The Cedar Ridge High School volleyball team finished its season undefeated at 8-0, and is the Big 8 Conference Champions. Let’s never mind that eight games is about 15 fewer games than a normal season. COVID-19 is to blame for that. The playoff-bound Fighting Red Wolves, like each other high school volleyball team, played their game with its players wearing masks.
Not all high schools and middle schools opted to go forward with sports programs this year because of the risk of spreading COVID-19. The ones that did had to follow strict guidelines that included screenings and temperature checks before each practice and game; no changing sides on the volleyball court after each set; no fans; increased sanitation requirements; and the wearing of face masks.
“It took a while to adjust to wearing masks,” said Phoenix Smith, who plays on Cedar Ridge’s Varsity team. “It’s different. You have to adjust to how to breath when you play and it’s hard to take those big breaths. It definitely took some time to adjust, but once you get it it’s better.”
“It’s harder to catch your breath if you’re running a lot,” added teammate Justice Wilbourn. “It’s harder to get back to breathing normally. And it’s a lot harder to talk on the court. Volleyball is a very vocal and communicative game. It’s harder to talk with the mask and be understood.”
Cedar Ridge’s coaches, Pam Scism and Fiona Cunningham, who are also required to wear masks and go through screenings, concur that the masks have been challenging. Once the coaches knew the school would have sports during the pandemic, the two worked ahead of the season to prepare their players for the COVID-19 requirements.
“I think one thing that helped us with that is the coaches started working with the team back in June,” said Pam Scism. “We had virtual work outs. We wanted to make sure the girls were in top shape before we started with conditioning. The girls had a lot of practice before they came to school and started with our regular practices. We were getting the team prepared mentally and physically before school even started back.”
Over at Orange High School, Varsity Girls Volleyball Coach Rachel Forte said many of her players were already adjusting to wearing masks during competition on travel teams.
“Many of those teams were already implementing the mask wearing before our season started,” said Forte. “A lot of them were already acclimated to it to an extent. Once we got off the ground and we were playing with the masks, it was really just a matter of figuring out how to adjust. From the girls’ standpoint, they were phenomenal. They dotted all the ‘i’s, crossed all the ’t’s they had to to play. They were wearing their masks as they were asked. We didn’t have to fuss or remind them. We didn’t have to do any of the things you might expect you’d have to with a group of teen athletes having to wear pesky masks. They wanted to play.”
Players from Cedar Ridge and Orange high schools said, while the masks were pesky, they understood they were necessary and complied with the rules. Coaches and officials were diligent in making sure masks were properly worn and players were safely distanced.
What players struggled with most was not being able to cheer on, encourage and congratulate their teammates during games.
“Normally, after you score a point, you huddle up in the middle of the court,” said Izzy Sheppard, who plays on the Cedar Ridge Varsity team. “A lot of times you have your hands on your teammates. You can’t do that anymore. Even as your subbing out (of the game), you can’t pat your teammate on the back as they’re going on the court to tell them ‘good job’ or ‘good luck.’ It’s just hard to stay connected as a team, because we’re not as close to each other.”
“We found work-arounds,” said Coach Forte of the Orange High School team. “The girls would come together in the middle — as distanced as possible — and they would do a ‘foot high-five,’ instead of hands. We were able to find workarounds. I would say one of our biggest issues that we ran into was just that volleyball is such a high communications sport — they have to be constantly talking to each other. That was impeded with the masks. So that was a huge problem. It caused a lot of frustration at the beginning. Our back row girls couldn’t hear what their setters were saying. Our hitters couldn’t hear what their setters were telling them. That was probably our biggest issue from the beginning.”
The coaches for Orange and Cedar Ridge high schools said they were impressed with the determination, commitment, and flexibility their players showed in pushing to maintain a high level of competition and performance on the courts.
“The players stepped up and immediately adjusted to the masks and new protocols,” said Cedar Ridge Coach Fiona Cunningham. “Student athletes want to compete and they want to be around the community that athletics can provide. When we’re talking about being active members of the community, being able to set the example for what safe athletics can look like, is pivotal to us as a staff and as a team. We talk daily about how important it is to think of this as a program and not just a team and the development we want as a team for the community and for volleyball. If we can do this safely and set an example of how that will open the opportunities, not just for us to compete, but for athletes in the county to compete at different sports at different levels. That’s why it’s so important that we take care of every protocol and do everything to the best of our ability, because it’s not just about us.”