Spokane sports fans had a tough choice this weekend: spike or dunk.
In addition to the much-touted NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Spokane played host to the Pacific Northwest Qualifier, a homegrown junior-level volleyball tournament involving more than 400 teams from all over the country.
“We eat, breathe and sleep volleyball,” said Rona Kekauoha, a coach for a 12-and-under team from Hawaii. “It’s pretty much a lifestyle.”
The team of nine girls from the I MUA Athletics team from Oahu traveled to Spokane to compete in the PNQ, hoping for a bid to the Junior Olympic level volleyball championship in Reno, Nev.
The Spokane tournament is a major qualifier for under-12 teams all the way up to 18-year-old teams. Spanning two weekends, it is held at the Spokane Convention Center, Eastern Washington University and the HUB in Spokane Valley.
Gossip on the court was that a team from California came in on a private jet.
“It just gets bigger, and better and better every year,” said April Stark, a tournament director.
Stark, who also coaches varsity volleyball at Ferris High School, is a Shadle Park High School volleyball alumna and the daughter of Russ Poage, who started the PNQ in 1998.
Poage and his wife, Linda, and two daughters, Stark and Rusan Barnes, also a Shadle volleyball player, ran the first tournaments as a family. The event has grown by leaps and blocks, so to speak. Now they enlist the help of dozens of volunteers to keep things running smoothly. This year, Gonzaga’s club volleyball team helped out as interns.
“We started it so that our local teams could have a chance to earn a bid,” Stark said. “Just think: We could be watching a future Olympian right here.”
According to the Spokane Regional Sports Commission, the volleyball fans are outpacing the basketball fans this year. The annual tournament fills up hotel rooms and pumps millions into the local economy.
Between games, the girls didn’t need to be in their hotel rooms. They napped on the floor. In the promenade linking the new convention center to the old, scores of girls set up in their designated “parking spots.” When they weren’t napping, dozens of teen volleyball players, some still sporting bare legs and knee pads, could be seen wandering River Park Square or Riverfront Park.
“It’s really nice – downtown is really hopping,” said Lisa Dittmar, whose daughter Chloe plays for the U-12 River City Current club team based in Spokane. River City won all three of its games on Saturday and was headed to the semifinals today.
“Everything is within walking distance; there are great vendors,” Dittmar said. “It’s a great thing for our community.”