Point Loma Spike, a Spikeball team made up of PLNU alumni Kenny Ortega (15) and Zach Wood (15), is currently ranked 4th — in the entire nation! Spikeball, officially named roundnet, is a relatively new sport that is growing in popularity. The game features a team of two players that square off against another team in order to earn points by hitting a small ball no more than three times off of a trampoline-like circular net. It requires stellar reflexes, quickness, and agility.
We sat down with Kenny Ortega, who currently works as a full-time resident director on PLNU’s campus, to learn more about Spikeball and how he and Zach have come to be one of the sport’s most dominant teams.
Q: How would you explain what Spikeball is to someone who hasn’t heard of it?
Ortega: Chris Ruder, the CEO of Spikeball, explains it like this: it’s what would happen if four square and volleyball had a baby on steroids. It requires a high level of hand-eye coordination and quickness. There’s also a strong technical skill piece to the game with being able to put the ball where you want it, and it’s a small ball, so it’s not easy. And then there’s the element of power, being able to hit the ball thirty yards away from the net makes a big difference. It’s a different swing than a volleyball swing or a tennis swing. There are similarities, but it’s definitely a unique kind of sport.
Q: How did you get into playing Spikeball? At what point did it become something more than just a hobby?
Ortega: The very first time I played was when I was in eighth grade at youth group, before Spikeball was much of a thing at all. Somehow, our youth pastor got ahold of a set when they weren’t being sold on the market yet. We loved it as eighth-grade kids and played it a bunch over the summer and then a couple years into high school. But then I totally forgot about it through the rest of high school and most of college.
I think it was the summer going into senior year at college that I noticed the game popping up all over the beach. So my college roommates and I started to play just for fun. It’s an addicting game when you start playing it, and eventually we started hearing about local tournaments and wanted to try them to see how we would do.
We entered our first tournament and we were utterly destroyed! It was another level of intensity, but it was fun to watch and it sparked the fire within me to want to play at that level. So I started to play a lot the summer after I graduated from PLNU, meeting new players and, eventually, started to get a lot better.
Q: Talk about how you started to play with your Point Loma Spike teammate, Zach.
Ortega: Zach and I have known each other since sixth grade, meeting each other through Little League. We were best friends in seventh and eighth grade and went to the same school together. And later on we went to the same youth group. We’ve known each other for a long time: been really good friends, played sports together, and then were freshmen roommates in college together.
But Zach actually got into Spikeball a little later than me and some of my roommates, whom at that time I was playing with more regularly. I kept telling him that he needed to come out and play with us, and once he did, he started to pick it up right away. He’s a great athlete, a great baseball player and golfer, so it wasn’t surprising.
I had been playing competitively with another guy, doing pretty well with him in local tournaments. But once Zach really began to excel, we both decided at the beginning of last year that we should go for it and try to be an elite team in the sport.
Q: What is it about the sport that is so exciting to you?
Ortega: It’s definitely a game of diving, just laying out to make plays. There’s something fun about diving in any sport, whether it’s backyard football or Ultimate Frisbee. Spikeball definitely had that element since there are tons of opportunities to dive or track down a ball. That was just super fun, and I think it’s what has kept me enjoying the game at the advanced level. At that level, because there are way less rallies since everyone is expected to put the ball away and score a point right away, it’s an extremely offensive game. You’re expected to put the ball away on offense, and then occasionally make a great defensive play. And so it’s making that one great defensive play that I love about the game.
Q: What do you do to practice and keep at the top of your game?
Ortega: I do lots of drills, getting a lot of reps of hitting and serving, getting touches on defense. I’ll do that especially if I can only find one other experienced person to play with. The best way to train, though, is to get four guys to play an actual game. I probably play seven to ten hours a week. I try to play two to three times a week for a couple of hours if I can. But during the season, when we’re going to tournaments, I have to limit my practice because it can cause wear and tear on my arm.
Q: How do tournaments work and how does one become nationally ranked?
Ortega: Roundnet is the official name of the sport and Spikeball is the company that produces the nets themselves and puts on the officially sanctioned tournament series, which include 16 tour stops in a single season. There are four tournament series in the country, one for each region (West, Midwest, South, and East). Then you also have the Grand Slam tournament, one in each region. You can only compete in one regional tournament, and then there is Nationals, which is the big tournament at the end of all the regional play.
In order to become ranked, you have to have a couple results at a tour stop that turn some heads. A top eight or four finish in the highest division when you are not an already-established team will get you on the ranking radar. The first tournament we travelled to was in Denver, which was a West tour stop. We placed second in that one, which broke us onto the scene. Following that we went to Gulf Shores in Alabama and placed third, breaking us into the top 10 national rankings. Finally, we went to Nashville for the Grand Slam tournament for the Midwest region and placed second.
Q: At your best, what were you and Zach ranked? What are you both ranked now?
Ortega: The highest we were ranked in 2017 was 6th in the country. Right now, we are currently ranked 4th in the country, the highest we have ever been.
Q: What have been some of the positives that have come out of your competitive playing of this sport?
Ortega: It has introduced me to tons of new people that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. There’s a big Spikeball community, so I’ve met a lot of people all over the country, including some really cool Christian guys as well. A couple of us even connected through an online Bible study.
It’s also really fun to be a part of something that is still young and being formed. I think of most sports that I appreciate and watch now, and how they all had their growing pain moments. In the early stages of the sport, like basketball or soccer, they were still working out the kinks. What do we make an official rule? Which regulations should we change or alter? It’s cool to have a voice in that for this new sport.
Q: Do you see this being something you do for a while?
Ortega: I did not expect that we would get to where we are. We’re top four, and we won a tournament this year, and we had to beat the 2nd best team in the country to do it! Once you taste victory it’s like, “ah, I still want to get another one!” But if I had to stop playing I would be satisfied. I would like to try and win one more tournament, ideally Nationals. My hope is to continue to have fun with it, and as long as we can play at a high level and still have fun, to do it for at least a couple more years.
Q: When it comes to your future beyond Spikeball, what are your plans?
Ortega: Youth ministry. God opened my eyes to working with young people. I never had college ministry on my radar, but that’s what I feel I’m doing here as a resident director: I work with college students closely and although it’s not in a church setting, it definitely includes walking alongside others and mentoring and discipling them. I really enjoy what I’m doing now, and I still think down the road I’ll end up doing youth ministry.
You can keep track of how Kenny and Zach of Point Loma Spike are doing and watch more videos of them competing by following them on Instagram at @pointlomaspike.