STAMFORD — The high school volleyball preseason went through so many twists and turns over the past five weeks that Stamford and Westhill were questioning whether they’d ever play an actual match.
The two city rivals didn’t even get to practice inside their gyms until just last week.
So it’s understandable that, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s season-opening match at Westhill, the players and coaches were just happy to be on the court.
“Obviously it’s different with no spectators and (wearing) masks, but just being able to be back is a blessing,” Westhill senior co-captain Vana Servos said. “It’s important just being here and having fun because it’s all we can do.”
Nearly seven months after the CIAC canceled its winter tournaments on March 9 due to the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of student-athletes across the state returned to competition Thursday. High school sports were finally back.
They looked different. Many were played in front of no spectators. Postgame handshakes, high-fives and team huddles were also mostly absent. Some players wore masks. Sidelines were spread out. Starts were staggered for cross country and some swimming meets were held virtually, with teams competing head-to-head from different venues.
But this long journey, which started with conditioning in cohorts of 10 on July 6, reached a destination many feared could not be navigated: actual interscholastic competition. The road back was not easy, nor will be the road ahead. Athletes endured a week of stoppage in August while the CIAC reviewed Department of Health recommendations, before advancing to non-skill development training Aug. 29, full practices Sept. 21 and varsity events on Thursday.
Seasons will be shorter, with 12 events against opponents close in proximity played through the first week of November, potentially followed by a postseason experience to be determined. All is predicated on the state’s coronavirus numbers remaining low.
For the Vikings, who reached the FCIAC and Class LL finals last year, the return to action resulted in a victory, as they topped Stamford, 3-1, by scores of 25-21, 19-25, 25-21, and 25-13.
Westhill made the match its senior day, something usually held later in the season, because even a complete, albeit shortened, schedule isn’t guaranteed.
“I’m so excited for them and I’ll take whatever we can get right now,” Westhill coach Marianna Lennihan said. “I told them to have fun and have some sort of a season, whatever it is. I just want to make it the best it can be for them. As long as we have a game, we’re coming to play.”
“We were outside for three weeks,” Stamford coach Mike Smeriglio said. “So we had no expectations of playing at all. So it was fun to finally be able to play.”
Indoor volleyball is considered high risk by the Department of Health. There was a period of time outdoor volleyball was offered as a modified option, but the CIAC ruled wearing masks and other protocols would decrease the risk and gave its approval for playing indoors.
The Westhill gym was relatively quiet with no spectators, the bench areas included chairs which were spaced apart to allow for social distancing, and teams did not switch sides after each set.
Even the post-game handshake line was absent, replaced instead by a friendly wave from opposite ends of the court.
The most visible change, however, was on the court, as players wore masks during competition.
Players started wearing masks during the preseason, and needed a little time to adjust.
“The first day wearing the mask, breathing in and out was a little bit harder, but now as we’ve been practicing with them and playing our games, it’s not as bad,” Stamford senior co-captain Kady Green said. “I’m really happy to be back on the court. Even though we have to wear masks, we’re really happy to be able to play.”
Both teams took time to shake off some rust, and the score was tied 1-1 after two sets, and 19-19 in the third before the Vikings took over. Westhill closed out the third set on a 6-2 run, and then exploded to a 19-9 lead in the fourth en route to the win.
Servos directed the offense for Westhill, racking up 35 assists and 11 digs, with freshman Joshelyn Garcia collecting 12 kills and eight digs. Senior libero Maddy Bautista had 25 digs, and senior Valeria Barbaglio had nine kills, four aces and two blocks.
For Stamford, senior setter Sarah Wargo had 19 assists, Green had 20 digs, senior Kim Saunders had 12 kills, and senior Jordan Rossi had eight kills and four blocks.
Despite a short season and no tournament officially on the slate, one goal for the seniors was just to have fun.
“It was definitely weird being back on the court with a different team, but having all the young girls who stepped on to varsity, with a new team dynamic, was good,” Servos said. “Since this is my last season, I’m excited to be there for them, just enjoying the game.”
WESTHILL 3, STAMFORD 1
STAMFORD 21 25 21 13 – 1
WESTHILL 25 19 25 25 – 3
Stamford: Sarah Wargo 19 assists; Kady Green had 20 digs; Kim Saunders 12 kills; Jordan Rossi 8 kills, 4 blocks; Sam Albert 5 kills, 2 blocks.
Westhill: Vana Servos 35 assists, 11 digs, 3 kills, 5 service points; Joshelyn Garcia 12 kills, 8 digs, 11 service points; Maddy Bautista 25 digs; Valeria Barbaglio 9 kills, 4 aces, 2 blocks, 12 service points; Aline Correa 6 digs, 4 aces, 7 service points; Finleigh Benkwitt 5 kills.