Varsity volleyball players, coaches reflect on their season

Varsity volleyball, like most teams, fought an uphill battle against COVID-19. The season’s start date was pushed back, tryouts were cut short and district games were canceled all together. Despite these setbacks, varsity volleyball captain middle blocker senior Katie Hashman claims COVID-19 has affected their season in a favorable way. 

“I think [COVID-19] actually positively impacted practice because everybody was at home all day,” Katie said. “So whenever we actually got to leave the house everybody was in a good mood and ready to work.”

Katie’s positivity boosted the team’s spirit, but they knew that enclosed spaces and close contact are the easiest ways for COVID-19 to spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people to stay 6 feet apart, thus making volleyball, a contact sport, a high-risk activity. Therefore, the team abided by new protocols to ensure their safety from the virus’ unpredictability.

“Everyone on the team is wearing a mask at all times, and during water breaks we make sure that we are at least 10 feet away from one another before removing our masks briefly to drink,” said Katie. “We also wipe down the balls after every practice, that way they will be clean before we use them next. The locker room hardly gets any use this year, and if someone needs to use the locker room for any reason, only one person is allowed in at a time. As far as games go, the chairs are spaced out 6 feet away from each other on the sidelines, and we no longer shake hands with the other team in order to limit further contact.” 

District 6A volleyball coaches in and around the Austin area worked together to create strict guidelines to ensure safety and grant peace of mind to players and spectators. 

“I feel very safe at practice because our coaches and team all know how important it is to keep our masks on and stay socially distant,” right side junior Janie Husdon said. “During water breaks, we stay at least 6 feet apart, and if we take our masks off, we step off the court and make sure we are far away from everyone.”

Moreover, volleyball teams in the 6A district enforced select entry at all games. 

“Most of our teams in our district aren’t allowing any visitor fans or parents at [games], so we are doing the same,” head volleyball coach Marci Laracuente said. “We only allow home fans and have a limited amount of tickets to keep the numbers down in our gym. In the [stands], we have areas marked off where different households can sit so they’re also distanced in the stance.”

Players, coaches and spectators wore masks on and off the court, so coaches Laracuente and assistant varsity coach Amanda Yeager modified their style of coaching to accommodate the challenges masks pose; they learned to speak louder and use substitutes to facial expressions.

“We just try to give them breaks more often, [players] get water breaks when they need them and they can step away to take a breathing break when they’re actively participating,” Laracuente said. “Coaching in a [mask] changes it a little bit too because [players] can’t see facial expressions. We have to be louder so we [can] hear teammates and they can hear us coach. I think that’s changed it a little bit, but I feel the girls are adjusting well and they’re working well together, and we’ve been figuring it out.”

Even under unfavorable circumstances, Laracuente and Yeager attempted to make the best of COVID-19; they consistently reminded players to stay positive while maintaining a safe environment. 

“We had to be more aware of our distance from the players,” Laracuente said. “I think as a coaching staff we were very active: showing them how to do things up close, and I’m still actively showing them how to do things. It’s just a little bit farther away. I try to focus on the positives, and the girls do that, too. I don’t want to spend any time worrying about what we can’t do. It’s like, ‘Okay, how can we work within this environment to still get where we need to go?’ and just focus on the solutions.”

The team committed to their goals, and they obliged with district recommendations regarding infection. Early in the season, various players and coach Laracuente were sent home to quarantine. Even with their precautions, JV and Varsity had to overcome hurdles related to COVID-19. While Laracuente was away from the team while quarantined, she was dedicated to supporting her players and instructed from afar. 

“Coach Yeager would FaceTime me during practice, and I coached over FaceTime,” Laracuente said. “It’s funny, our manager Maddy Brutin would carry me around on the tripod and set me up. Then she would yell at who I was yelling at and call them over when I wanted to talk to them.” 

The team’s dedication allowed for them to overcome this challenge, but on Oct. 27 all of volleyball was sent home to quarantine. This cut two weeks out of the team’s season. 

“We quarantined because a girl who had been at practice tested positive,” Katie said. “Even though masks are worn at all times, we thought erring on the side of caution was the right thing to do, so we decided to quarantine for two weeks.”

The team followed district guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect players. While upsetting, the situation did not stand in the way of the team’s positivity and motivation. 

“We were the only team in our district that was quarantined as a result of this positive case,” Katie said. “The team was upset after finding out that we had to quarantine. We have been having daily team meetings and work outs over Zoom in order to stay prepared for the rest of the season. It is obviously not an ideal situation, but everyone is very excited to start to play again soon.”

Due to district and UIL instructions, the season started late, but players and coaches trained diligently to make up for missing time. Furthermore, when Laracuente and various other players were forced to quarantine, players like mid-blocker senior Simone Jackson stepped up to fill missing roles. 

“I think the biggest thing was that we started a month later, so we didn’t have our tournament season, and we didn’t have preseason,” Simone said. “I think it was really different because we didn’t get those valuable touches as a team at the beginning of the summer, but I think that we’re a really strong team so I don’t think we needed the preseason.”

Despite the season’s rough start, Laracuente and Yeager had faith in this year’s players.

“This year’s lineup was strong, and we have a lot of depth on our team, where we trust all of our players to go in and do their part,” Laracuente said. “There are six rotations in volleyball, and I think that every rotation is solid, and every rotation has the potential to go on big runs.”

The team had great potential and high hopes for the season, but they had to factor in the unpredictability of COVID-19 when setting goals.

“We’re just looking to improve on the last couple of years and go deeper into the playoffs,” Laracuente said. “With COVID, we’re focusing on controlling the controllable, and showing up every day, enjoying what we’re doing, working hard, improving our skills. But our ultimate goal is to go deep into the playoffs.”  

To prepare for the season and playoffs, the team trained rigorously and promoted positivity.  

“We’re really just doing a bunch of drills where they’re competing with the team,” Laracuente said. “We’ve had a lot of great matches this season where they fight back and win. If we’re competing against each other in practice it kind of trains that mindset for the match, and so far they’ve been doing an excellent job with it. We’re really proud of what they’ve done so far this season. This team is special, they love playing together, they all get along, they’re encouraging each other on and off the court so it’s been fun so far.”

Drills, exercises, practices and skill development were all key factors in a team’s success, yet the girls had to connect on and off the court to ensure their success. Each player had a position on the court and one on the sidelines. Simone is a middle blocker on the court, and she promotes positivity and reassures her teammates of their talent outside of the game. 

“My role on the team was to bring the energy up in the team, and encourage people when they’re down and upset,” Simone said. “One of my personal goals was to be a leader on the court. Another goal was to bring energy to the team when they’re down. Because it’s my senior year, I’m excited to try to play my hardest at district and see how far we can get in the playoffs.”

These players and coaches were just grateful for the opportunity to connect and play the sport they love. 

“At one point we weren’t even sure if we were going to be allowed to have a season, so we’re just excited,” Amanda Yeager said. “Every day we’re on the court, we try to take advantage of it and use our time wisely. Even with masks on, [we] just kind of leave what’s happening in the world behind us. I [think] it’s been kind of nice to have that space to just have fun with our kids, then to watch them have fun with each other, and just be grateful for every day that we get.”