This would normally be crunch time for college volleyball teams, with season-opening nonconference tournaments just days away.
Instead, carefully crafted schedules have been tabled and the traditional fall sport has been postponed until spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For coaches that meticulously plot every aspect of their program from practice drills to travel itineraries, it’s another round of revisions as they await an official spring timeline.
Welcome to college volleyball in 2020 … and soon to be 2021, though nothing in college sports seems certain in the age of COVID-19.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before they made that decision (to postpone),” Idaho coach Debbie Buchanan said. “This is a new normal and a lot of things just aren’t really in our control.
“It’s just different. We’re used to structure and planning. There are people behind the scenes working like crazy to make sure this happens for us, at the university and with our training staff. They’ve all put in a ton of time.”
On Aug. 10, Eastern Washington became the first Big Sky Conference school to suspend fall sports indefinitely out of safety concerns. Three days later, the conference announced all fall sports were being pushed back to spring.
“I really respect (athletic director Lynn Hickey) a lot to be the first one to say this isn’t going to happen (right now),” third-year EWU coach Leslie Flores-Cloud said. “I still had practices written up, ready to go, but I wasn’t surprised that all came about. My team kind of knew what was going on as well. Something all my athletes will tell you is I’m brutally honest, and I’m not a good poker player.”
COVID-19 halted practices and conditioning for months, so Flores-Cloud spent considerable time during the layoff working on improving the program’s culture. It wasn’t in great shape when she replaced Michael King, who was fired in March 2018, after 18 players had left the team over three seasons.
Flores-Cloud and her players had lengthy conversations. They listened to multiple podcasts, including Gonzaga strength and conditioning coach Mike Nilson’s Hoop Commitment on levels of leadership and Adam Grant’s WorkLife on many topics.
“Difficult conversations are always the ones worth having. They’re the hardest but also the ones you get the most out of,” Flores-Cloud said. “I’m excited for where we’ve ended up on the other side. If we were playing, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity to dive that deep into our culture.”
Buchanan intentionally pushed back the Vandals’ practice schedule because their first match was tentatively set for Oct. 2. The schedule was eventually erased by the Big Sky’s Aug. 13 announcement.
“We still get our 132-day season,” she said. “Once we kind of figure out what it’s going to look like and get more clarification, we’ll be able to figure out what the calendar looks like.”
Buchanan estimated Sept. 14 as potentially the first day her team could get back in the gym and fall will look more like a typical spring – four play dates and five to six weeks of training.
“In theory, I think that would flip and that would be in the fall and spring will be different,” she said. “We’re learning to be flexible and take information as we get it.”
It’s not known if volleyball will have a full schedule or be limited to conference matches. Buchanan guessed conference matches only, “just based on if we want to keep athletes safer and have less contact.” Flores-Cloud has heard the season might start in early February with conference beginning in late February or early March.
For now, the Eagles are conditioning three days a week and they’re on the court as much as four times a week with limited numbers and minus the coaching staff, per following safety protocols.
“Captain’s practices,” Flores-Cloud said. “We’re only allowed five in the gym at a time.”
Recruiting has completely changed during the pandemic. Campus visits aren’t permitted. Recruits typically take video tours of universities and facilities and chat with coaches via Zoom.
“Oh man, it’s giving me gray hair,” Flores-Cloud said. “I feel really bad for the 2021s that aren’t committed. They didn’t get a summer (club season), they didn’t get to come to camps or come on campus. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we can get a quiet period in October so we can bring kids in before they sign in November.”
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