It was on a clear blue Sunday in September when we happened upon the 20th Annual MotherLode Volleyball Tournament, which for purposes of brevity and embellishment here I shall call the Mother of All Volleyball Tournaments (MAVT), the biggest and most prestigious of all such events in the Intermountain West.

It seems also to be one of the best-kept sporting secrets in the free world. My companion and I first heard about the MAVT while chatting with a pair of sun-drenched beach goddesses from California who were out sampling the Aspen social scene the night before."Yes, it's a very big deal," said one. "Teams from everywhere. Some very good players. And it's free,"

It sounded good, maybe even better -- since it was live --than the sandcourt volleyball they show at 3 o'clock in the morning sometimes on ESPN. Plus, the price was right. So we did the only reasonable thing and skipped church the next morning, heading directly toward the center of Aspen. En route, we came upon a park full of nets and players across the highway from the airstrip where the rich people park their little jets.

This, we soon learned, was the Men's B competition, which one official said was "the lowest level of play." We could see that he was right, for it had the lowest forms of life, pseudo athletes suffering from brain-dead hangovers as they flayed pitifully and hopelessly at the ball, all too often becoming entangled in the net as they leapt anywhere from two to four inches off the ground for ill-executed spikes.

No, these players weren't good, but they were serious, as the variety of injuries showed. One man with a bloody nose wept softly on a cot in the hospital tent as we passed by, but that was as dramatic as it got at this venue.

If "B" is for boring, we discovered at the Men's A competition unfolding at the high school football field that "A" is for angry.

Here we picked out a court where a pair of young men from California were being beaten like gongs by a local duo. One of those on the losing side took it out on his comrade in unsportsmanlike fashion.

"You gotta be up there man! Up there eating his lunch!" he screamed. "You gotta listen to me!"

It was ugly but instructive, affording the chance to learn something of volleyball's lexicon.

"Come on!" was a favorite and ubiquitous exhortation, cried out at every level of play and on this particular day filling the high-altitude air like a Rocky Mountain mating call.

But we hand't even reached the pinnacle of tournament activity, which we were informed was at a downtown park. There we would find the AA level, not to mention the tournament open, which attracts established players -- you know, the ones who appear on ESPN at 3 a.m.

What nobody told us was that this was also the height of beach-volleyball chic. Only at the upper echelons of play had the city seen fit to provide true sand courts and it was only at this level that fashion statements seemed as important as the game.

We cozied down among the beautiful tans and watched a pair of two-woman teams square off in a testy match that saw one player who sported a mohawk exchange venemous words with an opponent in a pitch-black bikini.

Courtside at the real event, the nearby MATZ Open, we sat in a polite and well-bred crowd beside a band of true Aspenites.

"I've had my Bloody Mary," said one. "I think I'm ready for a beer and a hamburger."

This arena was lent an especially pronounced air of civility by the presence of line judges, who seemed on hand mostly for looks. They dozed like stone gargoyles atop their perches, moving just enough to let us know they were alive, but never making a call.

These players, we had to admit, were pretty good. Their spikes were like rockets, they dove courageously into the sand, they grunted with feeling and they kept the ball in play sometimes for a minute or two. Nobody said anything until a volley was over, at which point the cheers broke out.

But after a few hundred volleys we left. It was making us woozy, all that rhythmic moving of the head from left to right and back again.

And anyway, this was Sunday. We had to get to church.