Standing ankle deep in freshly dug pools of muddy water, teams of nine men and women faced off under the August sun, each fighting for a trophy and bragging rights during the 30th annual Herald Day mud volleyball tournament.

On its face, the day is a fundraiser. Each of the 46 teams paid a $125 fee, all of which will go to keeping up the Herald Community Park throughout the year. But on the court, it’s a battle.

Eight full-sized courts are dug out in a long row in an empty lot behind Arcohe School. The courts glitter in the sunlight thanks to about four or five inches of water sloshing about in each one. Each team is headquartered along a loop around the courts, relaxing in the shade of a pop-up tent with a cold drink in hand.

Players are barefoot, wearing matching team shirts and shorts. All the teams are required to be co-ed, with at least three women playing at any time. The teams get creative, vying for a spirit award. Big posters shout the names “Mud Slingers,” “Mudley Crew,” and “How I Met Your Mudder.” About half the men are bare-chested while a few of the women ditch their water-soaked shirts for athletic tops.

Everyone is streaked with mud and dirt up to their waists. Some are completely covered in mud stains thanks to a few well-placed dives to save the ball.

For Kaitlin Drake, 19, this is essentially a holiday. She’s a member of the Mud Studs and has served, spiked and set on those muddy courts for the past six summers.

“It’s my favorite time of year, no joke. You’re not trying to impress anybody, just trying to win. It’s even better than Halloween, because of the mud.”

But maybe it’s in her blood. Her mother Audrey Drake played in the tournament when she was younger and now helps to coordinate the day with sister Rhonda Heil.

“People were coming from Antioch and the Bay Area. We had to make it local,” said Audrey Drake. Now the teams are limited to Herald, Galt, Acampo and a few outliers from Lodi.

Not even the supporters on the sidelines will leave the day with clean clothes. The ball splashes mud anytime it hits the ground. Every step a player takes leaves them either stuck or slipping and sliding. There’s a small mound of dry, packed earth at the corner of each court for the server to find sure footing, but it doesn’t stay dry for long.

After each game, players are welcome to rinse off under a makeshift outdoor shower fashioned from PVC pipe and a garden hose.

The day has all the charm and quirk visitors expect from a trip to Herald. The tournament zone is blocked off with hay bales. There are as many people in cowboy boots as there are muddy players. Those who weren’t up for the tournament enjoyed food, shopping and music in the community park across the street. And, inexplicably, two young men in jeans and black T-shirts rode a small red tractor in a slow circle around the volleyball courts, engine roaring all the while.

The games have come a long way. When the tradition began in 1984, Audrey Drake remembers one volleyball pit and four teams playing in the schoolyard at Arcohe. Now, it’s an event that gathers hundreds of people.

“We have teams that have been playing together for 15 years now,” said Audrey Drake. “Playing together for that long really builds the team, and they are hard to beat.”

The final results on the tournament will be available on Sunday.

Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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