The Connecticut high school girls volleyball preseason has resembled a game of musical chairs, with many stops and starts.
While the CIAC’s announcement Friday that the sport could continue moving forward, that beat goes on without a clear answer.
In August, the state’s Deptartment of Health gave its approval for many fall sports to move forward but excluded indoor volleyball and football. The National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) designates football as “high risk” and volleyball as “moderate risk.” Volleyball includes an asterisk, which designates a sport that “could potentially be considered ‘lower risk’ with appropriate cleaning of equipment and use of masks by participants.”
Coaches said they are making efforts to adapt, including having players wear masks during competition, and conducting some parts of practices outdoors, as well as making suggestions including placing a clear vinyl cover over nets to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets which could carry the COVID virus, and even modifying the structure of matches.
“My girls are happy-spirited, they’re believing that there might be a season, and so they’re buying in,” said Brien McMahon coach Peter Georgiou, who is on the CIAC’s volleyball committee. “They’re wearing masks and doing all the right things, which I’m grateful for. I’m in touch with other coaches and kids who I’ve coached at other schools and they’re all positive, thinking if we do everything right and we do what we’re asked, we’ll have a season.”
Georgiou also said club programs have been running since mid-June and the metrics were good even with players not wearing masks.
“We’re just hopeful that the DPH will look at some of the suggestions and some of the metrics we’ve gotten from clubs, and at least let us have the opportunity to play,” Georgiou said.
In its announcement Friday, the CIAC canceled the 11-on-11 football season but allowed volleyball to continue moving forward, saying it believes that by having players wear masks, the season could take place in gyms.
“The CIAC has aligned volleyball with DPH’s previous support of full team practice and game schedules for soccer, field hockey, cross country and swimming,” the statement reads, adding that “The CIAC believes that wearing masks while playing volleyball mitigates DPH’s concern of indoor moderate risk sports and aligns with NFHS guidance.”
The statement also pointed to Connecticut Department of Education guidance which “identifies the use of a gym in consideration for general music, choral and instrumental instruction” with risk being mitigated by masks. The CIAC said it believes the DPH’s concerns around the spreading of respiratory droplets via forceful communication in volleyball would apply to singing as well, and the use of masks would allay those concerns.
“I was definitely expecting that to happen (with masks) and I told my kids about a week and a half ago, when we readjusted the cohorts (from 15 to 10), to start doing all their conditioning in masks, just to get used to wearing them,” Cheshire coach Sue Bavone said. “My only concern with masks is that we have some long, intense rallies, so I’m hoping the referees will be lenient or that we’ll have a few built-in breaks.
“Maybe after a really long point, they’ll allow the kids to take a break, separate and have a mask break.”
While the CIAC’s latest statement points forward to the start of full team practices Sept. 21, as well as the start of matches Oct. 1, it is not the definitive answer some coaches would have liked.
“I think we need an answer from the Department of Health if we can play with masks indoors,” Stamford coach Mike Smeriglio said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten that answer yet and that’s the key point. If they say yes, we’re on; if they say no, we’re off. I don’t know why it’s taking months.”
Practicing and playing outdoors has been a struggle for schools, with many quickly shifting to a hybrid model: conditioning outside and running drills inside.
Stamford has been totally outdoors this preseason, with nets set up on the school’s varsity softball field, and Smeriglio said he’s tried to keep the mood light with different kinds of music piped onto the field. Thursday was Beach Boys Day and Friday was Beatles Day.
The coach said the idea is to do everything possible to give the players a chance to compete.
“It’s not my job to make the final decision, but it is my job to give the girls a voice,” Smeriglio said. “We should do everything we can to see if we can play. Because in the end, I have to look them in the face and say ‘I did everything I could for you.’”
Cheshire has also been outside and will return to the gym before the move to full team practices on Sept. 21. Bavone said the kids have been running conditioning workouts and the coaches recently gave them some ball-control and passing drills to work on.
One of the chief concerns about playing outside is equipment.
“We don’t have the proper equipment for kids to be outside,” Norwalk Athletic Director Doug Marchetti said. “If you were to tell me to roll out physical education game standards for a varsity volleyball program, the net is going to potentially sag, and who knows what quality of the standards they’re going to use? It makes it very difficult for a volleyball coach to put together a roster playing on substandard equipment on potentially a substandard surface.
“When my team was outside, they were on the turf, so we’ve been working hard to get them inside, simply so we can see the skills on a volleyball court. It’s a more realistic assessment,” Marchetti said.
“Grass or turf is OK, but the changes to make it work outside and keep it similar to inside would cost way too much money for school districts,” Georgiou said. “Every district is struggling because they lost funds with COVID, so to ask for between $5,000-$10,000 to buy equipment for outdoors for one year without guaranteeing it would even happen puts too much stress on the program.”
Georgiou pointed out that teams would need new uniforms, as the short-sleeved shirts and spandex shorts players use would be inadequate when outside temperatures drop in October.
Modifications indoors are more realistic, coaches said.
In addition to masks, a clear vinyl cover could be placed over the net, keeping the line of sight for opposing teams open while also stopping the spread of droplets.
Other possibilities include changes to match length and substitution rules and more frequent replacement of balls following rallies.
Bavone said she was surprised when volleyball was grouped in with football as a higher-risk sport.
“All teams in all sports are yelling and screaming at each other,” Bavone said. “But I guess we’re in such a small area and in the gym, so they were worried about that. Other than the ball, there’s nothing we share with the other team. We could go a whole game and never come in contact with anybody on the other team.”
For coaches, the important thing is that the effort to adapt has been embraced by players.
“We’re five days into tryouts and every day, the kids are finding it easier and easier to adapt to wearing the mask and follow guidelines,” Georgiou said. “It’s working, and these three weeks that they’re having us condition with masks on will get them ready for the season.
“Any coach who cares about their program and their kids just wants the kids to have an experience.”