True to roots, MotherLode turns 30 |

True to roots, MotherLode turns 30

Daniel Bayer photo.Aspen gives way to the tall and tanned next week when the 30th annual MotherLode Volleyball Classic returns.

For better or worse, Aspen enjoys a reputation as an American epicenter of glitz and glamour.

The MotherLode Volleyball Classic, the 30th annual installment of which runs next Thursday through Monday, Aug. 29-Sept. 2, has somehow managed to escape that label. In fact, the MotherLode’s universal popularity stems from its laid-back, casual environment ? an anti-glitz ?n? glam of sorts.

The largest beach volleyball tournament in the country, and the No. 1-rated beach pro-am tourney in the nation in 2001, according to the industry standard Volleyball magazine, has simply stayed true to its roots.

“What we’ve worked hard to do is create an event that has that feel of that first year’s barbecue ? the camaraderie of the players, that free feel of the ?70s,” said Leon Fell, producer of the MotherLode since 1981.

That “first year’s barbecue,” a 14-team tourney held in 1972 at Wagner Park, is expected to draw more than 700 hundred players this year, spread over 17 divisions and 73 grass and sand courts in and around Aspen.

It’s become a fixture for top-ranked pros and aspiring up-and-comers alike, as well as a ritualistic pilgrimage for volleyball fanatics across the nation. Dozens of marriages have been born out of the MotherLode, not to mention pro careers.

But, just like that first barbecue, the event remains free for fans, and free of the huge bleachers and jumbotrons that overwhelm other volleyball events of the MotherLode’s caliber.

“We don’t have a VIP players tent. Heck, we don’t even have a VIP tent,” said Fell. “The No. 1 player in the country has to fight for a seat next to the lowest-ranked B player. Everyone’s equal on the court and off.”

And the MotherLode’s double elimination format, and men’s and women’s opening divisions that feature 64 and 32 teams, respectively, help to level the playing field while enhancing the fun factor.

“This is where those top players get their feet wet. For example, Dave Blanton, an Olympic gold medalist in doubles at Sydney: He never won here, but he found out he could. There’s a lot like him,” Fell said.

In last year’s event, the No. 2-ranked player in the country, Canyon Ceman of Hermosa Beach, paired with fellow Southern Californian pro Adam Jewell, narrowly escaped a late charge by longshots Ryan Post of Denver and Dane Hansen of Lakewood. The pros won 15-14 in the final, ending the adopted hometown team of Post and Hansen’s tireless run back through the loser’s bracket. And as Hansen remarked at the time, “It seems like the MotherLode brings out the best in everybody.”

While the caliber of play and sheer number of participants has brought the MotherLode to the forefront, Fell is quick to give credit elsewhere.

“A lot of it goes to us: not us the producers, but us the town,” Fell said. “The spirit of this town makes it what it is.”

“It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve had an awful lot of help from the community to keep this a true grass-roots event,” he continued. “There really aren’t any like it out there.”

Catie Vagneur-Fleischer, a former Aspen High standout and two-time All-American at Colorado State, returns to the MotherLode as a contender in the women’s open division.

Vagneur-Fleischer, who now lives in Los Angeles, is competing in her third season on the pro women’s tour. She’ll be playing with Kerri Roe, another Southern California pro.

“She’s really starting to come into her own,” Fell said of Vagneur-Fleischer, a career he’s followed closely. “She has a really good shot; she’s had an up-and-down year, but this is typically the year that young players start breaking through in the doubles game.”

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