Three years ago, Eric Zishka was wandering the campus of Washington University in St. Louis when he came upon four people, a yellow ball and what looked like a miniature trampoline.
It was "weird," what he saw, like a combination of four square and volleyball: The foursome, split into teams of two, was batting the ball up between them and off the trampoline at their feet. Their goal was to keep the yellow orb, about the size of an orange, moving on defense and smack it earthbound on offense. This group was really getting into it, he noticed. Looked like fun.
"So I figured: 'Hey, maybe I should try that one day,' " the Washington resident, 24, recalled recently. The next time he saw the game, Zishka learned it was called Spikeball. He started playing, founded a burgeoning school club and graduated. Then he kept playing, wherever he went, and kept others doing the same.
His rise as a Spikeball star — from a Division III tennis player in college who didn't know the sport existed to a member of a top-five team in its national rankings — mirrors the sport's own ascent, but it is the evangelism with which he and the sport's other devotees have helped grow the game that explains the scene expected this weekend at Patterson Park.
On Saturday, some of Spikeball's top talents — Zishka's Golden Set team included — will descend on Baltimore for the first stop in the 2017 USA Spikeball East Tour. Nora White, East Region tournament director for USA Spikeball, said Thursday that 86 teams have signed up for the city's first event sanctioned by the sport's governing body. That's more than the 75 she estimated last month would come. But then, Spikeball never has hewed to normal growth patterns.
After its 1989 invention, the sport, initially conceived as a lawn game, was ignored when it went to market and altogether abandoned until its lapsed trademark was purchased in 2008. Spikeball was born again, and its popularity saw new life.
According to USA Spikeball director Jack Scotti, there are over 1 million Spikeballers worldwide and 200-plus annual tournaments. The sport's third national championship, held in Washington last year, drew over 200 teams to the National Mall.
"It's grown like crazy," said Grafton Elliott, 25, a Bel Air native and Towson University graduate. "Two years ago, it was hard to find a tournament to play in with more than 20 people. But now, every tour stop you go to, or every tournament, it's easy to find, like, 30-plus."
The sport's audience is primarily millennials — around the time Zishka stumbled across the sport in college, Elliott played it for the first time while on spring break in Florida — and it has smartly leveraged the rise of their technology-dependent socializing.
Elliott, for instance, travels often for his job in supply-chain management. When he started coming to Detroit, he looked for games during his downtime in the city. He found them on his phone, through the Spikeball app. One regular partner turned into two. Before long, there were eight regulars meeting up in Detroit, he said.
"I know people all around the country, really, that play Spikeball, so I've built this network: 'Hey, I'm in Indianapolis. Let's go play Spikeball,' " said Elliott, who sometimes travels with his set. "It's been pretty cool in that respect."
When Zishka was dispatched to Milwaukee for work last year, he went in search of the game. It did not have to find him, as it had before. He located a "Milwaukee Spikeball" group on Facebook, found when players met, started to show up and, soon enough, had new friends.
It was a cultural exchange of sorts: the Milwaukeeans sharing their game with a fellow fanatic, and Zishka exposing them to a new level of play. (His team lost a competitive match in the round of 32 to the eventual runner-up in last year's national championship.)
"It's really a game that you can play from any level — someone's just playing in the backyard with their family to playing at a tailgate or barbecue to playing it as a competitive sport and traveling nationally with it," Zishka said.
He has flown everywhere from Montreal to Gulf Shores, Ala., for tournaments whose prizes are, he said with some understanding, a "pittance": maybe $100 for the winners, or a glass mug for the runners-up. He has come to understand and appreciate, as a linguist might, the stylistic flairs found in each region of the country, noting how Midwest teams are more power-dependent while West Coast pairs play with more intelligence and cunning.
But Zishka was happy to reunite with Elliott and other friends this weekend at Patterson Park; it's not a long drive from his home in Adams Morgan. For his teammate on Golden Sets — so named because of their shared background in tennis — it's a bit worse of a hike. Harding Brumby, 32, is coming from Savannah, Ga.
Said Zishka with a laugh: "We have a long-distance partnership."
USA Spikeball East Tour
At Patterson Park
Saturday, 9 a.m.