WPIAL volleyball teams grappling with indoor coronavirus safety restrictions

Saturday, August 29, 2020 | 5:35 PM

Girls volleyball teams in the WPIAL are beginning to feel like the walls are closing in on them.

Volleyball is an outlier in the fall season because it is the only indoor sport, so it is up against tighter covid-19 safety guidelines. The virus, experts say, thrives in enclosed spaces, and a tight-quartered gymnasium could present issues, even with social distancing.

It might be a case of quantity over quality for some teams this fall.

The WPIAL season opens Sept. 14, and spectators will not be permitted to attend matches under the counsel of Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of Education. Schools are expected to follow that protocol, lock their doors and limit events to necessary game personnel.

But under another state guideline — and this is the hitch for volleyball teams — indoor gatherings must be limited to 25 people.

“Six players on each team, three subs each, referees and line judges, and people working at the table. There’s your 25,” said Mike McDonald, chairman of the WPIAL volleyball steering committee and the coach and athletic director at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. “It’s hard to have a match that way. That is going to be our biggest challenge.”

With teams having to limit lineups, there could come instances when backups will have to wait out in the hallway. One player could leave a match, go and get their replacement, then stay outside of the gym to keep the number at 25.

Junior varsity players are often courtside and watching the varsity games, but that likely will change this season.

“You look at some schools,” McDonald said. “How many do you have on your team? We are a Class A program, and we have 20. You need a place for these other people to go.”

McDonald said schools will be asked to provide an “alternate space” for additional people. Hallways could come into play for schools with one gym. Larger gyms with divider curtains could utilize both sides.

“We will set the tone for the rest of indoor sports,” Leechburg coach Eve Hebrank said. “Our decisions will make winter sports wiser. The most challenging aspect is the logistics of game day. Even if you drop it to nine girls, we’re still looking at a total of 22 (for a match). Then add in the rest of your essentials — athletic trainer, athletic director, scorebook and scoreboard — and we’re either at that threshold, or we’re already over 25 people. And we haven’t even added in line judges.”

McDonald said the answer could be bumping the maximum number to 50, something he has been adamant about with the PIAA and WPIAL but would need the state to approve.

He said basketball likely will run into similar problems come the winter season should the maximum capacity number stay at 25.

“You could easily fit 50 into a gym, with the bleachers, on the main floor,” he said. “Almost everyone I have talked to believes it can work that way. One coach made a good point: We have been essentially working in pods for safety reasons in practice for the past month. Why not trust what we have done with our teams?”

The 25-person limit also has been an issue at practices, where girls have had to wait outside the gym or attend a split-workout on a different day. Coaches are trying their best to avoid making cuts.

“Every coach in every sport has been challenged, indoor and out, and I personally commend all of them for their endless efforts to make it work for one primary reason,” Franklin Regional coach Mike Feorene said, “the love of the game and their athletes who play them.”

Teams have been spending practices priming for new-look matches where atmosphere will be lacking. But it beats not playing. Many predicted sports such football, soccer and volleyball would be moved to the spring as other states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Illinois and others have done.

“We have spent hours preparing for what our games will look like indoors,” Feorene said. “This is challenging. However, we were granted 14 games and, through the eyes of my seniors, it means the world.”

Adjusting to guidelines has been a challenge for teams in all fall sports as they try to safely prepare and follow the rules.

“The toughest part has been the continuous change to the expectations and staying in compliance,” Feorene said. “Micro-managing total players in a gym, weight room policies, schedule changes for practice and games and, of course, the financial side of raising money for our team.”

Feorene said he had to cancel the program’s “Next Generation” youth camp and tournament.

“These hit us hard, but my boosters and I have worked extremely hard to find different ways to fund raise and the community has been extremely supportive as always,” he said. “We hit road blocks and will continue to do so, but as I preach to my players, it’s not what we’ve done, but what we are about to do.”

McDonald enjoys the ebbs and flows of a match, the momentum swings and cheers of the student sections. But he thinks teams should be willing to sacrifice fans, even if many of them are family and friends.

“The most important thing right now is the sake of the players,” McDonald said. “We can worry about the spectators later. High school sports are for the kids, not the parents.”

New PIAA guidelines for volleyball will include social distancing in pre-match meetings, a change in the game-ball rotation and teams won’t be allowed to swap sides after each set.

“If all the safety protocols that have been put in place by the districts are followed,” Hebrank said, “then I feel confident that we can continue with our season safely.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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