The Hannibal Y Men's Club enforces 33 rules for its annual Mississippi Mud Volleyball Tournament. The rest is a matter of judgment.

Scott Meyer witnesses the annual Hannibal Y Men's Mississippi Mud Volleyball Tournament from a unique perspective.

The longtime official stands elevated in a referee stand, one of many volunteers entrusted with calling games throughout the three-day, 67-team competition over the weekend. 

“It's amazing to watch the technical growth of the sport and strategies,” said Meyer, involved with the event since its inception 39 years ago. “This tournament has come a long way. We started off small, and it's grown to something that's probably the most unusual in the country.”

As many as two dozen referees were responsible for officiating matches during the popular tournament this year, which serves as a fundraiser for the Hannibal YMCA. 

All officials are members of the Y Men's Club. 

They enforce a list of 33 rules decided on by the club. Anything not covered within the list is a matter of judgment. 

“It's an imperfect science when you're dealing with a foot and a half of mud and 12 active players and a referee who more than likely have had a few beverages over the course of the day,” said Kevin Murphy, the referee coordinator. 

Referees commonly officiate anywhere from nine to 21 matches over the course of the tournament. Some are “marathon refs” interested in calling games all day, while others are relied upon for relief.

The club encourages new members to give officiating a shot. 

“Lots of guys may think they don't know enough or are nervous about officiating, but this isn't state championship volleyball," Murphy said. "Honestly it's bigger than that when you talk to lots of the kids, but at the end of the day, everybody who steps foot in the mud to play volleyball has a great deal of respect for our organization.”

Hardly ever do the referees get criticism from players on the court.

“When you step up on that podium to officiate a match, you're almost never going to get any grief,” Murphy explained. “If I was blown for an infraction, I wouldn't argue and 99 percent of people wouldn't either.”

That being said, some calls are harder than others.

Rule No. 6 states “holding or throwing the ball while it is in play is a foul. The play must be a distinct batting of the ball.” Officials are advised to be lenient calling lifts, making this rule open to interpretation.

“We never call lifts,” Murphy said. “That's always been the stance. That's a testament to the fact we don't have professional officials up there.” 

Rule No. 10 makes clear that “one leg must be in the pit while playing a shot. If momentum carries the player out of the court, it is OK.” 

What if one foot is on the line, the other out? 

“What I love about the group of guys we have calling matches is the way they interpret the rules and the way I interpret the rules may be completely different,” Murphy said.

Rule No. 20 is emphasized in all caps. 

"NO LOADING OF BALL BEFORE SERVING."

That is to say, no extra mud can be added to the ball before sending it over the net to the opponent. 

Perhaps no call is more difficult than whether a ball is in or out when it falls on the opposite side of the court from the official.

Making matters worse, sometimes a player obstructs the referee's view. 

That's when the honor system comes into play.

“The way the mud builds up, it's really hard to tell sometimes whether a ball hit half on the line and half in the mud,” Meyer said. “We just do the best we can. The teams are really good about being good sports.”

Originally marked by sandbags, the boundary lines are now thick yellow tubes of water cleaned off between matches.

Several rule changes over the years were implemented with the intention of making a more efficient tournament.

The tournament initially featured conventional scoring in which only the team who served could score a point. The club eventually switched to rally scoring where every play counts. 

“Since we went to rally scoring, it's a lot easier and it makes the game smoother,” Meyer said. “The teams have gotten so much better that the rallies can be unbelievably long.”

This year was the first time that matches in select rounds of the loser's bracket were best-of-three with all games to 11 rather than a 15-15-11 format. 

“This was an effort to speed up the tournament and not have people playing until midnight Saturday night,” Murphy said of the tourney's longest day, which starts at 7 a.m. and finishes well after sunset with eight teams still alive. 

The Y Men's Club enforces rules for the safety of everyone involved. This includes the requirement that every player must wear shoes to protect feet from anything in or under the mud.

One change in recent years benefits the officials themselves. The club constructed heavy-duty wooden referee stands for each court to replace portable stands. 

“Half of the referee stand would sink one way, and the referees would be standing at an angle trying to keep their balance,” Meyer said of the old stands.

The 40th annual tournament is slated for next summer.

The organization prides itself on constantly improving the experience of all who are involved.

“The club is represented by so many different professions that it's easy to find know-it-alls,” Meyer said, chuckling. “Everybody pitches in and gets stuff done.”