By Earl Vaughan Jr.
This time a year ago, the volleyball teams at Gray’s Creek and Terry Sanford high schools were preparing for what would prove to be solid seasons for both.
One year later, as the state and the nation continue to battle with COVID-19, they’re glad to have the chance to be on the court again, even though they’ll be taking a much different route to whatever success they’ll enjoy this season.
Preseason workouts are underway for N.C. High School Athletic Association teams across the state, but already things have been a lot different from last year.
For openers, the initial volleyball practice sessions were moved outdoors to help mitigate the chance of spreading of the virus. Teams had to set up temporary quarters outside their usual gym habitats, practicing on grass and using portable nets usually found in physical education classes.
“I think the hardest thing for me and my girls is not being able to be in a gym, our normal space, and not being able to touch a volleyball until two weeks ago,’’ said Terry Sanford coach Kristan Willis, who was 21-8 last season and took her team to the second round of the NCHSAA state playoffs.
Most of that outdoor time was spent on conditioning, an activity Willis normally saves for the off-season. Now, with barely a week of on-court time before actual competition begins, Willis and other volleyball coaches will use that precious time to focus on skill development.
Another problem for the coaches is the COVID-19 restriction that prevents them from truly practicing as a team. Volleyball features six players per team on opposite sides of the net. But the COVID restrictions have forced coaches to separate their teams into pods of eight players each.
“We aren’t getting a good measurement of their skill,’’ said Gray’s Creek coach Jalesty Washington, who led her team to a 25-1 record last season, the Patriot Athletic Conference regular season title and. second-round playoff trip.
“You can’t do anything with eight girls,’’ she said. “It’s kind of difficult getting into a game mode.’’
Even now that action has moved indoors, things will still be different during the regular season. During matches, players on the sidelines will sit six feet apart from each other. The tradition of entire teams switching benches during the game will be scrapped, and the volleyballs themselves will be disinfected during the matches. The visiting team will have to travel with its own warmup volleyballs to avoid spreading the disease between the teams.
Even personnel at the official scorer’s table will be limited to a maximum of three people. At this point, county school officials are undecided on how many or if there will be spectators at the games.
“I’m feeling a little behind the curve of where I’d like to be at this point,’’ Willis said. Willis feels her players don’t think they got the normal amount of time actually serving and hitting the volleyball that they normally do, and that in some ways they don’t feel a connection with their teammates.
Bulldog standout Kara Walker agreed with her coach. “I haven’t seen half my teammates,’’ she said. “I’m just really looking forward to being in a gym, being with my teammates and playing the sport we love. We haven’t been able to do that since March.’’
That is where Gray’s Creek has a big advantage over some of the other local teams. The Bears return practically their entire squad from a year ago. “I think that does help a lot,’’ said Kylie Aldridge, who was the Patriot Athletic Conference Player of the Year last season for Gray’s Creek.
A multi-sport athlete, Kylie has already committed to play college softball with Virginia Tech.
“All of us played together last year on the team,’’ she said. “We’ll have some juniors we pulled up and they played with us before. I think we have the team chemistry built up pretty good.’’
Other key returners for the Bears include Kelcie Rouse, Aliyah Brown, Jaide Holliday and Morgan Brady. Washington expects her biggest competition this year to come from Terry Sanford and Cape Fear.
Terry Sanford had a balanced offensive and defensive squad a year ago, but this season with Kara Walker and Miah Arnold back, Willis feels her team is stronger on the offensive side of the net.
“It’s one thing to be able to put balls away, but if we can defend what we are putting out that’s going to be the difference between winning and losing some games,’’ Willis said. “As long as we come out strong defensively I think we will be a team to contend with.’’
Regular season matches are scheduled to begin on Monday, Nov. 16. Because of COVID-19 limitations, each school only plays 10 regular season matches, which means they won’t get the traditional two games each with conference opponents.