Volleyball tournament Pottstown's best-kept secret

Landon Shorts, left, returns the ball on Logan Smiley during 18-and-under play at the Pottstown Rumble volleyball tournament in Manatawny Park on June 26, 2015. ( LAURENCE KESTERSON/For The Inquirer)

Volleyball is often associated with sand and surf. So why is one of the sport's biggest annual tournaments held in a Philadelphia exurb, 100 miles from the nearest shore?

"We never bother to make a big deal out of it. We just kept putting on a great event, and more people kept coming to it," said Seth Kaas, one of about a dozen local players responsible for the Pottstown Rumble.

His father, Ken Kaas, and some friends started the Rumble 24 years ago as a small regional tournament. This year, it drew nearly 3,500 athletes and 10,000 spectators from California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Texas, even Canada.

Fang Yuan, 24, said the tough competition is what draws more players.

"When I came two years ago, there were only 25 to 35 of us from Boston. Now there's probably 80 to 100," he said between matches.

"Now it's like, 'Oh, you're going to Pottstown? You must be good,' " said Amy Chen, 26, Yuan's girlfriend and doubles partner.

Since the Rumble has evolved into the world's largest grass doubles tournament, Kaas said, the organizers try to improve it every year.

"A lot of the other tourneys, they're a little more bare-bones," he said. "Ours is an experience, a four-day volleyball gala. You have [Olympic gold medalist] Misty May-Treanor running a clinic for the juniors Thursday," competition Friday through Sunday, a beer tent, food trucks, music, stadium seating.

Even amid a relentless downpour on Saturday - and its muddy aftermath Sunday - the players made it through all the brackets on schedule.

"It's a sight to behold, how tenacious those players are," said Michael Lenhart, the borough parks and recreation director.

For Pottstown's biggest annual event, Lenhart said, it's perplexing that so few residents even know it's going on in their backyard.

"I suppose part of it is that it's a very specific culture," he said. "Those that play volleyball know about it, and those who don't aren't necessarily looking for it."

Peter Giannopoulos, a managing partner of Pottstown brewery Sly Fox, said he was among the latter.

When he first heard references to the Rumble a couple of years ago, Giannopoulos said, "I thought it was like a youth tournament. . . . I wasn't aware to what scale the event reached."

Sly Fox is now a major sponsor, and Giannopoulos is a fan. "I definitely recommend going to anyone local," he said. "It's a spectacle."

Ashraf Khalil, who owns the vegan iCreate Cafe, said the rain put a damper on food sales at the cafe's tent this year. But last year, he said, "we got a lot of new business . . . and made really good money in two days."

Kaas said the event organizers have plans and funds set aside to repair any grass that doesn't bounce back from the mud. The Rumble is a nonprofit, with all proceeds going into next year's event or the winners' prizes - up to $4,000 for first place.

Edward Harris, vice president of marketing for the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, said local sports events such as the Rumble are a major untapped market to bring more visitors and events to Montgomery County.

"We've only scratched the surface in terms of opportunity and potential," he said. The board recently formed a sports-marketing division and sent a crew to shoot the Rumble for a marketing video.

Mylène Bourget, 36, an Olympic weight lifter who drove 10 hours from Toronto with a friend who was playing Sunday, said she liked what she saw of Pottstown - especially compared with some other tournament locations.

"This is a much better city than Columbus, Ohio," she said.

Rob Frye, 34, a Pottstown native who has attended the Rumble for several years, said that the event should have a bigger profile locally but that volleyball can be easily overlooked because it usually happens indoors.

"You could drive by a school, and you'd never know it, but there might be 30 people inside playing," Frye said.

Kristy Wolanski, 41, of Bensalem, met her husband through a volleyball league, and the two have competed at the Rumble for several years.

"For me, it's a great mental outlet," said Wolanski, who started playing in high school. "I never picked up another sport that I've enjoyed as much."

If Pottstown's best-kept secret continues to spread, Lenhart said, there's plenty of room to grow. The borough has agreements with North Coventry and other neighboring towns to open their parks.

For Kaas and the dozens of volunteers who spent nights and weekends building up and tearing down the Rumble, it's all about putting on a good game for the players.

"You see a couple of smiles on their faces, people taking photos with mud all over, can't even see if they have shoes on," he said. "They appreciate how hard we try."

jparks@philly.com 610-313-8117 @JS_Parks www.philly.com/MontcoMemo

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a Pottstown cafe owner.