story and photos by Ruby Dean
As many teenagers slept in on a Saturday morning, the Fort Smith Convention Center was crawling with thousands of teenage girls participating in the annual Battle at the Fort volleyball tournament.
On Jan. 26-27, age divisions 15 to 18 began play with the ages 10 to 14 playing next weekend (Feb. 2-3). This year 181 teams, most ever for the tournament, began pool play with the first match starting at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Teams traveled from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and as far away as Birmingham, Alabama. Teams from Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee usually make the trip, but waited too long to enter the tournament as the tournament filled up pretty fast. This tournament has grown to be the largest volleyball tournament in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
“Even at just over 180 teams the tournament continues to grow every year," Fort Smith Juniors Club President Greg Hale said in a statement. “When it first started nearly 15 years ago we utilized a few courts from the school system during one weekend. Today the tournament is spread out over two weekends and the club rents and places 9 temporary courts in the Fort Smith Convention Center for two weekends. Plus there is still overflow that requires the use of local school courts if and when they are available.”
The Battle has become so popular through the years that the national governing body, USA Volleyball, recently designated it as a “National Ranking Tournament,” meaning results from the tournament are used to calculate seed placements for the final “Nationals” tournament held every summer. “The result of the ranking designation means more competitive teams from even farther away will travel to participate,” Hale said.
The tournament has an economic impact on the area, according to the club. Of the 181 teams, approximately 150 are from far enough away that a two-night hotel stay is required. Each team consists of 9 or 10 players on average and each player brings parents and siblings.
An elementary calculation means there are more than 6,000 out-of-town bodies eating meals and needing a place to sleep over the course of a weekend. That translates into an influx of dollars into the local economy, and during a time of year when the community doesn’t draw in a lot of travelers, noted the FSJ statement.
After pool play today, teams will play for gold, silver, and bronze tomorrow (Sunday).
First and second place teams will win individual awards for all ages and divisions. An all tournament team will also be selected from the gold division. Each semi-final loser will have one player selected, finals loser two players, and finals winner one MVP and two all tournament players.
The Fort Smith Juniors Volleyball Club (FSJ) is a non-profit organization dedicated to giving female athletes, grades 4 through 12, the opportunity to learn, play, compete, and develop their skills at the game of volleyball. The club is made up of 22 teams that include more than 200 players from around the region and as far away as Mena, Paris, Fayetteville and Siloam Springs. The Battle at the Fort tournament is open to the public and play begins at 8 a.m. each day.