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Jeff Kolpack, Published May 31 2013

Kolpack: Haybale tournament a sign that summer is here

Fargo - Nobody really knows how Mark Steffens got the nickname “Sky King,” although if you ask him he’ll tell you it’s because he’s tall and handsome. Yes, that may not make complete sense.

But every year around this time, what does make complete sense is the culture of local sand volleyball. Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Haybale tournament, and nothing says summer like the Haybale, even if the weather rarely cooperates.

So if you’re looking for somebody to blame for the recent rainy weather, point your fingers to those sand volleyball people. They don’t care because they have more laughs at this event than some people have all year.

“The main thing is fun and attitude,” Steffens said. “But it’s true we’re all getting mature. It sucks that everyone is getting old – except me.”

The Haybale was held in a church basement in the first year. Considering a brew or two is permitted while playing at the sand courts first at Lindenwood Park and more recently at Rabanus Park near Interstate 94 and 42nd Street South, a house of prayer seems like an unlikely location.

Haybale, by the way, is named after one of the tournament founders – the nickname for Mark Larson. Unlike Steffens, his nickname has some background evidence.

Larson, not one for media interviews, used to race snowmobiles and had a tendency to run into the safety hay bales that lined the course. At least that’s the story.

There is a list of Haybale legends that show up every year. Who you don’t see are women’s players from the North Dakota State volleyball team. There was a time when they routinely brought the Haybale up a level, both on and off the court.

Rumor has it that back in the 1980s some Haybale players invited the Bison players because they were looking for dates. Whatever the reason, that talent pool ended about 15 years ago when the Haybale was told it was against NCAA rules for the Bison women to participate.

“The NCAA rules were made because of us,” joked Steffens.

So instead of having the tournament on the second weekend in May– for the sake of the college players – it was switched to more of a summer date.

That didn’t mean much this year. The tourney will be played indoors today at the Southside Arena. Teams are picked via an innovative computer program written by Guy Christensen, which mixes up the players by ability.

The tourney has a maximum of 150 players divided into five pools playing on six courts. Every team generally gets two men, two women, two rec players, a setter and a hitter.

“Everything matched,” Steffens said. “It was an original thing with us.”

About as original as the nicknames and the sand volleyball culture. It still lives.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia