SALT LAKE CITY — Warren Van Schalkwyk cannot play volleyball the way he did when Carl McGown offered him a scholarship at BYU in 1989.
But that does not change how much the 43-year-old wants to win a championship this weekend.
The South African native is part of the Utah Valley 40s men's volleyball team competing for a title in the USA Volleyball National Championships held this weekend at the Salt Palace. The team defeated another Utah team in its first game Friday, Sweet Yams, 25-19, 25-22, and won their second game 25-13, 18-25, 25-12 to advance to the over-40 semifinals against Rumba a Los (Venezuela) at 9:05 a.m. Saturday. The championship is scheduled for 3:35 p.m.
"I stepped away from the game about 15 years ago," said Schalkwyk, who remained connected to the game he loves through coaching a women's team. "I love the game; I've always wanted to play competitively, and now I'm at a point where I can take a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off. So when Mike (Daniel) called and said we're playing, I said I'm in."
Even the man who organized the team is surprised at how well the group, made up of a number of former college players and coaches, has fared against teams from around the world.
"We play all the time as friends," said Mike Daniel, who played at BYU and has coached for the Cougars, UVU and Pleasant Grove High School. "We found out that it was going to be here in SLC, and they didn't have a lot of teams in the division, so they asked us to get a team together. We ended up winning the pool. We didn't (expect that). We had no idea. When you see names like Venezuela, Brazil, other teams, (you) just never know what to expect."
Playing competitive volleyball is a reminder to these once-elite athletes that they may have slowed a step, but they're just as competitive as they ever were.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Daniel. "You get these constant reminders through the years that you're getting older. But this is one of those things that makes you feel young again. You're playing with your friends again and against your friends and from great players all over the world."
The tournament brought 440 teams competing in 29 divisions to the Salt Palace for a week of pool and tournament play that featured some of the best players in the sport. The tournament offered about 14,000 athletes the chance to compete for titles — and prize money — from as far away as Venezuela and Brazil and offered the local economy a $14-16 million boost.
"We are excited to host USA Volleyball, a key partner of ours, as we continue to host major winter and summer Olympic related events," said Jeff Robbins, President and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission. "This year's Open National Championships will be the fifth USA Volleyball national championship the State of Utah has hosted since 2001, which combined have generated significant exposure and an estimated total economic impact of $170 million to the state of Utah."
Daniel said he's never stopped playing either for fun or in competitive leagues, but there aren't many options for men.
"There is really no place right now to play," he said. "We get the leftover church space or leftover high school gym time."
He said men's volleyball at the collegiate level has shrunk from 115 to 95 in just the last 10 years. Meanwhile there are 1,300 collegiate opportunities for women.
"I think men's volleyball is a great product, especially in Utah," Daniel said. "BYU is always a premier men's sports program and they lead the nation in attendance."
But pinpointing just why the sport is only popular on the west coast and in Utah is much tougher than surmising that the sport is still a fringe activity among men.
"I'm on a mission," said Daniel, who believes that it just needs more exposure to win participants and fans over to the game's virtues. "I want to dramatically grow boys volleyball in Utah. I want to give back to the community and I want them to have opportunities that we didn't have when we were growing up."
He hopes people will take some time Saturday to come watch the final day of action, which will include this squad, and see how exciting the game can be.
"It's fast-moving, anything can happen and there are a lot of rallies," he said. "The ball is moving, depending on the division 50 to 70 miles an hour and when people get out to watch, they really enjoy it. This type of tournament is good for both men's and women's volleyball."
Daniel said McGown's system, which helped the U.S. men's team win a gold medal in the Beijing Olympics is the reason BYU is so successful.
Van Schalkwyk was part of that first NCAA sanctioned BYU squad. He'd moved to the U.S. in hopes of earning a college scholarship playing volleyball and after signing a letter of intent with San Diego State, he traveled to Utah to visit friends of his parents.
That's where he met McGown who, after seeing him play, asked him to comet to BYU in the fall.
"It was painful," he said laughing. "We were like 2-22. We learned how to lose like men. Every one of us were true freshman and we were competing against all the top teams. Five or six years later they won a national championship, so I guess we started something good, but we weren't part of it."
He's hoping that while he's not the player he once was, he still has enough athleticism to help the Utah Valley 40s to a title.
"The thing about competitive athletics is that you love to compete," he said. "You learn to love winning; you hate losing. And whenever you win it's a real adrenaline rush. Figuring out how to win has been so fun."
Daniel said the team is very fundamentally sound, and now that they've seen the competition, they have high hopes for the team's potential. The squad will play several games today, starting at 9 a.m. The championship for the over-40 division is 3:45 p.m. today and admission is free.
The members of the Utah Valley 40s are Scott Amussen, Dave Breinholt, Mike Clark, Brad Collins, a former UVU player and an All-American; Jim Loveland, CEO Xactware; Mark Robins; Steve Vail; Van Schalwyk, former BYU player; Royce Van Tassell, former BYU player; and Bob Ward, former UVU player and UVU coach.
The players are hoping today will bring a few more spectators out to what promises to be an interesting day of competition.
"I'd love to be playing in front of a crowd," said Van Schalkwyk.
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