Hoover-ball highlights yearly festival

President played the sport on White House lawn and years later it's still in practice

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WEST BRANCH — Four-pound medicine balls sailed through the air here Saturday as Hoover ball, a supersized cross of tennis and volleyball, returned for its annual national championship during the Hoover Hometown Days celebration. A small thud meant one of three team members had secured the black-and-white ball before hurling it back over the volleyball net.

“Hoover ball is the key ingredient to the whole weekend besides the fireworks,” said Tony Senio, one of the tournament’s organizers. “A lot of stuff has changed ... but Hoover-ball that is the one consistent thing.”

The game was invented by Herbert Hoover, the 31st president and only native Iowan to be elected to the nation’s highest office. West Branch celebrates its favorite native son’s birthday each year with a wide-ranging festival that includes a parade, fireworks, inflatable obstacle courses and the namesake sport.

“Most people would say, ‘Who in their right mind would throw a4-pound Hoover-ball (that many times),’” said Mike Johnston of West Branch, who has played in the tournament for 22 of its 27 years. “You have to be here and actually play it, because otherwise you don’t get it.”

Organizers still use many of the rules Hoover operated with when he played the game on the White House lawn.

Eighty games are played on four courts, 66 feet long and 30 feet across, during pool play before later single-elimination rounds. Hoover’s library has pictures of early morning scrimmages in the nation’s capitol. A few changes highlight the modern incarnation, most notably the switch from a 6-pound ball to a 4-pound ball.

Starting two years ago, Senio and others also added time limits to help move the initial games along so that the championship game wouldn’t be cut off by darkness. After about 30 minutes, each team loses a member until a winner prevails, with scoring done just like in tennis.

But veterans such as the 50-year-old Johnston say the true test of a player comes in the constant back-and-forth between teams, which can go for minutes at a time.

“The next day is awful,” said Paige Donohoe, whose team has won the women’s title three years in a row. “It feels like you got hit by a truck.”

Endurance is key during those moments as failing to throw the ball far enough means a point for the other team. In men’s games, a ball caught in the front of the court needs to reach the back. Women are allowed one pass, or they have the option to forgo it and can chuck the ball where they please.

One of the newest maneuvers has further increased the game’s intensity. In the Hoover-ball spike, the medicine ball is caught in the frontcourt before a jumping player launches it directly at the back court line.

“It would be a tragedy for West Branch if it ever went away,” Johnston said.

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