Infectious spirits triumph over frigid temps in New Year’s Day volleyball game

  • Mark Dannenhauer of Shutesbury makes a return during a New Year’s Day volleyball match at the Shutesbury Athletic Club. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Two sides of seven take part in the traditional New Year’s Day volleyball match at the Shutesbury Athletic Club in single-digit temperatures on Monday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Charles Gilliam of Shutesbury gets up after missing a shot during the traditional New Year’s Day volleyball match at the Shutesbury Athletic Club on Monday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Anita Cooper of Amherst takes a “breather” during a break in action at the traditional New Year’s Day volleyball match at the Shutesbury Athletic Club on Monday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Al Werner of Shutesbury waits for the next serve during the traditional New Year's Day volleyball match at the Shutesbury Athletic Club that took place in single-digit temperatures on Monday, January 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

For The Recorder
Monday, January 01, 2018

SHUTESBURY — With thermometers hovering around 10 degrees on Monday afternoon, drivers on Wendell Road may well have thought that the two volleyball teams competing out in the snow were some kind of winter hallucination.

But they were not apparitions. Around 14 people maneuvered agilely around an outdoor net, the sound of crunching snow and victorious yells echoing through the surrounding woods.

For a decade now, a local group has been meeting annually at the Shutesbury Athletic Club to bump, set and spike in the New Year. Over the years, they have had to play through some pretty difficult weather conditions, but never has the mercury dropped so low.

“This is the coldest, for sure,” said Carl Mailler. Snow pants, thick coats, warm scarves and hats — and one pair of snow shoes — were the day’s uniforms. Gloves were a must.

The smell of wood smoke filled the frigid air as the players lit a fire near their snow-covered court and began some pre-game passing.

“How do we know if we’re warmed up yet?” someone asked to laughter. “What are the signs of hypothermia?” another person quipped.

Soon, everyone had arrived and the game began in earnest, the players cheering their teams on with every point won.

The first few rallies of the game made it obvious that, unsurprisingly, it takes longer to warm up when it is that bitterly cold. But after a couple sluggish points, it was obvious that the group plays together at least once a week when it’s warm.

Players began to dive for stray balls and challenge each other at the net. One team’s spike was met by an equally deft dink shot from the other. Teammates called out to one another when they wanted the ball, and each side strung together pass after pass.

“I might be overdressed,” John Aierstuck joked. Someone else took their coat off and hung it from the side of the net as the first game ended at 18 points to celebrate the New Year.

The smiles and laughter — the comical absurdity of playing volleyball at a time like this — draw the group back together every year. It doesn’t hurt that the friends throw a potluck after with food and drinks to warm the body.

“Snow, sleet, rain, mud — it doesn’t matter,” said Billy Tobey. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else but out here right now.”

Over the years, the volleyball fanatics have had other nasty weather to battle. A few years ago, they had to dig the court out of a patch of ice. The first year they played, the snowfall was so intense that Anita Cooper of Amherst, who is from near snowy Buffalo, N.Y., couldn’t believe they were going to play.

“I’m driving up in this snowstorm saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Cooper recalled, laughing.

The spirit of the game was infectious, and it didn’t take much coaxing to convince this reporter to join the second game. The movement of the game warmed my numb feet, and made me forget just how cold my face was without a scarf.

The score went back-and-forth for much of the game before our team pulled off a victory. As with every game, the teams walk toward each other under the net, shaking gloved hands and laughing.