There is no bigger event in the racquetball life of Dan Southern each year than the national outdoor championships this weekend at Orange Coast College.
It's the World Series and the Super Bowl combined for top outdoor players in Orange County.
But Southern doesn't play for the fame--hardly anybody except those who attended last year's tournament even recognizes his name.
Even fewer remember he won the tournament in 1980.
And he certainly doesn't play for the money.
They have benefit concerts for people who make more money than outdoor racquetball players. There is no outdoor circuit for professionals.
About all the 32-year old Southern got for his victory last year was a trophy and a $150 check from the company that makes the racquet grip he used.
He doesn't have the luxury of endorsement contracts and sponsors to provide money for him.
He's up each workday around 5:30 a.m., heading off to his job as a cabinet maker. About three times a week, he finds time to practice.
"I just love the game," said Southern, a resident of Huntington Beach. "It's all worth it to me. I just love to get out and run and hit. It's just a lot of fun. . . . If I had my choice, I would rather play outdoors and in the summer. That's where my game is the best."
Southern began playing at 24 because some friends were and he thought it looked like fun. After playing for the first time, he played the next five consecutive days and has seldom stopped for any period longer than a week.
Soon, it became apparent he could be more than a recreational player.
He entered the national outdoor championships at OCC for the first time in 1979 and advanced to the third round. The next year, he won.
Even when Southern moved to La Jolla for two years in 1982-83, he still commuted to Golden West College to play on weekends.
This winter, he started playing more indoor racquetball, which has a professional tour. But the real reason he switched to the indoor game was to stay out of the cold.
With the start of summer, he has returned to where he prefers to play--outdoors .
Southern starts his title defense today as the top-seeded player in the 13th annual tournament which runs through Sunday. Also in the field are four-time winner Brian Hawkes and current indoor champion Gregg Peck. All three will be competing in the men's pro division. There's also a women's pro division and pro doubles for both men and women.
The women's field is headed by national outdoor champion Martha McDonald and indoor champion Lynn Adams.
Competition starts at 10 a.m. today and Saturday. The championships of each division are Sunday starting at 1:15 p.m. Admission is free.
"Southern just loves the outdoors," said Jim Carson, one of the event organizers. "He (Southern) is one of the best outdoor players around here and it was no surprise he won it last year."
Southern, 32, plays in the open division. He's only three years shy of qualifying for the men's seniors division. Last year, he became the oldest player to win the title. "I never really think about being too old for the game," the left-hander said. "In fact, I never really think about age that much. If I would take the court thinking about my age or that the other guy is younger than I, I would psyche myself out of the match before it even started.
"When I'm on the court I'm really concentrating on playing myself. To play a good game it takes a lot of concentration. It's just a good feeling to hit good shots, but then again, it's a crummy feeling when you hit a bad shot."
Among the younger players challenging Southern will be the 24-year-old Hawkes, who won the tournament from 1981-84. Hawkes, the second-seeded player, will team with Southern in the doubles--a title they won in 1984.
Southern excels at the running aspect of outdoor racquetball, where a player isn't confined by walls which limit running room on an indoor court. While he is one of the game's better servers, some rule changes have affected him.
Last year, the service box was made narrower by three feet on both sides. Serves that are long or short allow for a second serve , but serves that are wide are ruled an automatic fault.
"It took away a bit of my advantage at the serve," Southern, a 1972 graduate of Fountain Valley High School, said. "The smaller serving area makes it more of a gamble to go for the ace and it hurts the better players. The serve has just become more mental. But it makes the game better for the spectator and that's fine with me."