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In Waterford, high school volleyball season begins ... on the tennis courts

Waterford — Last Nov. 23, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the Waterford High School volleyball team played in the Class M state championship match at East Haven High School.

After a long-awaited decision as to what would happen to Connecticut's fall sports season due to COVID-19 — specifically volleyball — which was considered a moderate-risk sport by the state's Department of Public Health, Waterford's 2020 volleyball season began earlier this week.

On the school's tennis courts.

"This is all really new to us, but we're willing to do it," said Waterford senior Brynn Holmes, one of 30-or-so players broken up into three cohort groups late Thursday afternoon and wearing masks as they did conditioning and sport-specific drills, both currently allowed by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association.

"If we can't breathe, it's fine."

Waterford coach Matt Maynard deadpanned that his athletes would play on the moon, if necessary, a comment they jokingly mulled over for a little bit.

"As a coach, you want to have the best experience for your players, to help them meet their goals and exceed them," said Maynard, in his seventh season. "You want them to come into the season ready to go to earn those positions, to give the seniors an opportunity, whatever it may be. For a lot of our girls, volleyball is a lifelong love."

The wait for the season's start was excruciating.

Teams were allowed conditioning sessions beginning in July and, on Aug. 12, the CIAC reiterated that it would stick with its plan to hold a condensed, regionalized fall season for all sports.

On Aug. 14, however, the CIAC ordered a stoppage for all in-person sports activity while the organization met further with the Department of Public Health. It came to light that the DPH had recommended that two higher-risk sports, football and volleyball, either be off the table for the fall or be modified. Among the DPH's suggestions were that football be played 7-on-7 and that volleyball be contested outside.

On Aug. 27, the CIAC announced that it would proceed with the fall sports season, football and volleyball included, while labeling the situation as "fluid."

The current setup — one hour of practice time broken up into a half hour of conditioning and a half hour of sport-specific skill-work — is scheduled to last through Sept. 21. Regular team practices may begin Sept. 21 and games may start Oct. 1.

It hasn't been the easiest of restarts. For one thing, Maynard said a few players opted out of the season.

"It's definitely very interesting," senior defensive specialist Emily Mitchell said. "It's not a normal environment. It's tough with the wind, with the heat. ... I was kind of upset (with the DPH recommendations regarding volleyball). Volleyball is my main sport. And sophomore year I missed because I was sick. This is my last opportunity to play."

Senior setter Angela Colonis said that because her travel season was canceled with the CT Velocity, she needed this fall season for recruiting purposes, as she hopes to compete at the collegiate level. She participated in a few tournaments this summer, she said, and played beach volleyball at Waterford's Mago Point.

"I was really scared, to be honest," Colonis said of the potential cancellation of the fall season.

"It's our senior year," Holmes said. "We've played this game since middle school. The fact that it's our last season is sad. ... "It's just been a lot of sitting and waiting (to find out what happens.)"

Maynard gave examples of a few other stumbling blocks so far.

Volleyball, for instance, a fast-paced game, relies a lot on non-verbal communication among teammates.

"To not be able to see that with the masks on," Maynard said, "that's an obstacle we're going to have to overcome."

Verbal communication hasn't exactly been a cinch either, with some of his players in school on Mondays and Tuesdays and others on Thursdays and Fridays in Waterford's hybrid model.

"It's very difficult to get communication at the last minute," Maynard said. "Some people are better at email, some are better at texting, some prefer a phone call."

Either way, Waterford's three groups rotated stations Thursday, with two outside at all times and one in the gym. The players ran a lap around the courts, then stretched. Later, one outside group did a conditioning drill while the other practiced hitting the volleyballs up against the wall adjacent to the courts.

Ultimately, the Lancers wouldn't have minded if they were practicing on the moon.

"Oh for sure," Mitchell said, asked if she was pleased to see volleyball's return. "I love these girls. I love everybody."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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