Last May, while most Drake students celebrated the end of the year, two Resident Assistants kicked off a summer of athletic achievement. Gallivanting around the Midwest in a van with a league of supporters, the duo worked hard and played harder, climbed up tournament ranks to accumulate awards and most importantly: shared the joy and community of their sport.
The RAs in question are juniors Jack Saunders and Isaac Gavin, and their sport of choice is Spikeball, a traditionally low-stakes game where players bounce a ball back and forth off a horizontal net. After a summer of tournaments in Minnesota and Chicago, Saunders and Gavin became Premier Spikeball players – meaning they are now among the top 200 athletes in the world.
The two didn’t start the sport with the intention of competing, though. When they began playing in their first year of college, it was an athletic outlet that also helped them find friends.
Saunders said that Spikeball was one of the reasons he got close with Gavin.
“It was like another thing to do with my friend…because it was fun,” he said.
Owen Luetke, another sophomore Spikeball fan influenced by Saunders and Gavin, agreed that it has helped him find community. He started playing on his first day at Drake, and he hasn’t stopped since.
“Me and my roommate went out and played some spikeball with a bunch of guys and we were awful, but it was a great time to, as freshmen, get to know people,” Luetke said.
The aspect of community is a continued benefit for Saunders and Gavin as they keep playing. Even at the tournaments, where competition is heightened, Gavin said the environment is still friendly.
“I feel like it’s a everybody knows everybody type of community because we all play a lot of tournaments together,” Gavin said.
So what made Gavin and Saunders want to play competitively in such a community-centered game? The answer is simple: “Because we thought we could do it,” Saunders said. So they began the long journey to get into the competitive Premier Division – one filled with hard work, practice and tournaments.
“They would go out, you know, every day during the summer and play, like, three or four hours just by themselves…it takes a lot of dedication,” Luetke said.
According to Saunders, it took them a full year and a half of regular practice before they won against their mentor for the first time. The pair also attended multiple tournaments before the Minnesota competition, which gave them their Premier title in May 2021.
But Saunders and Gavin’s journey was far from over. Once they were Premier, they could start playing in Premier tournaments. So in June, they organized a van full of 20-30 enthusiastic Spikeball lovers and embarked on the long drive towards a tournament with 200 plus teams in Chicago.
There, they found a unique opportunity: the chance to face off against some of the best players in the world. At the Chicago tournament, the duo lost to two athletes who are models on the actual Spikeball box and ranked as the fifth-best team in the world.
“This time we just kind of got clapped,” Saunders said. “But it was probably my favorite tournament I’ve ever played.”
At the heart of their love for the sport is still the community it creates. The more they travel to tournaments and continue playing, the more they grow their group of avid players who share a connection over the sport.
“My favorite memory is traveling to the tournaments and getting to spend that quality time, you know, getting to grow in our bond with one another,” Luetke said.
From what it seems, the two plan to grow those bonds for a long time, whether it’s with the tournaments they’re attending this summer or their simple commitment to playing the game on weekends.