Steel City Volleyball League serves up co-ed membership drive

One month after throwing open the closet door, Tim Dean went to his first organized gay activity—a morning spent spiking, setting and sweating with other players in the Steel City Volleyball League. When he walked onto the court he was, in his words, “scared shitless.” 

        Ten years later Tim now laughs at his overwrought anxiety that first day. He’s still playing volleyball, and he even sits on the SCVL board, where he shares the sentiments of another board member who said that through volleyball he’s made friends for life.

Heather Nestor came to the league three years ago because she and some girlfriends “wanted to do something in the gay community, and we all played volleyball.” One of them found out about the SCVL through an article in Out. The spark was lit.

        Heather’s memory of her first games with the league says a lot about the people who play in the SCVL and why it’s been so successful since its founding in 1987.

        “We walked in not knowing anyone, yet we felt welcome. It was just a pleasant atmosphere,” Heather recalls.

Playing by the rules

        For many in Pittsburgh’s gay and lesbian community, the term “gay sports” is an oxymoron—a contradictory pairing of words that they can’t imagine belong together.

        Sure, they may have heard of those other two “Steel City” leagues—one plays softball, the other bowls—both of which have been playing in and around Pittsburgh since at least 1981. And the Frontrunners are still on the move, as are the city’s gay bicyclists.

        And a gay and lesbian volleyball league too? Who knew?

        By the middle of September, the SCVL board hopes more people will know about the league. By then the league will have completed its first-ever publicity blitz, which started at June’s PrideFest, where members staffed an information table; that effort attracted some 30 inquiries.

        Now, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 24, SCVL members will be talking up the league in a “bar crawl” that will take in Donny’s Place, Tuscany, Pegasus, New York New York and the Real Luck Cafe. The campaign culminates on Sept. 6, when many of the league’s 70-plus members will turn out at the Eagle for the fall season kickoff celebration. 

        While they might not be singing “Getting to Know You” as they hit the bars, the officers and members of SCVL will be singing the praises of a thriving sports organization that will soon open its new season of regular play at the South Side Market House. As Heather said, “We want people to know about the league, what brought us in to it and why we’ve stayed.”

        If you don’t want to wait until September to see what the SCVL is all about, check out the games on Tuesday evenings at the Overlook in Schenley Park, where many of the league’s regulars meet at 6:30pm for informal play. Or, if you prefer playing over watching, the league holds “open” play on Sundays at the Overlook starting at about 1pm during the summer.

        But be warned:  This is not casual backyard pickup volleyball. While they don’t play the ferocious brand of highly competitive beach volleyball you see on ESPN, Steel City Volleyball League members take their game seriously—and they do play by the rules.

        You can see that in the Tuesday night games: A 900-square-foot playing court suitable for two four-person teams is marked out in the grass with yellow tape. The poles are sturdy; the nets are regulation height and the ball’s a regulation ball. Servers declare their intentions with announcements: “5-3, service!” Each team can touch the ball no more than three times before it has to go over the net. Players tap, lunge, dip, crash and spike. No one seems to mind flying into the dirt in an attempt—often successful—to keep from missing the ball. Often, when the ball is in play and team members are setting up a shot, there’s almost a choreographed elegance to the way they tap the ball from one to another.

        Still, this is informal play. There are no T-shirts identifying teams, and at least one player opts to go barefoot. The five referees who cover each game during the fall and spring seasons are nowhere in sight. People are playing because they like the game of volleyball, they’re playing with friends and they’re having a good time.

        And the good times get rolling officially in September, with the start of the league’s fall season. That’s when seven or eight people are assigned to teams with names like Wendy’s Hot and Juicy, 6WM2D, Team Frantic and Fluffy Moo Moos. Obviously, this is not a stuffy bunch. For Heather, it’s this aspect of the league, plus the many new friends she’s made, that keeps her and others coming back to play year after year.

        Fun is a big part of the SCVL; so are camaraderie and sportsmanship. When these men and women are playing, the air crackles with high fives and shouts of “Way to go, girl” and “Good shot” and “Go, kitten, go.”

        For a newcomer, this may be a bit daunting. League members know that (Tim’s nervousness was not unusual) so they’re making an effort this year to get out the word that everyone—gay, straight, transgender, male, female, old pro or eager newbie (but over 18 years of age, please)—is welcome to join SCVL. 

        Sure, just throw me in the mix and let me get eaten alive by the long-term members, you say under your breath. Maybe that’s your experience in other leagues, but, according to Tim and Heather, that’s not the case with this league. The SCVL is organized so that everyone—even the person with two left feet—can play.

        During Saturday morning play in September, any game is open to anyone. New players mix with veterans, skilled with unskilled. Novices who want help with their serve or with understanding volleyball’s sometime arcane rules can attend clinics run by league officers and veteran members. In the first two Saturdays of play, board members are constantly assessing everyone’s skills. Then, in a long, carefully planned session, they’ll create teams composed of equal parts good players, average players and new players.

         All of this assessment and discussion and planning results in a league in which no team starts off the fall season with a skill advantage over another team. “All teams are evenly matched, at least as much as possible,” Tim said. “That’s one of the things that contributes to this being a fun league.”

        Over time, however, team skills will grow, faster on some teams than others. Tim has seen this happen year after year because, he said, “Volleyball is one of the few sports where, with a minimum of practice and trying, you do get better.”

        The winter break over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday gives SCVL members a chance to rest up for the more competitive spring season, when members can form their own teams. 

        This year, Heather hopes the league’s outreach effort will attract more women. “There’s probably fewer than 10 female members,” she said. “I’d really like there to be more.”

        Heather wants to reassure people who might not want to play “because they’re afraid someone is going knock a ball in their face that we’re for all levels of players. We want people who are not just interested in playing but also in learning.”

        Since its start more than a decade ago, the Steel City Volleyball League has been a quiet but important part of the city’s gay social scene. Some of the money the SCVL raises throughout the year from raffles and fund-raisers goes to other community groups, such as the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. 

        While not yet affiliated with the North American Gay Volleyball Association, many members do travel to NAGVA-sanctioned tournaments. According to Tim, at least two and possibly three teams from the league are going to Columbus over Labor Day weekend for that city’s annual tournament. They’ve also played in Baltimore and Cleveland, and traveled to Tampa in support of the Steel City Softball League.

What am I getting myself into?

        The Steel City Volleyball League starts its fall season Sept. 6 on the second floor of the South Side Market House at 1200 Bingham St. Doors open at 8:30am; play starts at 9am and runs until noon. The fall recreational season ends before Christmas, with a break over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The spring competitive season starts in January and ends in April.

        Membership is $35 per season and is due at the end of the second week of open play. The fee covers facility rental, a team T-shirt, skill development clinics and 10 sessions of play and helps fund the league’s banquet, equipment and prizes.

        No need to call ahead if you want to play; just show up at the Market House on Sept. 6. Nets and volleyballs are provided, but bring your own water or sports beverage, knee pads (if desired) and tennis shoes. Note: Bring an extra pair of shoes with you to the Market House; street shoes are not permitted on the courts.

For more information about the Steel City Volleyball League, its schedule and volleyball rules, visit the Web site at www.steelcitysports.org or send e-mail to scvlgph@hotmail.com.