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September 19, 2014

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Photos: Thwack! Dodgeball, trampolines combine for intense competition

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Steve Marcus

Ryan Miller, right, of Plainfield, Ind., practices before a match during the 2013 Ultimate Dodgeball Championship at SkyZone Las Vegas Trampoline Park, 7440 Dean Martin Drive, on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. Teams from the U.S. and Canada competed for a share of $50,000 in prize money. The event was filmed for later broadcast on Fox Sports Network.

2013 Ultimate Dodgeball Championship

Ryan Miller of Plainfield, Ind. does a flip during the 2013 Ultimate Dodgeball Championship at the SkyZone Las Vegas Trampoline Park, 7440 Dean Martin Dr., Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. Teams from the U.S. and Canada competed for their share of $50,000 of prize money. The event was filmed for later broadcast on the Fox Sports Network. Launch slideshow »

The sound a dodgeball makes when Vince Marchbanks throws it is not the hollow rubber clunk indigenous to so many schoolyards but a hearty thwack as it smacks into his opponents at upwards of 60 mph.

As he repositions himself, Marchbanks barks directions to his teammates, and two more balls go hissing past. Thwack, thwack — two opponents down. The remaining rival scrambles back into a corner, clutching a dodgeball in each hand. Marchbanks locks eyes on his target, and as he winds his arm back for the final shot, it’s difficult not to wonder what the P.E. teacher is like coaching dodgeball with his students. Then again, his students aren’t competing for $20,000.

Marchbanks and his team, Doom of Covina, Calif., were one of eight from across North America to compete in the second Ultimate Dodgeball Championships at Las Vegas’ Sky Zone Trampoline Gym over the weekend, where competitors squared off for more than $50,000 in prizes.

Competitive dodgeball may follow the same tag-out format of the playground, but it’s otherwise a far cry from its schoolyard iteration, evolving over the past decade into a true sport with standardized rules, courts and equipment, as well as professional leagues. The National Dodgeball League has held its annual World Championships and Convention in Las Vegas since 2005, drawing teams from as far as Japan and Australia.

Ultimate Dodgeball is a new variation of the game in which competitors play on indoor courts with floors and walls made of trampolines, a design patented by the indoor trampoline gym Sky Zone.

While trampolines may bring to mind dodgeball’s K-12 origins, the format amplifies the court game’s intensity by requiring players to leap, flip, jump, dive and, of course, dodge with accelerated precision. Games are usually played in sets of five, and while they go by quickly — some lasting just a couple of minutes — players’ sweatbands are always put to good use.

“It’s a lot of cardio. You’ve got to make sure your endurance is up, that you’re comfortable with positioning, that you’re throwing together. It’s a lot of practice,” Toronto team captain Dave Kutner said. “People like to make fun of us because of the movie ‘Dodgeball’ — it’s nothing like that.”

Toronto was among this year’s top two finalists, squaring off against reigning champions Covina in a repeat of last year’s competition.

“We’re looking for redemption,” Kutner said before hitting the court for Sunday’s deciding match.

Though the title ultimately went to Covina again, making it to the final round is an achievement unto itself: This year’s competition was narrowed down from 450 teams from across North America, compared with 112 last year.

Barclay Poole, program coordinator for the tournament and vice president of corporate operations for Sky Zone, attributes the spike to dodgeball’s increasing popularity in pop culture (both Ultimate Dodgeball championships were aired on Fox Sports Network), in addition to the opening of more Sky Zone gym locations in the intervening year.

Despite the ferocity seen at the weekend’s tournament, Poole said that part of Ultimate Dodgeball’s appeal is the fact that just about anyone can play.

“Man, woman, kids, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve seen some pretty good athletes off the court come in and get beaten on the court,” he says. “It levels the playing field out quite a bit.”

Case in point: Covina beat Randy Couture’s Xtreme Couture MMA team in a charity match after winning the championship game. The teams won $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, to donate to a charity of their choice.

Kutner, who grew up playing baseball, says it's that equalizing factor that drew him to competitive dodgeball eight years ago.

“I just fell in love with it on Day 1. It was like playing a kid’s game as an adult — it helped me kind of reconnect with my youth,” Kutner said. “I could learn and develop my skills as the game itself evolved.”

And much like the schoolyard days, Kutner says getting hit by the ball — even at the pro-level speeds he competes at — is just part of the fun.

“You barely even feel it,” he said. “Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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