Easily one of the best assignments I’ve had in my career.
But Matt, you’ve been to the Super Bowl, the Final Four and a BCS Championship… how can a junior college volleyball tournament even compare?
Easy, I was part of the team. And that’s a different experience than being a newspaper photographer who gets access if and when the team allows. The Santa Fe College coaches and players let me into their world during their run through the NJCAA National Volleyball Tournament last week in Casper, WY.
Here’s the kicker, I hadn’t met anybody on the team before arriving in Casper. I’d photographed the head coach before, but when the team got off the bus after arriving at the hotel, there was some random dude in Santa Fe swag holding a camera in the lobby. A little awkward? You bet.
I knew I wanted to cover this trip differently than I did when I followed the Gators to the Final Four. I wanted to take advantage of the better access and show this team not only competing in the tournament, but also their life outside the gym. The hotel workouts, the bus rides, the superstitions, the meals and exploring a new city.
When I checked the weather before leaving, I saw that snow was in the forecast. Jackpot. I knew I needed to make some photos of the team playing in the snow. I think all of the girls had seen snow, but most of them had never seen it falling. So between breakfast and the team meeting, the girls went out to play. Unfortunately, they had a game later and coach’s window looked out over where they were playing. So they only had a few minutes before getting called back inside.
Best quote came from a player from Arizona… “It looks like when I put parmesan cheese on my pizza!”
(Those are random horse statues in the front yard of their hotel)
For years, I’ve not been allowed (at least not ethically) to cheer while photographing a sporting event. As a journalist, I need to remain neutral and just shoot the game as it unfolds. But this trip was different. I was decked out in Santa Fe Saints gear, rode with the team, ate with the team and stood next to them on the bench. So watching them win their first round game and then upsetting the No. 1 overall seed I found myself pumping my fist, high-fiving the AD and SID and not feeling guilty about it.
This was the first-ever trip to the national tournament for this team. In fact, this team has only existed for three years. So it’s pretty darn impressive to make it this far. The tournament is set up a little weird as a 16-team, double-elimination tournament. So if you lost your first game, the best you could finish is ninth. Santa Fe won their first two games to reach the Final Four. Three of the four teams in the Final Four were from Florida (there’s some good volleyball down here) The semifinal match had the Saints facing a team they’d already lost to twice this year. And in the third place match, they lost to a team they’d already faced once this year.
Kind of a bummer to travel to a national tournament and meet up with teams you’ve already faced, but to come away as the fourth best team in the country in your third year in existence is awesome.
Head Coach Nick is one of the best coaches I’ve been around. You can tell the players respect the heck out of him and you can see how he’s teaching them not only volleyball, but how to be a better person. Before each game, the team is announced to the crowd. And when they say coach’s name, all the players point to him and he dabs. The players love it.
Before their final game, he pulled each player aside and talked with them individually. I didn’t hear what he said, but each girl teared up and gave him a huge hug. That’s more than a coach in my book.
As a journalist/storyteller, one of my favorite parts of this trip was gaining the trust of the players and coaches throughout the course of the week.
From being that random guy with a camera getting weird looks in the hotel on the first day…. to having the coach thank me and then the entire team chant my name during the post-tournament pizza dinner on the last day. (See below.)
The players and coaches are the main reason I was able to get these images. If they hadn’t allowed me into their world, these photos would have all been from a distance and not nearly as personal.
So… huge thanks to Coach Nick and the Santa Fe Saints volleyball team. You guys are awesome. And no pressure, but next year’s tournament is in Hutchinson, Kan. and I know my mom would love to come watch you play.