By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
For two perennial volleyball powers in Ellis County, the season began in relative silence.
There was not a single fan in the stands on either side of the court Friday evening when Red Oak and Waxahachie began their respective seasons. Those in attendance included the student-athletes, coaches, trainers, two officials and one reporter — and that’s it. Yet, the gymnasium on the campus of Red Oak High School was full of energy and excitement.
But with that excitement comes a few safety-related alterations.
For instance, there are three game balls in rotation at all times, with one being sanitized by an assistant or manager between each point. The same volleyball is not used on back-to-back points
The bench chairs are also now staggered and spaced six feet apart. Student-athletes and coaches on the bench wear masks or shields, too.
As for the team huddles? Well, they are noticeably larger, as the teams and coaches are mindful to practice social-distancing protocols.
“With the protocols, I think we are fine with that,” said Waxahachie head volleyball coach Sandy Faussett-Stoops. “Once a game starts, a game starts, and they switch the balls in so quickly that I don’t think that is going to matter.”
Red Oak head volleyball coach Hope Porter echoed those sentiments. She also added that the biggest challenge has come once the ball is served.
“The hardest part to adjust to has been with the girls, themselves — not high-fiving, not celebrating and finding different ways to do that,” Porter explained. “That’s been the hardest adjustment — and even for the coaches — because we are constantly having to tell them to get away or stay apart.”
Players on the court during Friday’s scrimmages often used their masks as a “sweat towel” to wipe perspiration from their faces. The student-athletes also regularly high-fived after points and hugged following long rallies — further proving Porter’s point that any alterations to gameplay will take some time to implement.
So, should those student-athletes be disciplined for “breaking” protocol? Absolutely not. They are celebrating life moments the way they and we’ve all been raised to do for decades. And it’d be silly — virus or not — to condone their on-court behavior.
Teams did, however, take the opportunity to wave to one another following the final point to signify a good match had been played instead of the traditional handshake at net. It’s a subtle change, much like the rest of the COVID-19 protocols.
“[This season] was not guaranteed,” Porter said. “And we are doing our best to keep it extended as long as we can. We are following all of the guidelines and trying to over-sanitize. We are very excited, and the kids are excited, and we are just going to take it one game at a time and, hopefully, extend it for a while.”
Porter and Faussett-Stoops both agreed that, in theory, the student-athletes should be fresher having not competed during the annual club summer season. The two coaches have now witnessed that the student-athletes’ “freshness” has resulted in excitement, despite not being required to attend practices until Sept. 7.
“You can’t require kids to come to something that is optional and you might hit a day when the rules have changed,” Faussett-Stoops said. “I think our kids have been committed, and they’ve come in, and we’ve made the best of it.”
“I think it has made the kids anxious,” Porter added. “They are excited and want to spend as much time [playing] as they can. Usually, if they are playing on a high-powered team that goes into the junior Olympics, they only have a couple of weeks off before we start. I think having time off has been beneficial body-wise for the kids because they have had time to rest. But, most of them have been sneaking around and getting in time with club teams in their gyms….But I do think the forced rest at the end of the club season helped us to come back healthier.”
And, as the two head coaches look toward a postseason run, both agreed that the biggest hindrance in a young team’s development will be the cancelation of tournament play. High school volleyball teams typically average 15-27 matches during three tournament weekends.
“We have a lot of young kids who don’t have a lot of experience at the varsity level,” Faussett-Stoops said. “It (not playing in tournaments) is really going to factor in, but I keep reminding myself and reminding the kids that everyone else is in the same situation and everyone else has the same opportunity to prepare.
“The difference is that we are not deep with [varsity] experience. I do think it is going to factor in. We will probably spend a lot more time in practice scrimmaging — going six-on-six — to clean up the game things because you can’t always simulate a game situation…especially with the setters.”
The Lady Indians officially opened the 2020 volleyball season with a pair of home wins against Granbury (19-25, 25-14, 25-23, 25-16) and Red Oak (25-23, 25-17, 25-16).
The Lady Hawks, meanwhile, dropped both of its first two matches against Granbury (19-25, 22-25, 22-25) and Class 6A Waxahachie.
“I thought I was going through withdrawals,” said Porter prior to the season-opener. “I just knew that I had to get back to the gym because I missed it.”
All photos by Travis M. Smith/KBEC Sports
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith