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This weekend, a champion will be crowned. The 2022 VLA season comes down to a six-team, two-day tournament in Chicago, home of the defending champion Chicago Icemen.
The second seeded Icemen have earned the opportunity to defend their title and will be challenged by league-leading Team LVC, as well as the SoCal Rising Tide, Boston Bounce, Phoenix Ascension, and Team Pineapple, who rank behind the Iceman in the order they were listed in.
This year’s championship tournament can be expected to be a continuation of the league-wide, tier-blind parity that has been prevalent throughout VLA competition this season.
New York’s Team LVC won the regular season championships with 44 points, eight more than the second-place Icemen, but no other spot in the rankings was determined by more than three points, which teams earn with a victory in a match that is not extended to five sets by their opponent.
The Rising Tide earned the third seed over the Boston Bounce by only a point, a difference that can be equated to a mere set victory or loss, without having played a single match against each other this season.
The league’s nationwide status and separation into three divisions for all but one event, May’s VLA Cup, also creates intrigue through unfamiliarity and uncertainty.
Team LVC was the clear regular season champion, but they only faced two VLA finalists, the Bounce and the Ascension, all season. The question becomes: how are you supposed to compare two teams,
and even favor one over the other, that haven’t played a single point against each other? Anyone, in any sport, who tries to predict tournament results usually finds themselves in this quandary. Just think of all the optimistic college basketball fans who fill out a March Madness bracket using percentages and stat comparisons, only to have them pan out with impressive impreciseness.
There just isn’t an evaluation for how teams will fare against each other quite like one that has previous head-to-head matchups to draw from.
As regular season champions, Team LVC can be favored over any team they play this weekend. They boast a 4-1 record against the Bounce and defeated the Ascension in five sets in their only matchup.
But when you factor in common opponents, things get a lot more interesting. The Ascension lost twice to the Rising Tide, this weekend’s third seed, at the most recent West Division Event, once in straight sets and once in four sets.
In their respective games against their only common championship-bound opponent, the Rising Tide had better results, even with an additional game. So can Team LVC really be deemed a clear favorite, or even a favorite at all? It would not be unreasonable to use this common opponent comparison to argue that they should not be.
Extending this common opponent reasoning to the Icemen also positions them as possible favorites. Chicago has not played Team LVC this season, but they did beat the Rising Tide in four sets at the VLA Cup in May.
The Icemen also have the unmatchable advantages of home court and championship experience working for them, making it difficult to dismiss them as only the third best team in this weekend’s championships.
Even the lower half of the bracket can not be brushed off; every team has at least one noteworthy win against a top three team.
As mentioned earlier, the Boston Bounce picked up an impressive four-set win over Team LVC at the East Division Cup in April. And though the Ascension dropped the two matches in May to the Rising Tide, they won two matches against SoCal at the West Division Event in February. The sixth seed, Indiana’s Team Pineapple, picked up their best win of the season, a five set nailbiter against the Icemen at the April Central Division Event.
Play on Saturday is split into two pools. Team LVC, the Ascension, and Team Pineapple make up Pool A and the Icemen, the Rising Tide, and the Bounce are in Pool B.
After what are sure to be tightly contested pool play matches, teams will be ranked in their respective pools. Only the winner of each pool will be guaranteed a spot in Sunday’s semifinals. Saturday afternoon play-in matches will be played between the second and third place teams of the opposite pool to decide which teams get the final two spots in the semifinals.
The play-in matches mean that no team will be eliminated from championship contention after pool play. All it will take to get into the semifinals is one major win, and every game will be crucial, as a second win in pool play can save a team from an intense play-in match.
Every team competing this weekend has proven to be more than capable of pulling off a major victory when it matters most. But when these teams play each other, something has to give. That’s when volleyball is at its best. And it's what VLA play has been defined by all season.
“Unfortunately due to overseas play and changes in work schedules, we have not had the luxury of having our entire team together for any tournaments this season”, team representative Ron Clark told me.
While this weekend’s VLA Exhibition in Phoenix between the West Coast Brigade, Phoenix Ascension, and Phoenix Valor is fast approaching, improvements and adjustments ahead of the event are far from over.