As practice for volleyball gets underway, coaches around the area deal with a shortened season and rearranged schedules.
Sports seasons are in a weird place.
Fewer folks know that better than those coaches whose sports make up the fall portion of the high school calendar, which includes volleyball.
Monday, Aug. 31, was the first day of practice for teams in the Orange County Public School system, but for most, the first few days consisted of just tryouts. In an ordinary year, those would have taken place the last week of July.
This year, teams such as Dr. Phillips High School are just finding their footing in what will be a shortened, chaotic season. And the late start has made for an already strange beginning, said Dr. Phillips volleyball head coach Emily Loftus.
“It’s very, very different from years before, because last season — right after tryouts — this was when the girls were still in summer, so they hadn’t yet started school,” Loftus said. “So we could do those two-a-day practices and really gear them up for a season. We don’t have that luxury anymore.
“We had a conversation when we first brought our team together, and I sat them down and I said, ‘It seems strange … but it’s season time — the first day of tryouts were the first day of the season,’” she said. “I think the girls had to be like, ‘Oh, OK yeah, this is our full-time season right now.’”
Normally, Loftus would have held three days of tryouts but instead opted for two days. There isn’t much time to get ready for the team’s first game against West Orange High School Tuesday, Sept. 15.
In her tryouts, Loftus — a self-titled “Type A personality” — said she saw a large turnout for the team, and she knew that going into last week. The tryouts needed to be done correctly. She had to conduct them under safety protocols. Girls were placed into small specific groups and water times were staggered, and Loftus also had to keep track of which students were face-to-face and [email protected]. Luckily, the AAU season — which included many of the same protocols — helped prepare Loftus for the additional challenges.
Meanwhile, about 22 miles north, first-year West Orange High volleyball head coach Jordan Hefner was putting on tryouts for her girls. Some of the guidelines put into place early were difficult for them, she said.
“The first day of tryouts, they had to play with a mask on, and it was a little difficult for them — you could see that some girls were struggling with that,” Hefner said. “But then, after that, our AD called me and she was like, ‘No more masks.’ After that, it definitely picked up, and it wasn’t as chaotic as I thought it was going to be. We had 45 girls come out, which was a really good number.”
SCHEDULING DURING A PANDEMIC
Coaches in every fall sport also have had to deal with schedules that have been changed frequently over the last month.
When Orange County Public Schools announced the details of the upcoming season, volleyball teams learned they only would have a monthlong regular season before the playoffs started. Last season, the Panthers played 24 regular-season games — between Thursday, Aug. 22, and Saturday, Oct. 12 — while the postseason ran into early November.
Going into this season, Loftus went about it as if nothing was going on. She didn’t cancel a single game until the day the game schedule was released, she said. Since then, numerous playing opportunities have been dropped, including tournaments such as the Nike Tournament of Champions in Sarasota.
“It was more so holding out hope that we were going to have something, and I wanted to make sure the girls heard me say, ‘We are having a season … no matter what that season looks like, we’re still going to plan like we are having a season so that when it comes around — like it has — we’re not scrambling all of a sudden,’” Loftus said.
Hefner’s schedule was set before she had arrived at West Orange, so when things started to get crazy she had to contact coaches around the area who she was just speaking to for the first time. It was difficult, but Hefner said everyone had been flexible with scheduling during the pandemic.
“It’s very, very different from years before, because last season — right after tryouts — this was when the girls were still in summer, so they hadn’t yet started school. So we could do those two-a-day practices and really gear them up for a season. We don’t have that luxury anymore.”
— Emily Loftus, Dr. Phillips High head volleyball coach
First-year Olympia head coach Sheila Bodway echoed those sentiments.
“You had to try and fit a month of the schedule you missed into the remaining month, but the coaches have been great,” Bodway said. “We’ve been calling each other trying to work it out and seeing how we can be creative with Wednesday matches or tri-matches. Everyone has been really accommodating trying to figure out how to get in as many matches as we possibly can for these kids into what is left of the season.”
Bodway’s Titans team will have an even shorted season following the temporary closure of the school — announced Sunday, Sept. 6 — due to cases of COVID-19. That will force the Titans to miss the first real week of practice, as well as the opening week of the regular season.
Given the already-shortened nature of the season, schools like DP, West Orange and Olympia will be forced to play a schedule with weeks packed with consecutive game days. The marathon also has affected how coaches work practices, Hefner said.
But despite the challenges, one thing remains perfectly clear for coaches: They’re just happy to be here.
“I’m just super excited,” Hefner said. “I’m very excited with the girls that I have (and) to see how they progress throughout the season and watch them get better, and hopefully go as far as states.”
“I haven’t yet met a coach that has been irritated by making things work within 30 seconds, because I think that we are all just really grateful that we get to have a season,” Loftus said. “I know I am. … I’m so happy that we just get the chance — that’s all I could ask for.”