Three simple moves complete the one goal of volleyball: to get the ball over the net.
It’s a goal Dig Missoula executive director Paul Standen knows well. Cast on the Northern California beaches of San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Standen and his pals searched for games in their spare time. Quite often they would lose, but it was for the love of the beach and the sport.
Standen and his family traded the seaside vibe of coastal northern California for the mountains and forest of western Montana just under 20 years ago. Now he awaits his turn in a pick-up game on a bench in Bonner Park, a block from his home. He and his volleyball-playing friends kicked off a groundswell of sport at the park and came up with the idea for continued growth.
He wasn’t sure what to expect in wintery Montana, having moved from a Napa Valley, Calif., vineyard to Missoula with his wife and kids not long before. Visions of rows of courts filled with athletes of all ages came to mind.
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“I moved here with a family of four, a mosquito net in a bag and just started talking to people,” he said. The first task was to recruit potential volleyball players for the matches.
Almost a decade later, Standen has seen his hopes come true. The fifth annual Dig Missoula Tournament (would be the sixth if not a blank year due to the pandemic) was in full swing on Saturday, July 9 at Fort Missoula.
Tents, awnings and umbrellas lined the periphery. The hot, humid weather didn’t deter anyone. Volunteers made sure competitors had plenty of water and occasionally offered sprays to cool anyone off from the scorching sun on the clearest day Missoula has seen this summer.
Hundreds of volleyball players of all skill levels made their way through the event. Many from Missoula and surrounding Montana, others from Spokane, Washington, and as far away as South America, scattered across more than 20 grass courts at Fort Missoula.
Cristhian Rodriguez, an electrical engineer from Colombia, is undoubtedly the person who has covered the most distance for the tournament. Rodriguez was visiting his sister, heard about the tournament and elected to change his flight home from mid-June to July 20.
He met Standen by chance while looking for volleyball groups to occupy some of his time during his visit. Standen was his usual welcome, giving a stranger a place to play.
“My first day in Missoula, I played at Bonner Park,” Rodriguez said. “And then I met all the people here and I love it. I feel so welcome and I really want to stay here.”
The tournament is the culmination of the non-profit organization’s work to make volleyball more accessible to adults and youth in Missoula. Free and low-cost clinics, net donations, and a network of groups that play impromptu games and impromptu tournaments spread across every field in the Garden City are hallmarks of the organization.
Even some of the most recognizable American professional gamers took notice of the group. April Ross and Alix Klineman, the duo that won Olympic beach volleyball gold in 2020, donated an autographed jersey – covered in sand – and a game ball that the organization donated auction to raise funds. Former US gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and Ron Von Hagen (dubbed the Babe Ruth of modern beach volleyball) also donated to the organization for the completion of the MSO’s beach courts.
“That love is happening and we’re continuing to grow our community through sports and it’s going and it’s going and it’s going,” Standen said. “It blows my mind, the possibilities.”
Standen is as proud and as vocal as any of his board members of the good his band is doing. Dig Missoula worked with the Missoula Department of Parks and Recreation to revitalize the sand courts at MSO Beach at Playfair Park. The courts have gone from a few inches of coarse, gravel-like sand to 18-24 inches of soft, game-ready sand that attracts some of the most competitive players in town.
Dig Missoula has his next project for Kiwanis Park with the goal of adding new nets and additional land once funding is secured, though an exact number is unclear. The Playfair Park work cost around $12,000, which puts the cost of Kiwanis Park around or just below that figure.
Beyond good for community courts, Dig Missoula has another fundamental purpose: to reach people. They have a scholarship program that started for high school age players, and it has been modified to follow an athlete and support them from college to their high school career.
The scholarship’s ultimate mission, said Dig Missoula board member Courtney Caroll Mercer, is to keep young athletes in sport at the club and high school level.
“Just being able to provide scholarships so kids can keep playing and providing clinics that are cheap or free is the goal,” she said.
Kylie Monday was about to graduate from Hellgate High School when Dig Missoula gave her an unexpected gift. She was the first recipient of the scholarship, which helped her pursue her volleyball and basketball careers through college.
She just completed her sophomore season at Highline Community College in Des Moines, WA and plans to transfer to Northwest University in Kirkland, WA to play volleyball and basketball. next year.
She holds her home close to her heart and was sure to hug Standen as well. Safe to say she will be a regular at the annual tournament.
“I knew it was something I needed to be here for,” she said. “And I plan to do that in the years to come too.”