Imagine if most of the top area teams in a given sport, regardless of class or conference, got together to determine a champion.

Then, imagine if this event took place in the middle of the season, over the course of an entire week and had the attention of all of the sport’s interested observers.

If you’re a volleyball fan, you don’t have to imagine.

The 58th Annual Hermann Invitational Volleyball Tournament is taking place this week in Gasconade County.

No other volleyball tournament has the type of deep tradition as the Hermann Tournament.

“Obviously the Hermann Tournament means a great deal to us since we host the event,” said Hermann Head Coach Linda Lampkin. “We are proud that the tournament has existed for as long as it has. We always talk about success in our tournament when we set our goals for the season. We know the competition will be tough. We have won more state tournament titles since I have been coaching than we have Hermann Tournament titles. That gives you an idea of how tough the competition is.”

Under Lampkin, Hermann has won 11 state titles. The defending tourney champion Lady Bearcats have won five Hermann titles under Lampkin and a total of 11 titles going back to a six-tournament run from 1966-72.

Borgia holds the record for most tournament wins, 18 since 1982. The Lady Knights last won in 2011.

“The Hermann Tournament has a rich tradition of great competition,” said Borgia Head Coach Brad Bruns. “It seems like on any given year, you never know who is going to come out on top. We enjoy playing in the tournament because we get a chance to play many local teams that we do not always get to play during the regular season.”

Union has raised the title 10 times, but not since 1988. Washington has earned nine titles with the most recent being in 2010.

Hermann, Borgia and Washington have dominated the tournament since 1989 and no other school has won in that span.

Other schools with titles are New Haven (five with the most recent being in 1980), Sullivan (three with the most recent being in 1962) and Pacific (won the inaugural tournament in 1956).

Hoener knows it takes top play to be able to walk out with the championship.

“The competition is fierce from year to year,” Hoener said. “You have to bring your best game if you’re going to have a chance to play for hardware.”

And, much of the time, a team has to be at the top of its game to make it to Thursday’s final night.

“There is always good competition and we have to play well to play on Thursday night,” Brown said.

Owensville Head Coach Kari Nolting feels it’s a great chance to see some of the best teams from the area.

“We love that all the participants are local,” Nolting said. “It gives us the chance to play some of them more than just once in our regular season.”

Like many of the other coaches, Lampkin has memories of the Hermann Tournament as a player.

“I played in the Hermann Tournament when I was in high school, so it means more to me than the other tournaments that we participate in,” Lampkin said.

Other coaches who have played in the event feel the Hermann Tournament is a special one.

“The Hermann tournament has been a staple for the local teams in the area for decades,” Washington Head Coach Kym Blankenship said. “It’s a tradition that started way before I was a player at Borgia and will continue long after I am done coaching at Washington. It’s a great way to play local teams and have the school and the communities they represent support their programs.”

Pacific Head Coach Janel Brown not only played in the tournament for Washington, but watched her older sisters play in the event for Borgia.

“Even as a coach I still get excited about playing in the Hermann Tournament,” Brown said. “I have so many good memories as a player and watching my sisters play. It is hard to describe but there is just something about the Hermann Tournament that gets people fired up. There are such good rivalries between all teams that everyone wants to know who is the best.”

New Haven Head Coach Jaime Hoener said the tournament is a great way to find out where her program stands at the midway point of the season.

“I think the Hermann Tournament is a great measuring stick for our team and where we are right now,” Hoener said. “It’s one of those constants that you can always rely on.”

Owensville Head Coach Kari Nolting, who is in her first season in charge, knows the tournament will be a challenge.

“This is a chance to compete with some outstanding competition,” Nolting said. “It is an opportunity for growth and building our team and program. We think it is a good preview of district winners in our area and also a good chance for collegiate exposure.”

Lampkin also played in the tournament.

“I have so many memories of the Hermann Tournament dating back to the early ’70s when I played,” Lampkin said. “The competition has always been fierce. The teams that participate have not changed much in the last 58 years. It started as a consolation bracket  tourney and was changed to the current pool play format in the ’80s. There have been some real battles in the semifinal and championship matches over the years.”

So, what makes the Hermann Tournament unique?

It’s played over most of a week with two nights of pool play and one night of bracket play. Most tournaments these days either are one-day Saturday events, or run around the weekend.

“The fact that we play the tournament during the week makes it different than other tournaments,” Lampkin said. “We have talked about moving  it to a Saturday, but there is an atmosphere at this tournament that is different from the one day tournaments. I think it  would lose some of that if we were to go to a one day tournament.”

Lampkin said the participating schools have made an investment in the tournament.

“I know that taking a week out of your regular schedule for this tournament makes scheduling difficult for teams but I think a lot of people in the area look forward to this tournament  each year because it is as you said the closest thing we have to an area championship. It hosts schools of all sizes and  everyone can see how they stack up against area teams.”

The full week format is something that appeals to other coaches because it’s different than the bus in, play, award trophies, bus home one-day events.

“I like how the tournament takes place over a week,” Brown said. “It gives you time to prepare for championship night.”

In many years, it’s been the only time you will see multiple state contenders (and sometimes state champions) playing in one event for one championship trophy.

“This area has strong competition and a legacy of amazing coaches who have numerous state championship visits between several schools,” Blankenship said. “It’s an honor to coach among these coaches and work with some pretty amazing players.”

Many times, just making it to the semifinals is a big accomplishment.

“I enjoy seeing year to year the different schools playing for different places,” Blankenship said. “It’s not like the same one or two teams dominate each and every year. Some years we have played for first and either won or lost, other years we have played for third. I remember one year playing for consolation. The competition is always strong and anything can happen.”

We’ve already seen one minor upset this year. Pacific swept Washington (current top team in GAC Central) in the first match of the tournament and then followed through to earn the second semifinal spot from the pool.

Top-seeded Borgia cruised, for the most part, on Monday night. Washington, which will play for the consolation title, gave the Lady Knights a hard run in the first game of the final pool match.

Tuesday’s pool should be brutal. Defending champion Hermann, New Haven, Owensville and Union are competing and a good team will be watching action from the stands Thursday night along with Montgomery County, Monday’s last-place pool finisher.

How tough is Tuesday’s pool? The teams vying for playoff spots are among the better squads in the Four Rivers Conference. Union, the bottom seed, is coming off a championship in the Chamois Round Robin last weekend.

But play like that has been typical during the history of the tournament.

Over its span, the event has seen the volleyball season change from fall to spring (1968, the year without a tournament) and back (1979, the year with two tournaments). It’s seen the end of sideout scoring and the rise of rally scoring as well as the libero. It’s seen net serves become legal.

And the coaches have favorite memories.

“One game that particularly stands out is the championship match with Borgia in 1991,” Lampkin said. “It was a hot contest with lots of big hits and awesome defense.  We came out on top which is probably why I can remember it.”

Pacific has played for one championship since 1960, and Brown fondly remembers the 2011 title match against Borgia.

“Our favorite memory is when we played Borgia for championship two years ago,” Brown said. “Our team was starting to peak and we were able to play really well. Even though we lost in three it was still an outstanding night of volleyball. For us we had worked so hard to play with the traditional strong teams that we felt like we had become a strong team too.”

Hoener, an all-state outside hitter at New Haven, has fond memories of the event.

“This is my 11th year at the tournament (three as a player and eight as a coach),” Hoener said. “As a player, I remember taking second in 1992.  We lost to Borgia in three sets. As a coach, I’ll remember taking third in 2006.”  

If you’ve never been to the event, it’s worth a drive up Highway 100 on Thursday night.

Even in Hermann’s current gym, things can get crowded for the last night and you’ll frequently find fans from different schools cheering together. For example, if Hermann is playing Borgia, you’ll probably see green-clad New Haven fans yelling, “Point, Bearcats!”

At times, the atmosphere can resemble a huge high school basketball game. The stands get packed and it gets loud and warm in the gym.

The tournament’s a little different these days. During the days before the rules were changed to rally scoring, it wasn’t uncommon for the championship match to end well after 10 p.m. I can remember nights of leaving the parking lot after midnight.

And you used to see a number of college coaches there, at least on the final night. However, most coaches now choose to recruit their players at large club volleyball events, so the college scouts are less common these days.

Few get to see it, but the hospitality room for coaches, officials and workers has become legendary over the years.

“Not everyone knows this but the hospitality room alone is worth being in the tournament as a coach,” Blankenship said. “Hermann does an amazing job catering to coaches and support staff of our programs. It’s very well run.”

The teams fight hard for the title and there usually is a lot of emotion shown on and off the court. But when the ball has hit the floor for the final time, there’s a lot of mutual respect among the programs who have vied for the title.

“I grew up in Washington, played for Borgia in high school, and married a man from Owensville,” Blankenship said. “My husband’s cousin, Kari (Blankenship) Nolting, is now the head coach at Owensville. I grew up playing with surrounding teams and remember all the coaches. I love the connection I have to this community and I am always happy when any program from this area is successful. It’s good for their community and it’s great for the players involved. I’m thrilled every day to be a part of it as Washington’s coach.”