BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — Good sportsmanship pays off, especially when one’s opponent quickly becomes one’s teammate.
That’s the situation in the 4-on-4 outdoor volleyball league this summer at Avon Crest Park, a program Tom Budka — last fall’s Niskayuna High School varsity girls’ volleyball head coach — started last year and is back for a sophomore season.
Players enter the Thursday night league in teams of two, but all games are 4-on-4 in a ladder league that uses six nets. It works like this: Each week, five teams play together on one net, with the duos rotating so that each one plays alongside another pair. After every combination has been played, the team with the best record advances up one net to a more competitive playing environment, the club with the worst record moves down a net, and the three other pairs stay put for the following week.
Competition at the league’s top net is stiff, while the lowest net in the ladder setup is meant more for novices and youngsters.
“At the lowest one, we really want the kids just to get better,” Budka said. “We’ll give kids there an extra chance to serve, if needed, and we try to be very positive with them.”
In only its second year, the 4-on-4 league has shown solid growth. In 2014, Budka said the league had about 30 players competing on three nets, most of them from Clifton Park and Niskayuna; this year, six nets are always in play for a group of 58 players from Burnt Hills, Clifton Park, Niskayuna, Schenectady and more.
This year’s season started May 28 and will end July 23.
Budka said he started the league last year with the help of the Niskayuna Recreation Department to create a local opportunity for people to play outside in a unique format. When he plays, Budka teams with one of his kids — he has a daughter and son playing in the league. Such arrangements are not uncommon to the competition.
“We’ve got a mom-daughter team right there, and a father-daughter one there, too,” said Budka, pointing to a nearby playing surface.
Bobbie Waddell and Maddie Waddell of Clifton Park are a mother-daughter combination returning to the league from its inaugural season. They spent July 2 playing on the league’s fourth-most difficult net. Having fun, they said, was more important than trying to advance up a net for the next week’s action.
That night, the Waddells found competition that was both challenging and competitive for them — a perfect fit.
“Sometimes,” Bobbie Waddell said, “it’s better to stay where you are than to go to some of the other nets.”
Getting to constantly mix up the teams after each game kept things fresh, too.
“It’s harder when you’re always with different people,” said Maddie Waddell, a 16-year-old about to be a junior at Shenendehowa.
“But you get to meet new people with that,” said Christie Brown, who will be a sophomore next school year at Niskayuna.
Brown, a 15-year-old, sporadically played in the league last year as a substitute, but is a full-time member this year. She said she regularly plays volleyball outside in the year’s warmer months, and likes the challenge of taking on more than just the other team.
“You have to take into consideration the elements — the wind definitely affects it,” Brown said.
The league will crown its top teams July 23, and Budka is optimistic the league will have a third season.
“Everyone has left happy that I’ve seen, and that’s great for us,” he said. “These players here are going to be running these types of things in the future, and we want to get more chances for people to play outdoors.”