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Trying to Get a Leg Up on the Competition : Sepak takraw: Sport combines volleyball and soccer skills. U.S. players to compete in world championships Thailand.


Kurt Sonderegger and his fellow enthusiasts wouldn't mind if the sport they love caught on in the United States as soccer did in the 1960s.

The sport in question is sepak takraw, and Sonderegger is the manager and an alternate player on a team of Americans that begins play today in the World Sepak Takraw Championships in Bangkok, Thailand.

Before he left for Thailand, Sonderegger, a Venice resident, explained that sepak is a Malaysian word for kick and takraw is a Thai word for woven ball.

The game is a combination of volleyball and soccer in which players use their feet, legs, shoulders and heads--but not their hands--to knock a ball made of woven strands of plastic back and forth over a net. It is played on a 20- by-44-foot court and the winning team in a match is the first to reach 15 points in a game and win two of three games.

The sport's origins are not known, according to literature from the U.S. Sepak Takraw Assn. (USSTA). It is said to have started in the 14th Century and was played--without a net--in Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Laos, India and the Philippines. In its early form, still practiced today, players stood in a circle and tried to keep a ball aloft for as long as possible without using their hands and arms.

The net game, called foot-volleyball in English, is a faster, more difficult form of the sport. In this variety, three-player teams contort their bodies into pretzel-like positions so they can head and kick the ball, about 1 1/2 times as large as a softball, over a five-foot-high net.

Points are scored on kills or spikes, dinks and service aces in much the same way as in volleyball. Blocks can be made by raising a foot or leg above the net or by using one's back, which is said to be the best defense against a strong spiker.

The sport has its own lexicon. A highly skilled player is known as someone who "shreds." A bad move on the court is called a "hein," derived from heinous.

Sonderegger, 24, said that he first saw the circle game played when he was working as an aide to a firm of financial consultants in Switzerland in the summer of 1987. He said he later saw the net game played in Bangkok, and that players there flock to get on busy courts in much the same way that tennis players do in the United States.

He said that he became a player himself and works part-time for a marketing research firm to support himself. He and others travel the state, promoting the net game at schools, boys and girls clubs and recreation departments.

Foot-volleyball, he said, "is much more of an adrenaline high and more difficult than volleyball. I have never played soccer, but I think I could jump into game almost anywhere."

At the Bangkok tournament, the American team may be jumping into more than it can handle, but Sonderegger is confident that the team will do well, particularly since it will not be playing in the top division. The tournament ends Sunday.

He said that there is an A division for the more adept Asian players and an international division for players from countries new to the game.

The less experienced teams "won't be playing against the big boys," he said. "That would be like taking up (American) football and then playing against" the Raiders, he said.

Besides Sonderegger, the alternate, the American team consists of Andrew Williams, 26, of Hollywood, and Eric Bartholomay, 23, and Steve Sinclair, 26, both of Boulder, Colo.

Sonderegger said he recruited Williams for the American team, sponsored by a manufacturer of sporting goods, when he saw him playing Hacky-Sack, a U.S. version of the circle game played with a bean bag, at a park in Santa Monica. There are also Hacky-Sack tournaments played with a net, and Bartholomay and Sinclair are experienced tournament players in that sport, he said.

Hacky-Sack is apparently so popular in Colorado that in 1987 the town of Crested Butte considered an ordinance that would have fined players as much as $20 apiece for obstructing walkways while they played the game.

In the championships in Thailand, Americans will be playing in a field that includes China, Korea, Finland, India, Sri Lanka, Japan and Australia. Sonderegger said that China is considered the division favorite because its coach has trained in Thailand, a citadel of the sport, and has the top two spikers in the division. "But I think our chances of placing in the top three (teams) are excellent," he said.

An American team won a gold medal in 1987 and a silver in 1988 at world championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to the game's literature.

Sonderegger estimates that there are from 200 to 300 tournament players of foot-volleyball in the United States and an unknown number of players who kick the ball around in parks and back yards.

He and other members of the USSTA would like to see more Americans take up the game. When he returns from Thailand, he said, there should be two teams that will travel around in an effort to popularize foot-volleyball.

He said the game has elicited enthusiastic responses from youngsters who were exposed to it on previous tours. "Kids love it," Sonderegger said. "They go crazy about this new way to do things with their feet."

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