Winner finds refuge at Lode
Derek Zimmerman no longer has a home. The only possessions he owns are the ones he packed in his car after fleeing his New Orleans home early last week to wait out Hurricane Katrina at his father’s home in the Louisiana town of Slidell, northeast of New Orleans.On Wednesday, after realizing that the gas-powered generator keeping the lights on at his father’s place was not going to hold out much longer, Zimmerman again packed his car and headed west to Aspen to play in the MotherLode, a tournament he had signed up for earlier in the summer.With his personal life in disarray, Zimmerman forced aside circumstances he couldn’t control Monday afternoon at Koch Lumber Park to focus on one thing he did have a hand in – the outcome of the Men’s Open Final at the 33rd annual volleyball classic.And, with the Lode title on the line in the fourth and final game of a grueling match against Dave Smith and Dane Pearson, Zimmerman took a perfect set from teammate Skyler Davis and delivered the win with an unblockable kill shot. Afterward, Zimmerman, a five-year veteran of the Association of Volleyball Professionals, fought back tears as he talked about the sanity that volleyball provided during a week where everything else in his life became consumed by chaos.His home in the Lakeview district of New Orleans, about a mile from where the first levy was breached, was destroyed in minutes.
“Basically, there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve cried enough,” he said. “It’s pretty hard thinking that your house and everything is pretty much gone and all your possessions and stuff like that. You just kind of push through it and say, ‘I’m here to play ball, and I’m here to have a good time.’ It just makes you feel good playing ball. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”For Smith, also a veteran of the AVP, the loss marked the fifth time he had made it to the MotherLode Men’s Open final and lost.”I’m a little disappointed, but they played great,” he said. “Good for them. I’m happier for them.” The win in the Men’s Open final was far from a sure thing for Zimmerman and Davis after Smith and Pearson, the winners of the losers bracket, forced the decisive fourth game.Having made the final by going undefeated to win the winners bracket, Zimmerman and Davis began the final match with a one-game advantage over the opposition.With that advantage, all the duo had to do – after the two teams split the first two games – was win the 15-point third game, and the title was theirs.Things didn’t go as planned. Behind Smith’s deft hitting and a couple of unforced errors from Zimmerman and Davis, Pearson and Smith jumped out to a 13-9 advantage.Zimmerman and Davis rallied back to knot the game at 13 but then lost the final two points in what was a tense two minutes.
Smith tipped a shot over a Davis block to give his team the one-point advantage and the sideout. Then, on the ensuing game point, Pearson blocked a tip at the net from Zimmerman and Davis was unable to dig the ball out of the sand.Davis said he and his teammate never panicked, even after the one-game advantage the two owned coming into the match evaporated following the close loss.”I knew it was going to be hard for them to beat us that many times in a row, but they’re a dang good team,” he said. “I was just trying to look forward (after that loss). Of course there was pressure. With high level volleyball, that’s all it is. But with the pressure at the time, whoever handles it the best, that’s who wins.”Zimmerman said it became apparent that he needed to go back to his power game at the front of the net after the loss. Trying to finesse Pearson’s block with lofts and drops wasn’t working.”I really thought about it and I was like, ‘Just go do what you do. Stop shooting the ball and start hitting,'” he said. “That’s what I do best. I mix it up enough, but I see a block so well that I like swinging. So that’s what I did – I kept swinging.”And, like knockout punches in the later rounds of a championship fight, Zimmerman’s swings proved to be too much for the tired Smith and Pearson in the final frame.The two teams battled to a 9-9 tie, but then Zimmerman and Davis – keyed by the former’s booming blasts and the latter’s well-placed sets – went on a 9-3 run that put the game out of reach. Zimmerman closed out the 25-17 victory with arguably his biggest hit of the afternoon – a point that flushed out screams of joy after he watched the ball fall to the sand.
Turmoil in his life away from the court, Zimmerman said, wasn’t a motivating factor. The opportunity to win one of the most prestigious beach tournaments off the AVP circuit was.”I always play that way. It is motivating to be here. I wanted to win this bad. It’s a prestigious tournament to win. There’s a lot of big names, and a lot of AVP players have come and won this tournament. This puts me in that category. This is probably the biggest tournament I’ve won.”Zimmerman didn’t know where he was headed next after picking up his winner’s check. He said he might head to Dallas, where Davis is from, to try and get a job there. He said he also might head to Memphis, Tenn. That’s where his partner in the home-improvement business he ran in New Orleans has relocated for the time being.Regardless, there’s always a place for him in Aspen next Labor Day Weekend.Nate Peterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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