Tripp Pierson is living every frustrated, bleacher-bound sports dad’s dream. He isn’t sitting and hoping. He’s crossing the sidelines for daughter Katie, and doing his part.
“You want to get out there and help them,” said Tripp, who lives just outside Tega Cay. “You want to help them win.”
Unlike most sports dads, Tripp gets the opportunity. Not that he and Katie, 13, were thinking this far ahead when they first tried spikeball a little more than a year ago. The game was her birthday gift from his brother. So they took it to the beach. Now, they’re taking it to the national championship.
“We work together really well,” said Katie, and eighth-grader at Gold Hill Middle School. “We just already know what we’re doing before we do it.”
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The pair, in true formed-on-the-beach-in-summer fashion playing as team ‘Merica, competed in seven tournaments this summer. They won their intermediate division at the most recent, a Peachtree City, Ga., regional championship with 28 teams in their division. Qualifying ‘Merica for the national title event Oct. 14 in Chicago.
Which could field 200 or more spikeball teams. Most of them college student-age players, with spikeball a growing sport on campuses nationwide.
"We go to these tournaments and I'm usually the oldest player there,” Tripp said. “I'm almost 44. And she's the youngest player out there. And we're on the same team."
In some ways, spikeball is uniquely suited to a team like the Pierson pair. It takes athleticism, but not so much as to discount non-elite athletes. It takes communication and understanding of where a teammate is going to be. The kind formed by, say, a familial bond backed by five or so practices a week.
“My favorite part of this sport would be getting to play with my dad,” Katie said. “I don’t think that it would be as fun with anybody else.”
The game itself is fairly simple, even if foreign to many.
“Bascially how the game works is there's a round net and its on the ground, about the size of a mini trampoline,” Tripp said. “The game plays like volleyball."
One team serves from outside the six-foot radius encircling the net. Teams get three touches to put the ball back on the net. Like volleyball or tennis, a second bounce without return ends the point.
"There's no boundaries,” Tripp said. “Everybody just kind of runs around all over the place."
So he thought, until he and Katie went from beach fun to tournament play. Tripp found some more serious players at UNC Charlotte. Those players helped ‘Merica’s stars earn their stripes.
"It's really growing huge with the 20 somethings,” Tripp said. “It's big on college campuses. At first you’re just doing the best that you can, but when you start with the more experienced players you say, ‘oh, that’s the strategy to it.’”
Strategy Tripp is learning at a more advanced age than most of his competition, but Katie at a much younger one. Her church youth group bounces balls off the net occasionally, but she isn’t aware of many serious players her age.
“I have to explain it to most kids,” she said. “A few kids have heard of it.”
More and more serious players are hearing about ‘Merica, too. Tripp said the most fun he has playing comes when they play some team of college athletes — he swears one team they played in Ohio must have been the left side of some offensive line by the size of them — and Katie finishes off a pass her old man sent her way.
“She can hit it right by them,” Tripp said. “And the look on people’s faces.”
What made early tournaments difficult for the team is what now probably serves them well.
“The biggest challenge is, we’ve only ever played adults,” Tripp said. “Katie’s giving up size and strength. I’m giving up some youth.”
Both ‘Merica members bring some net experience to the game. Tripp played basketball in high school and college. Katie plays tennis and soccer, where in recent years she moved to goalie. Playing a still growing support has its pros and cons. Spikeball is nowhere near as heralded as tennis. But a dad and his 13-year-old daughter probably wouldn’t get an invite to Wimbledon or have Serena Williams and Roger Federer among their cell contacts, either.
“The community is kind of close knit,” Tripp said, having met, played with and learned from some of the top spikeball players on the planet. “Once you start playing tournaments you meet everybody and get to know everybody.”
A college tour started last year. Its first national championship was held in South Carolina this summer. The overall spikeball season is up to six or seven months now, with four regional tournaments like the one ‘Merica won near Atlanta. Plus the national event where they aim for their biggest result yet.
Tripp, who coached Katie’s early soccer teams, knows college play is way too young for him. At some point, all of spikeball may be. But Katie could have a long and bright future ahead of her in the game. Which he’s happy to be a part of, for just as long as he can.
Call it the ‘Merican dream.