When Vana Servos walked onto the Westhill volleyball court for an opening day match against city rival Stamford, the scene was surreal.
There was relative quiet with no fans in the stands, players were socially distanced on the sidelines with chairs spaced six feet apart, and, most strikingly, players were wearing masks during competition.
It’s the most visible sign of pandemic protocols in Connecticut high school sports, but masks managed to put teams back in action and, in the big picture, are now a part of everyday life for student-athletes.
“At this point, we’re just used to them,” Servos said. “We wear them to school, we wear them at the supermarket. They have rules to have a timeout for us to take a mask break and that helps a lot. It’s kind of annoying, but it’s necessary and if this is what it takes to play, we’ll just have to go with it.”
“The girls are used to wearing them every day in school,” Greenwich coach Steve Lapham said. “On and off the court, the girls still love to play and really support each other. We are grateful to play and will do what we need to in order to be safe, but there are still no guarantees.”
The addition of masks to Connecticut high school volleyball came in early September, when the sport was in danger of being canceled.
The state’s Department of Public Health had given approval to most fall sports to go forward, excluding volleyball and 11-on-11 football. The National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) designated volleyball as a “moderate risk” sport, with an asterisk that it could become “lower risk” with certain modifications, such as playing outdoors or wearing masks during play.
Outdoor volleyball wasn’t realistic, so masks were added.
With its short bursts of energy, as opposed to running continuously over a distance as in soccer or cross country, the sport of volleyball is certainly more adaptable to masks.
Still, there was the question of how the players would react during matches.
“It’s mask or no volleyball and I will definitely take playing volleyball with a mask on over not playing at all,” Amity senior Zoe DiZenzo said. “Senior season, I was really sad when there was a chance that we wouldn’t be able to play. When I was told that I had to wear a mask, I said “ok, we’re going to continue playing and make due, because that’s all we can do.”
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” New Canaan senior Alex Gillespie said. “I wouldn’t say it came easily, but we worked hard at it like everything else and it just takes practice. Obviously, keeping your breath up while you’re playing is something we’re going to have to do, so doing scrimmage activities with the masks helped us get used to it progressively.”
Guilford head coach Laura Anastasio said that if her players were bothered by the masks, it hasn’t slowed them down.
“Our girls are doing a great job with masks,” Anastasio said. “If they don’t like them, it is not stopping them from playing hard. I do not hear them complain about wearing them, and they seem to understand that this is what we have to do to have a season.”
One major issue was in-game communication, something which is key to quickly setting up offensive and defensive plays. Players’ facial expressions are now partially hidden by the masks, making vocalization more important.
“It’s definitely made (communication) a little more challenging,” Gillespie said. “I want to be able to encourage people and when you can’t see half of my face, sometimes that’s a struggle. Volleyball is a team sport and we communicate a lot through expressions. That just means (we have to) keep our volume up so you can hear through the mask.”
To help teams deal with the mask protocols, the CIAC added to each set an extra 30-second timeout, during which players can “catch their breath, when needed.” Coaches are supposed to use the timeout for break purposes rather than as part of game strategy.
During the 30-second timeouts, players in the game can leave the floor to get a drink, and players not in the game must remain seated on the bench to maintain social distancing.
In addition, officials are expected to observe players and may delay a serve to make sure the students are breathing okay.
The so-called “masks breaks” are important, especially later in sets and matches, according to DiZenzo.
“In the beginning of the match, when you’ve had time to breathe and then you put the mask on, you go into the game, and you’ve got lots of oxygen in your body,” DiZenzo said. “But towards the end of a set or a game – recently our games have been going to five sets – it gets really tough to keep breathing, so we have to use the mask breaks they give us. That’s been really helpful.”
Nicole Trommelen, head coach of last year’s Class LL champion Trumbull, said it didn’t take long for her players to get used to playing with masks, but part of the adjustment was knowing when to take breaks during games and practices.
“We, as a coaching staff, were giving the girls more water breaks at the very beginning, especially when we started playing 6v6 live,” Trommelen said. “Now, the girls are good about quickly grabbing water when they need it and jumping right back in the drill. They are just so excited to be getting the opportunity to play. They are willing to do whatever it takes.”
During breaks, players can get drinks while remaining socially distanced, standing at least six feet apart when they take off their masks.
The willingness to adapt to the protocols has allowed teams to get the midpoint of a 10- to 12-game season, and could allow for a postseason, with “tournament experiences,” now planned in many conferences, including the SCC, FCIAC, CCC, NVL, ECC and SWC.
And while some teams will continue playing in front of empty stands, and others with limited spectators, many players said it’s been worth the sacrifice.
“Amity volleyball has a very good crowd normally, so when we play at home and there’s nobody cheering us on in the stands, it brings sadness,” DiZenzo said. “But at the same time, we’re able to play, so it’s ok.
“It felt amazing (to be playing), even with no spectators and wearing masks,” Servos said. “It was a blessing to be back.”