There are many challenges to playing high school sports during a pandemic. Despite best efforts and practices, the coronavirus has managed to delay, postpone and cancel games, matches and meets across the state.
The Greater Spokane League has been no exception.
But one team managed not only to persevere through a difficult situation brought on by COVID-19 protocols put in place by the state, league and school district, but thrive.
Just before their next-to-the-last regular-season match against University on March 18, coach Shawn Wilson and the Mead girls volleyball team found out that there was a “COVID exposure event” according to Wilson, and the Panthers would have to cancel the match.
It was devastating news to a program that had been near the top of the standings all season and hoped to put on a good showing at the league’s culminating event the next week.
“Originally, we thought it knocked out our entire team,” Wilson said. “Our nurses looked into it further and found out by contact tracing which ones were, you know, exposed, and it ended up that half of our team had the amount of exposure.”
After determining the unexposed players, and going through a rigorous testing schedule, school and health officials decided the team could play its last regular-season match and participate in the end-of-season tournament.
The question became, should it? And how would Wilson and the team manage with just six varsity players available?
“Three of our starters were out,” he said. “They couldn’t play and so then you’re filling in with people that don’t normally play in certain positions.”
Rightly concerned about the possibility of not being able to put players in a position to succeed, Wilson left it to the team.
“We kind of voted to decide if we wanted to continue our season or not,” he said. “Because we knew we’d be out of position. It’s like, ‘You know, what do we want to do?’ ”
Wilson conducted a Zoom meeting with the entire team. Though a few players did not vote in order to not influence their teammates, everyone else voted to play shorthanded.
Senior Jordynn Hutchinson was one of the players forced to quarantine.
“I was really disappointed that I would be out, but I really wanted to give the opportunity to the girls who could,” she said.
Fellow senior Sophia TurningRobe was one of the eligible players.
“I think, from a player who was not in quarantine, it was pretty obvious,” she said. “We wanted to continue our season. Personally, the reason why I did it is to play for those girls that couldn’t play. Obviously, they really wanted to be out there, and they just couldn’t.”
TurningRobe was proud that it turned out to be a unified front.
“We went in with a team aspect, saying, you know, ‘We’re gonna all do this together.’ We all voted yes, so we were all kind of on the same page.
“It was really, really the team dynamic that kind of pushed that forward – that we’re going to do this for our girls that can’t and we’re going to finish strong for them.”
Hutchinson abstained from the vote but was happy the way it turned out.
“I thought it was really cool that they wanted to play for us and do their best for the Mead program,” she said.
The next step was figuring out a way to keep the quarantined players involved. Assistant coach Heather Wilson came up with the idea of having the players there virtually. Everyone has become accustomed to participating in meetings or classes over Zoom calls, so why not do the same for volleyball?
“It was kind of like we were still there when we had the opportunity to Zoom in and still be a part of the team,” Hutchinson said. “It was like we were all there fighting for each other – even though we weren’t necessarily.”
The quarantined players watched the live stream of the game at home and participated on the Zoom call in real time during timeout huddles.
“It was really weird, but it was really cool that we could still do it,” Hutchinson said. “It was a lot of fun watching the girls close up, because we could see them on the screen and see them (on Zoom) as well.”
Though it was too loud in the gym to hear the quarantined players on the Zoom call, they were still there for their teammates.
“You still felt their presence, even though they weren’t there,” TurningRobe said. “Even when you were playing and you looked over at the bench or looked over to where the laptop was and you could just see their faces and know that they were smiling, and that they were rooting for us.”
In a season of challenges, this was just one more for Wilson.
“It’s hard to do because, as a coach, once the game gets going you’re focused on what’s going on in the court, and you kind of forget what’s going on on the sidelines and then we call a timeout and we’re like, ‘Where’s the computer?’ ”
Mead dropped its final regular-season match to Gonzaga Prep (9-3) in four sets, then was swept by the Bullpups in the first round of the culminating event.
“I thought we played really well and I thought the kids enjoyed the play, but at one point, I was wondering, like, ‘You know, do they regret saying that they’re gonna play?’ ” Wilson wondered.
Undaunted, the Panthers rallied to sweep Central Valley in the second round to finish their season at 8-3.
“That last night against CV, we kept playing better and better and better as a team,” Wilson said. “We were adapting and making a few changes and I thought we played really well.”
“We had a lot of players step up,” TurningRobe said. “It was a good learning tool for those younger players for the future coming years in the program. ”
The ones at home got something out of it, too.
“Our goal, as soon as Shawn told us who was quarantined, that was the first thing we talked about was trying to make it so that everybody at home could stay involved,” Hutchinson said. “And that was our ultimate goal was to stay together as a team.”
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