ROXBURY, NJ - Roxbury High School student Alexx Berdej grew up playing volleyball, but when she was cut from the school team her sophomore year, it looked like her time competing in that sport had come to an end.
“I was always too embarrassed to go back to try out again,” Berdej said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Fistball Association President Bob Feid was at a world tournament in Argentina looking for ways to expand the little-known sport of fistball. Delegations from Germany bombarded Feid with encouragement to start a U.S. national team for girls under the age of 18.
He didn’t agree with the feasibility of the idea at first, but on his ride home, Feid relented. Upon his return, Feid started taking out advertisements in newspapers and spreading the word of an open call for the first U18 girls U.S. fistball team ever assembled.
Berdej’s mother stumbled across a post on TAP into Roxbury that described how Feid was looking for seven to 10 athletic girls with skills in volleyball to join the team. She suggested Alexx look into it.
“When my mom told me there were tryouts for a sport similar to volleyball, I was more than excited to try out because it was kind of like a second shot,” Berdej said.
Fistball, like volleyball, involves hitting a ball over a net in the center of the field and allows three hits before a team must strike the ball over, preferably in the order of save, set and spike. Fistball, however, allows a bounce before each hit to make up for the vast territory players must cover, and allows a player only to make contact with individual arms or closed fists, which makes precise control challenging.
Berdej went to tryouts held at Roxbury High School in early April unsure of what she might be getting into. “The first impression was it hurts,” Berdej said. “The ball is very heavy, and it was not what I expected.”
The fistball ball is similar in size to the ball used in volleyball, but it’s much harder and less forgiving. It quickly decorates newcomers with bruises up and down their arms.
“But honestly, it’s so much fun,” Berdej said. “I love running and I love volleyball, and it’s kind of like the perfect mix of the two.”
Now Berdej - less than two years after being cut from her high school volleyball team - will be representing the U.S. as part of the U18 national fistball team competing in Nuremberg, Germany this July.
“The idea that we’re a part of the U.S. team and that we’re making history by being the first youth team going over there, it’s just so exciting, and beyond words,” Berdej said. “It’s just awesome.”
Of course, inexperience comes along with being the first U.S. squad competing. Many of the girls on the team have only been playing the sport, or have even known of its existence, for a few months. Fistball originated and is popular in Europe, and many athletes from countries like Germany and Austria were exposed to the sport at a very young age.
It's been played at the Swim and Sport Club in Roxbury since 1927 but went substantially unnoticed until last year, when the club was chosen as the site for the first Pan-American Fistball Games Tournament.
To combat the experience gap, the U.S. team has been practicing three times a week, said Feid. “Practice, practice, practice,” Feid said of the team’s preparations. “Every other day. It’s quite a lot of fistball, for us and for me.”
Feid knows the roster is far from the favorite of the tournament, but he believes the U.S. can still put up a fight. “We’re not going to beat the seasoned teams that have been playing for years, but there should be a couple of other countries that have only been around for a couple years that [we could defeat],” Feid said.
India, Kenya and Togo are also new to the U18 girls field, and should run into the U.S. at some point in the 10-team competition.
Berdej also understands the treacherous road she and her teammates have ahead, but thinks they will brave the challenges they face and impress.
“I mean, considering we’ve only been together for a couple months and we have a girl coming in from California who we’ve never really met or played with, I feel like the first few games might be a little rough, but after we get into it, I think we’ll be very good,” she said. “And I think we definitely have team chemistry, which I think is the most important. So I think we’ll be better than what people are expecting us to be.”
The sixth girls U18 fistball tournament begins July 20 and lasts through July 24.