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ORANGE COUNTY ON THE GO

Net Masters

Volleyball Team of 50-Somethings Bound for Finland

May 11, 2000|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One is a fireman, one a real estate agent and another a consultant. One grew up playing volleyballat his high school near the beach, another didn't pick it up until his mid 20s.

For this diverse group of 50-somethings, which will travel to Finland for an international volleyball tournament next week, the love of the sport brings them together.

"I was raised in Manhattan Beach and I still live here," said setter Spike Bortz. "[Tuesday], I went down to Fourth Street to play. The water was beautiful, the sun was out, you had the waves. What more could you ask for?

"And playing volleyball, well, to stay in shape, it sure beats running."

But for these guys, volleyball is more than just a way to keep fit. Their team--TFG USA--is staffed by top-notch players who are looking for a new international challenge.

They'll play in the 50s division of the World Veterans Volleyball Championships in Tampere, Finland, north of Helsinki, May 18-21.

Players include Hawaii's John Stanley, a 6-foot-5 middle blocker who played at Brigham Young and for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, and Manhattan Beach's Bob Jackson. He didn't pick up the sport until he was 25, but caught on so quickly that he started playing pro beach events only two years later and once won a tournament with beach volleyball pioneer Ron Von Hagen.

Ken Petersen, a team member from Newport Beach, sponsors the team with his business, Tax & Financial Group. Petersen played collegiately at Loyola and stayed on to coach. One of his former Loyola players, Phil Feherbend, has joined him with TFG USA.

"I'm the rookie at 51," Feherbend said.

A Fountain Valley fireman, Feherbend dabbled in the Southern California-based indoor pro leagues in the mid-70s, when the United States was trying to prep its players for the 1976 Olympics.

"I've played with or against these guys for the past 30 years or so," Jackson said. "And if you would have asked me back then if I would still be playing in my 50s, I would've said no. But it's still fun."

TFG USA won the last international tournament in which it participated, the Nike World Masters in Portland, two years ago. They defeated a team from the Ukraine in the finals.

"When we go over there it could be a different tale," said Laguna Niguel's Greg Vail. He is the team's libero, or defensive specialist.

"The Fins, Latvians, Ukrainians, they should all be there," Vail said. "But this time, we'll have to deal with the jet lag and the different food. It'll be interesting to see how we stack up with everyone."

Winning is foremost on everyone's mind, and TFG USA appears to have the talent to win. But Jackson said he appreciates more than just the on-court competition.

"At the Nike games two years ago, I was impressed with the Russian captain," said Jackson, who works in real estate. "Here was a college graduate, with a wife and two kids, who worked as an environmental engineer, but he didn't own a home.

"They live in little apartment in Kiev, which is about $50 rent a month, and he makes about $75 a month. That goes to show how spoiled we really are here. It puts things in perspective.

"Sure we hope we have a team that can win, but I believe what is more important, that as our world gets smaller, sports can play a big role because they're good for building inter-country relationships."

TFG USA won't be taking the same Nike World Masters championship team to Finland. Earlier this month, starting setter Tom Madison, who lives in Hawaii, announced to his teammates that he would not be playing because he needed to undergo immediate surgery for lymphatic cancer.

"In this game when you're young," Vail said, "it's rotator cuff or knee injuries that knock players out. At our age, it's cancer or heart attacks."

Madison's replacement is Bortz, a former teammate of Al Scates, the men's volleyball coach at UCLA.

Bortz, a human resources consultant, is a former triple-A rated beach player who won the 1970 Manhattan Open with Pete Hogan. Bortz is familiar with his TFG USA teammates from years of competing with or against them in national age-group competitions.

"I've known these guys for years," said Bortz, who normally sets with the Legends team based in Irvine. "It's like putting a pair of shoes on. I've played with or against them for so long, it won't be a tough transition."

Even if it is a rough road, the team will still enjoy the trip, win or lose.

"I know with the guys we have," Feherbend said, "we'll have fun wherever we go."

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