With the start to the 2020-21 academic year closing in rapidly, high school coaches of fall sports teams didn’t even know if there would be sports to play amidst the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Directives were changing seemingly daily from state legislators and the PIAA was working tirelessly to determine whether athletics were even feasible given the concerns and restrictions at the time.
At the forefront of those discussions in the area were volleyball coaches, who had to deal with all of these factors while competing indoors and in close quarters.
“We were trying to keep the girls in a positive mindset,” Littlestown coach Steve Staub said. “But the uncertainty made things very difficult. Things were changing rapidly and we were just trying to find ways to keep the girls together and keep a positive attitude while also ensuring that everyone was safe.”
Some teams even forwent summer open gyms and early practices, with Delone Catholic delaying the start of its season until weeks into the academic year.
“We started having our open gyms in the fall and that was the first time where it felt like ‘okay, this might actually happen,’” Delone coach Jason Leppo said.
Over at Gettysburg, coach Brandon Dinges said that while they were able to have team activities prior to the season, those activities were far different than anything he’d experienced previously.
“It was a lot of changing our activities to work within the guidelines,” he said. “From the moment that we even arrived at the school, temperatures had to be checked. Everything had to be coinciding with guidelines that the school made in correspondence with the guidelines we got from the state. We did a lot of stuff outside, and then when we went inside everybody had to have a mask on the entire time. It was really difficult at first but I think as things went on they got a bit more comfortable.”
Even after the PIAA and YAIAA announced intentions to go ahead with the season, changes to the in-game processes and to ticketing for fans made things uncomfortable for some players.
“I think that was the hardest thing,” Leppo said. “Before those first games for us against Hanover and York Catholic, which are two big, rivalry games for us, the girls wanted to see what it would be like. And at that point, we didn’t know if they’d allow any fans.
“So we had a practice with all the girls out in the hallway except the 16 girls on the court and I think it was one coach allowed on the bench and some of the seniors were literally almost in tears because it’s so far from the way we’re used to doing things. You know, we talk about our culture and that camaraderie and being a family and it just felt much different.”
Staub said he faced similar challenges at Littlestown, and while the Thunderbolts boasted an impressive 8-5 record and a trip to the District 3 Class 2A tournament, it was tough to reconcile with not being able to celebrate as usual.
“Like any sport or any team, it’s like being part of a family,” he said. “So when you’re not able to huddle up after a point or not able to high five or celebrate like you normally would, that’s tough. I think the girls adjusted to it well and came up with some unique ways to celebrate, but it was still a big change.”
While fans were eventually allowed into games, attendance was limited and Dinges says the change in atmosphere made for some strange moments early on.
“It was kind of crazy. Our first game was at West York and they allowed two fans per player for the home team, and at that time we weren’t even sure if we were allowed to have fans,” he said. “So when we walked in and saw that we said ‘okay, this feels more like a normal game.’ But it was kind of eerie how quiet it was. There were moments where you probably could’ve heard a pin hit the floor.”
Despite the quiet, Staub said that early in the season he had to urge his team to communicate more and be louder.
“You know, you’d think with it being quiet that communication would be easier,” he said. “But those first few matches, girls weren’t communicating or weren’t as loud because it was so quiet. So we kind of had to get back into that habit.”
One common theme among coaches was that their teams used the experience to become more tightly bonded.
“I said to the girls in our last huddle when we lost in the district semifinals to York Catholic how much this year meant to me,” Leppo said. “They gave each other a sense of normalcy and when I think back to how hard March, April and May was on me personally, for them and for me to be able to have that was huge. It was one of the greatest gifts that any team has ever given me.
“We talk all the time about what it means to be a good teammate and to be good members of society. And to be kind to one another, to be more compassionate, to be empathetic. I think those are all things that this situation has emphasized and to see the way this team handled everything was really special.”