strengths, age, and playing culture, you develop better than if you play only the same teams [over and over].”
As they did in 2010, 2012, and 2014, Ittlinger and the Bavarian Youth National Team will return for another trip to Northern California in 2016. For now, the NCVA turns its focus to the upcoming Global Challenge, an international tournament in Falconara, Italy, in which they’ve participated for 10 of the last 11 years. They will compete against the Italian club team from Falconara and the Czech and Slovenian youth national teams, among others. The players in the NCVA teams come from a mix of Northern California clubs, and they are sure to have an incredible experience, Donaghy said.
“I’ve had parents come to me and say that their kids have come back and said it changed their lives,” he said. “They’ve said their daughters come back knowing they can do more.”
And with so many young women focusing on competitive volleyball, it’s good to be reminded that there is a lot more of the world beyond their hometown gym, and that they can always do more.
Far Western National Qualifier
Where: Reno, Nevada
When: April 12-14 & April 25-27, 2014
Numbers: Estimated to be 15,500 players and coaches, and more than 30,000 total attendants including spectators, officials, and staff
The impact 2013 economy boost: $9,213,946
Originally published in July 2014