A new adventure: broadcasting a Terrace volleyball game

A new adventure: broadcasting a Terrace volleyball game

By Steve Willits

Steve Willits – the voice of the Hawks and Sound Live Sports Network.
Steve Willits – the voice of the Hawks and Sound Live Sports Network.

If you want to watch a high school volleyball game, you usually need to buy a ticket and watch it in person. That wasn’t the case last week when the Mountlake Terrace Hawks and the Marysville-Pilchuck Tomahawks played at the Terraceum on the campus of MTHS.

I had the good fortune on Oct. 2 of being the Play by Play Announcer for the first ever volleyball game broadcasted on Sound Live Sports Network. This was a game that wasn’t limited to people sitting in the stands of the gym:  we had people logging on from Palo Alto, California; Prescott, Arizona; Pullman, Washington; St. Louis, Missouri; San Diego, California; Preston, Idaho; Utah; Canada and many other places.

Over the last 14 months I have had the pleasure of broadcasting football, basketball, baseball, softball and lacrosse. Volleyball can now be added to that list and it was an enjoyable experience. The interesting thing about last week’s game was that the decision to broadcast was made less than a week earlier and yet the entire production was close to flawless.

It is an exciting time to be involved with the Sound Live Sports Network. MTHS teacher Angelo Comeaux and MLTnews Publisher Teresa Wippel are providing us with outstanding leadership as we continue to be pioneers on this journey of high school web streaming sports broadcasting. We are constantly trying new things and figuring out what we are going to broadcast next and this was just the latest adventure as we continue to expand our horizons. Volleyball is a sport that we had talked about doing this year but had never committed.

Friday September 27th while watching the Terrace vs Glacier Peak football game, I got a text from the Sound Live Sports Network Publisher, Teresa Wippel asking if I would be available to broadcast the Terrace volleyball game on Wednesday. It took me about five seconds to reply as I had just gone to my first Terrace volleyball game in over 20 years the previous Tuesday night and had a blast. I was on board however I now had some prep work to do. For starters I didn’t know very much about the team other than the one game I watched earlier in the week and then there was one other minor detail….I needed to learn more about the sport.

Volleyball is not rocket science. It is fairly basic and the premise is simple. Of course I understand that the objective is to not let the ball hit the ground within the lines on your side of the net and that you need to hit the ball back over the net. Do those things well and eventually the ball will either land on your opponents side of the court or they will make an error and your teams receives a point, I get it. That is all fine and good when you are watching a game but as the Play by Play Announcer, I need to be more knowledgeable than that as my responsibility to the audience is to inform them as to all things related to what is taking place on the court. I needed to study up so that I could sound reasonably intelligent during a broadcast and I didn’t have much time. To prepare for the game I did what any other person with internet access would do in 2013…I went to Wikipedia.

It turns out I knew more than I thought I did but I still needed to study up on some of the terminology. I read up on terms like “block” “dig” and “kill” (sounds barbaric but it is actually the volleyball term used to describe the act of hitting the ball over the net and getting a point for your team without your opponent being able to touch the ball). As I was studying up on the sport I came upon a paragraph describing the role of the Libero. Raise your hand if you don’t know what a Libero is, no need to feel embarrassed if you are stumped, I had no idea either. The Libero is a designated defensive player that can substitute in and out of a volleyball games rather freely however the Libero does have some restrictions and must abide by the following rules: they must wear a contrasting jersey that is not the same color as their teammates and they cannot block or attack the ball when it is entirely above net height. If it sounds confusing, just remember the part about the jersey being a different color than their other teammates, like a soccer goalie.

The next thing I needed to do was learn a little bit about the players. A sports announcer has the responsibility of carrying on a conversation with the audience throughout a broadcast and for a volleyball novice like me, that can be a bit of a challenge. One thing that I did during the Terrace softball season back in the spring was to send out an e-mail to the players with a few questions to get to know more about them. The questions that I sent were basic and intended to provide me with biographical information so that I would be able to share it with the audience. People are tuning in first and foremost to watch volleyball therefore many of my questions are to obtain the players background in the sport; how long they have played, what teams have they played on, the strengths of their game, what are some of their volleyball weaknesses that they hope to improve on. I also ask for them to talk about other sports and interests that they have and for the seniors, what are their post high school plans if any.

My favorite question though is in regards to which family members and friends will be watching the game on the internet and where will they be watching it from. I like this question for a couple of reasons. For starters it is fascinating for me and our crew to hear just how wide our reach is with these broadcasts. To know that people are watching our production all throughout the country as well as the world is pretty awesome. It is called the worldwide web for a reason and we’ve had people watching MTHS sporting events from all over the world.

The other reason that I enjoy that question is that it enables us to give live personal attention to the supporters of the broadcast and the players. This isn’t ESPN and we are still small enough to where we can say hello to people and to let them know that we appreciate them for tuning in and that the players they are watching also appreciate them enough to want to mention them by name. During one of our softball games last year, I found out that the mother of MTHS player Hannah Fickle was watching in Jacksonville Florida and that it was her birthday. We wished her a happy birthday on the air a couple of different times during the broadcast and after the game I received an e-mail from Hannah that I will never forget, telling me that her Mom called her up after the game and was crying because she was so excited that she had been able to watch Hannah from 3000 miles away. She said it made her birthday special. Ask me why I love doing these broadcasts so much and I will almost always share that story.

Most of my preparation for the game was done before I arrived at the high school however I still had a few things that I needed to take care of before I was ready to go on the air. When I broadcast basketball games, I keep track of how many points, shots and fouls each player has, I keep track of baseball using a standard scoring book and I have a system for each of the sports too. I had no idea what I should or shouldn’t keep track of during a volleyball game or how easy it was going to be to do. It is one thing to write down statistics when you are sitting up in the stands but trying to do that while carrying on a continuous conversation during a broadcast is not easy, especially when you are doing it for a sport that you don’t know very well and have never broadcasted. Once I got situated, I figured I would keep it simple and just write down the order in which the points were scored and who was serving each point.  I wanted to have some statistics to share with the audience but I didn’t feel as though we needed to try and overdo it either. We don’t have the resources and millions of dollars that a large network has and therefore keeping it simple is often the best option.

Being able to correspond with our audience during a broadcast is also something that I’ve come to love doing from time to time and Twitter has allowed for people to interact with us. I keep my phone in front of me at all times and am instantly notified if someone uses my handle (@stevewillits) in a Tweet.

Thanks to the power of Twitter, I knew at least one Terrace alum was going to be watching even before we went on the air as Class of 2013 graduate John Moore tweeted me asking “Is the live feed working yet, Because I can’t see it?” John had tweeted me a couple of times recently about his desire to be able to watch a Terrace volleyball game from his current location in Prescott, AZ where he is a freshman at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University so I knew he was planning on watching but it was still nice to get the confirmation. I was able to let John know that we were about to go live and to stay tuned in. Once the game started I learned quickly that John wasn’t the only Class of ’13 member watching the broadcast as Casey Hynes then tweeted and thanked us for “giving me a good distraction from my hw [homework]”. Casey is a student at Washington State University and enjoyed watching her former team while sitting in her dorm room in Pullman. I gave both Casey and John a shout out and thanked them for tuning in and then found out a third member of their graduating class was also watching. Stanford student and distinguished Terrace alum AnhViet Nguyen chimed in from Palo Alto, California: “I’m watching the game too while writing my essay”.

It was fun hearing from all three of these Terrace alums. We’ve only been doing these broadcasts since last year and I have so many fond memories from various sporting events at MTHS during the Class of 2013 senior year. They were a great group of students and no matter how long I continue my affiliation with Terrace, that class will always hold a special place in my heart.

Broadcasting the game itself ended up being a lot of fun. Joining me on the broadcast as is often the case was MTHS Teacher and Hawkeye Adviser Vince DeMiero, another “newbie” to the world of volleyball. I was a little concerned going into the evening knowing that neither Vince or I have extensive volleyball backgrounds but we are both experienced broadcasters (or so I think) and we did a solid job. Vince even went out and got us a secret weapon, Alicia Wagoner, a freshman on the Terrace JV volleyball team who also happens to be a student in Vince’s English 9 Honors class. Alicia ended up sitting next to us during the broadcast and we would occasionally ask her for clarification on rules and strategy during the game. She ended up being a very valuable resource for us.

Calling the action was fairly easy as I generally didn’t talk very much while the ball was in play except for a few occasions when there was an extended volley between the two teams. I generally waited until the play was over and then did a quick summary as to what had just happened and pointed out which players had key touches. Vince and I would then use the down time between serves to talk about the game itself but also about some of the background information that I had compiled from the players’ e-mails.  Having Vince on a broadcast is such a bonus. Not only in the sense that he is a great analyst and quick with a reply when breaking down the action, he also knows many of the players from being around them at school and will often share a fascinating story about his own experiences with them.

The game itself was also positive from a Terrace standpoint as the Hawks defeated Marysville-Pilchuck in three straight sets and picked up their fifth consecutive victory. After the game we conducted our customary post game interview with two of the top performers of the night, (the Jersey Mike’s Lynnwood Players of the Game) Justine Kelly and Madison Eich. This is another aspect of the broadcast that I really enjoy as it gives the players a chance to be heard and hopefully provides them with a unique experience that they can look back on and watch for years to come. Vince and I asked the girls a few questions about the game and how they played but we also got to ask a few other questions that we felt the audience might enjoy based again on the biography e-mail that we sent to them. We got to talk to Justine about some of the east coast colleges that she is interested in attending as she contemplates playing collegiate volley and studying pre med. We also talked to Madison about one of her other passions, archery, a sport that she competes at on a high level and hopes to pursue even after high school.

Broadcasting for the Sound Live Sports Network and announcing games at my high school alma mater continues to be an amazing experience. I would have never envisioned myself broadcasting a volleyball game until recently and now that I have, I hope that we can do another one again in the near future. Go Hawks!