SAN ANTONIO – In March, Harlan senior Kiana Fallaha and head coach Monica Gonzales traveled with a number of volleyball players from around the San Antonio area to Colorado for a national club tournament.
Hopes of a strong showing and a chance to compete against some of the nation’s best prep athletes evaporated as soon as the plane touched down.
“We got up at 3 a.m., got on a plane at 5 a.m., and a message got sent out at 5:30 a.m.” Fallaha recalled. “We didn’t get that message until we had landed, and everyone’s phones started blowing up. It basically just said that the tournament had been canceled, so everybody jumped off of the flight and turned around an hour later to get a flight back home.”
In a matter of hours, the entire sports world had screeched to a halt. The coronavirus pandemic had officially begun. Standard off-season plans were either canceled outright or postponed indefinitely, as players found themselves quarantined in their homes and struggling to find ways to keep practicing the game they love.
“It went from playing every single day and going to big tournaments every weekend to not even stepping on a court and hitting against a wall in my garage,” Fallaha said. “When I came in as a freshman, this is what you wanted. You wanted your senior year. This is what I was ready for, what I was planning for this whole entire time. I didn’t know that junior year might be my last high school season.”
That fear and uncertainty stuck with volleyball players for months. There was an initial glimmer of hope in early June when high schools began allowing athletes to return to campus for organized strength and conditioning workouts. But after a spike in positive COVID-19 cases towards the end of the month, practices were postponed by the UIL, starting an oscillating, on-again/off-again process that involved fluctuating restrictions and regulations with each subsequent schedule adjustment. As a result, volleyball teams had a tough time maintaining even a semi-regular training regimen.
“It’s been an up-and-down road,” Fallaha explained. “We’re just trying to get into a routine. That’s what we’re used to. We’re used to tryouts, then tournaments and then you start playing more and more. I just want to get on the court and play with my teammates and have fun.”
“This year, we’ve had to create pods and social distance,” Gonzales said. “Our parents are sending their kids to us and trusting that we’re doing what we need to do. That means wearing a mask all the time, sanitizing the balls and not touching each other. We’re also asking them to be accountable. It’s not just what we do here, it’s what they do outside that also has an effect. One decision has an effect on everybody in the gym. I love volleyball. I love what we do, but at the end of the day, this is bigger than volleyball. We need people to be safe and make the right decisions.”
KSAT 12 conducted interviews with Coach Gonzales and Kiana Fallaha on campus at Harlan High School in an isolated room on July 16. Five days later, the UIL announced that the football and volleyball season were officially delayed due to another spike in coronavirus cases, and a new set of ‘risk management guidelines’ were going to be enforced. Class 1A-4A volleyball teams would start up as scheduled in mid-August, but Class 5A and 6A teams were now forced to wait until September to take the court.
That delay has been a mixed bag for squads around the San Antonio area, including the defending-Region IV-6A champion Clemens Buffaloes. On the one hand, teams finally had a definitive answer as to when and where they would be able to play their first games of the season. On the other hand, formal tryouts and the much-desired return to play were now another month away. The schedule was also much shorter and less forgiving, as teams would be thrust almost immediately into intense district games with playoff positioning on the line.
“We’re getting four matches before district,” said Clemens head coach Robyn Wunderlich. “Usually we have 25 matches before school starts. It’s just completely different, but the hardest part for us is that we’re a bunch of girls. We like to hug and high five, especially coming off our best year. We’re excited, we’re ready to be back and doing our thing. Ultimately, we don’t know what the schedule will be like. We’re just going to take each day as it comes.”
The Buffaloes have had the benefit of additional practices over the summer through their annual, pre-approved ‘Stampede Camp,’ and that’s afforded them multiple chances to learn how to adapt to rapidly changing schedules and protocols. With the start of the regular season now three weeks away, the players are used to a very different routine.
“They wear their masks from the minute they get here until the minute they’re in their car and leaving,” Wunderlich explained. “We check their temperature, they use hand sanitizer when they walk in, and they turn in a sheet with their parents’ initials on it every day as a precautionary measure. We have a process for disinfecting the balls that all the girls know now. We keep balls separate to each gym and limit the number of people interacting with equipment. Everybody has to bring their own water bottles and the water breaks are separated as well.”
The ultimate goal of these guidelines is to keep every member of the volleyball program safe and healthy. That communal responsibility can be a huge burden to carry, but Wunderlich has found strength from watching how her own team has embraced the new regulations, “With COVID, everybody has to give a little bit. I’ve tried really hard not to get wound up by it all. The kids have been great about being flexible and understanding, and we’ve let them know immediately about anything we’ve known that was official. They’re just anxious to see what a school day is going to look like. They’re pretty fired up and ready to see what will happen.”
While Class 5A and 6A teams hope their seasons will begin as scheduled on Sept 7, Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A teams have already started their seasons this past week.
On Friday, Aug 14, the Lytle Lady Pirates hosted the Bandera Bulldogs in a non-conference match, and the game looked markedly different. A significant number of players, coaches and officials wore masks throughout the game, and bench chairs were staggered and spaced appropriately. Spectators were allowed to attend the match, but went through a mandatory, automated temperature check prior to entering the gym and sat in familial-based clusters spaced a minimum of six feet apart. Additionally, teams did not change sides between sets and did not come into physical contact with each other. Instead, they remained on their respective sides of the court and waved at each other through the net before and after the match.
Other than those cosmetic changes, the ebb and flow of the game remained the same. Both teams were understandably thrilled to be on the court for any kind of match, but there are some changes that players still need time to adjust to.
“It’s harder to breathe,” Lytle senior left hitter Abby Moreno said. “Trying to talk to your teammates [with a mask on] is kind of hard. You have to move this way and that way just to be heard. It’s hard to talk to our coach. We’re getting into it, but we’re not there yet. The only thing we need to do is work and communicate.”
“It’s hard because you have to stop yourself and say, ‘You can’t touch me,’” Bandera junior outside hitter Maci Morrison explained. “After each set, you have to put on hand sanitizer, you have to walk in with a mask, you have to get your temperature taken and there’s just so many different things you have to do. I’m just glad we get to actually play. It was just so hard to get up in the morning and go work out [during the offseason]. If you didn’t work out, you knew you were going to get behind. Just being back here with everyone and hanging out with your friends has made working out so much easier and so much more fun.”
Volleyball seems to have survived the first week of real game action. That’s a promising sign for the Class 5A and 6A teams waiting in the wings. Time will tell if seniors across the Alamo City and the surrounding area will be able to end their high school careers on their own terms.