By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
Volleyball players at Hoke’s middle and high schools will be the first to get back to competition this month, although the games won’t look like they used to due to pandemic safety measures.
Hoke County Schools, in cooperation with the North Carolina High School Athletics Association (NCHSAA), will next week bring back the first competitive school sports games since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
Volleyball is the first sport to get the cautious green light, because it doesn’t involve body-to-body contact between players from different schools the way sports like football or wrestling require. The volleyball teams held tryouts last week to fill their rosters, and the first home game will be Tuesday, November 17. But there are some big changes to how the games will operate, and who can watch from the stands.
“We’ve been talking about it and thinking about it, and thinking about ways to handle all the possibilities,” said Gary Brigman, athletics director for Hoke County Schools. “A lot of things have changed. Almost weekly they’re changing, and we’ve had to adjust to that,” Brigman said. “We have a plan together and hopefully we’re going to put it in place.”
Only the volleyball players’ parents will be allowed to attend the home games; students and other spectators are banned from the bleachers for now. Student athletes are assigned a certain number of tickets they can give to their parents.
The visiting team isn’t allowed to bring spectators with them, either, and will be assigned a bench and locker room at a distance from the Bucks’ bench.
“We have to provide them with a place to be able to sit and socially distance,” Brigman said. Staff will also clean the gym in-between the junior varsity, and varsity games.
Parents attending games will need to abide by social distancing guidelines, and wear a mask. While the athletes themselves don’t have to wear masks while in play, they do need to wear a mask while they’re sitting on the bench. Game officials are also supposed to wear masks, and will undergo temperature checks.
Away games for the Bucks will be much the same, and will only include games against conference opponents for now. The student athletes will undergo temperature checks, and if any of them come up with a fever, the team gets back on the bus and comes home, Brigman said. Hoke parents and spectators won’t be allowed to go with the volleyball team to away games.
There are some safety-related changes to the games themselves, too. Usually visiting teams warm up with volleyballs provided by the home team, but now they’ll need to bring their own equipment. And instead of teams switching sides of the net during the match, each team will stay on their own side of the court for the entire game.
Even the water bottles have special precautions this time around because of coronavirus. The team plans to give each volleyball player a color-coded water bottle that they’ll need to fill up themselves, because large tubs of water and sports drinks won’t be provided. That way, each student athlete only drinks from their own bottle.
Most of the high school and middle school sports teams are working on skill development now, although they’re not playing games or going to competitions, Brigman said. The student athletes have been abiding by safety guidelines during practices, including temperature checks and COVID-19 screening questionnaires.
Bowling and swimming are a bit different. Neither of them are high-contact sports, but both ran into some problems in finding places to practice. Bowling alleys were closed statewide by Gov. Roy Cooper’s order until the Phase 3 reopening this fall, and Hoke’s swim team must rely on outside facilities for swim practice as Hoke County doesn’t have a public swimming pool to accommodate the team.
The county is in the planning stages of building an aquatics and recreation center that could change that, but hasn’t yet broken ground on the project.
All of the COVID-19 precautions surrounding the volleyball games are part of an effort to safely bring back more school sports.
Cross-country running will also be getting started this month, as it’s likewise a lower-risk sport that doesn’t involve close contact between student athletes. Other sports could possibly resume next year, even though some of them won’t be at the traditional seasons.
For example, right now the hope is to start the football season in February, Brigman said. Basketball could potentially start as well, but right now it’s still something of a question mark, school officials said.
Hoke school administrators and the NCHSAA will be closely watching how things go with the volleyball games, and the progression of the pandemic before making final decisions on closer-contact sports.
Fortunately, the strange year for student athletes shouldn’t prevent seniors of the Class of 2021 from getting the chance to play sports in college. The seniors who planned to sign on with college or university teams, mostly have already committed to their school, Brigman said.
However, they are concerned about encouraging the prospects for high school juniors who will be graduating in 2022.
“The juniors are the ones that we’re really trying to give them an opportunity to play,” Brigman said.