FARGO — The Fargo Oak Grove volleyball team sauntered onto the court Monday with big, visible smiles. It was the first time in months the Grovers could practice without a mask on.
Jugs of hand sanitizer, cleaning spray with wash cloths and Clorox wipes were stationed in a few spots between the entryway and gym. Bags and belongings were scattered in the mezzanine.
It was a similar scene at West Fargo High School and Fargo Davies. As the Grovers, Packers, Eagles and volleyball teams around the state opened practice Monday, Aug. 17, it marked the first indoor action of any kind since March, when high school sports in North Dakota were halted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It's exciting to get back in the gym. We've been wearing masks all summer long, even while we practice, so we can finally get rid of those, which is exciting for us,” Oak Grove head volleyball coach Julie Vancura said.
At West Fargo, masks were draped around each player’s individual water bottle. Packers head coach Kelsey Gibbons was coaching with a mask on, having to shout a little louder to be heard throughout the gym.
“Masks are hard. I can't say I've ever coached in a mask. We have to find a way to still communicate with our athletes and smile with our eyes and be a lot more vocal rather than reading body language,” Gibbons said. “So I would say from a coaching perspective, that's definitely different.”
Practice for each school looks different but the same. At Davies, players are spaced apart with cones, their bags propped up next to them instead of in the locker room. Tryouts were split into two sessions by grades to comply with social distancing.
“We had to split up from the younger girls today because of that,” senior outside hitter Olivia Marcil said. “And when we had our summer camp, we had to be on separate courts. We would like to all be together, but obviously, that's a restriction we have to have to be in here.”
Fellow Davies senior Grace Solberg said her squad was happy to be practicing no matter the restrictions.
“It’s amazing. Even with the restrictions, we're just excited that we get to play because not having a senior season would be devastating,” Solberg said.
The teams are piecing together how to hold practice for a high-touch sport during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 is more likely to spread in closed spaces. With the nature of the sport’s indoor playing environment, there’s a higher risk of spreading COVID-19.
The Grovers, Packers and Eagles, the reigning Class A state volleyball champions, are masked up at all times while in the schools except during practice. Davies and West Fargo also have to answer screening questions before being cleared to head into practice.
“It definitely feels like something out of a movie,” Solberg said. “One day at a time. We have no idea (what everything will look like), but we’re excited for what’s to come.”
The Grovers will also be limiting the movement between teams, trying to keep the same kids together instead of moving them up and down like they have in the past.
“We’re just excited to get our sport back,” Oak Grove junior Sophie Pundsack said.
Each school wipes down every ball before and after practice, and any time there’s a long break.
“In between drills we're simply just spraying down all of the balls,” Gibbons said. “We’re taking some Lysol aerosol spray and spraying those down. That's not within the protocol, but just something that we feel if we can do our part, hopefully we can stay healthy and sustain a season.”
Gibbons gives a lot more water breaks now. The Packers have been trained to hit the sanitizing station whenever they get a drink of water.
“We know that anything can change in a split second, so we're not going to take anything for granted, work hard every day,” Packers senior Halle Erickson said. “Especially since this is seven of ours’ last season here, we want to work hard and not let any opportunity go to waste.”
Across the river, there won’t be any volleyball played in the fall in Minnesota after the Minnesota State High School League decided to move volleyball to the spring.
“We just really stress it to our kids that if they have any (symptoms), they have to be honest with us and honest with themselves and their bodies that they might have to take a seat,” Gibbons said.
Everyone on the court knows this year will look a lot different. There’ll be no handshakes prior to or after the match or switching of team benches, per the North Dakota High School Activities Association’s sport-specific recommendations. There’ll also be limited fan attendance at each of the schools.
“Hopefully it will work similar to what we’ve had in the past, but people are just gonna have to be careful,” said Davies head coach Carolyn Olson. “We look at it as hey, at least we're playing. The kids are excited to be playing and I think the parents will be happy to watch their kids play again.”
What the teams will have to get used to though, will be having to limit their celebrations. High-fives and group hugs are a notable part of the game for each squad.
“It’s definitely gonna be quite a bit of a change for us,” West Fargo’s Erickson said. “We’re a team that likes to celebrate the big moments. Knowing that that's not something that's encouraged now, we're still gonna try to work together because we know that's a big energy movement part of our game.”