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Fall sports coaches in Sumter School District have been preparing for this week all summer.
Those sports finally got to start workouts on Monday after sitting out most of the summer due to the coronavirus pandemic. The volleyball coaches at Sumter, Crestwood and Lakewood high schools have tried to figure out the best way to get in and out of the gymnasium, and now they're putting their ideas to practice.
At Sumter, the No. 1 concern with starting practice during the pandemic would normally be numbers. Head coach Heath Griffin said he had 70 girls at tryouts last year, and he wasn't sure how he was going to manage that many girls this time around. So far, numbers have been a concern for a different reason, as Griffin has seen about half that number of Gamecocks come in for workouts this week. He hopes to see that number go up once tryouts begin.
"It may be the fact that right now we're just conditioning. I generally have more girls come to tryouts than conditioning," said Griffin. "That word - conditioning -- might scare a few off. I'm interested to see if that number changes when we list it as tryouts rather than just conditioning."
That smaller number has its pros and cons. While every coach wants a gym full of players, it's allowed Griffin and his staff to figure out how to run things efficiently before more players show up.
"The biggest thing right now is with all the other sports having to do the same thing, we only have a 2-hour slot or two 1-hour slots each, so the max we could even have right now is 60 girls, which we're nowhere near," said Griffin. "That may change once we say there's tryouts, so we're just going to have to cross that bridge when we get to it."
Crestwood has run into similar problems. The 2-hour window for workouts puts a pretty hard limit on how many players can be in the gym at the same time, so it's hard to figure out the way to best manage who is in the gym and when.
"We had a lot of perspective players wanting to come in, however, we're limited by the number of people we can have in the facility at a time, so that's been causing a little bit of difficulty for us," said Crestwood head coach April Myers. "We have a 2-hour window, so I've been mixing up groups of varsity and JV (junior varsity) so that everybody can get a chance to come and work out and condition."
The Lady Gators are in the same boat over at Lakewood. Head coach Dr. Gequana Thomas has had to get creative to spread out the 28 players she has at the moment. Because they only have one gym to use, Thomas has taken to putting half of her players in the gym and half in the foyer outside of the gym.
"We have the both groups coming through separate gates. One group is coming through the front of the gym, the other through the back. We can only use one bathroom, the other group can use the other bathroom," said Thomas. "I can only have one set of girls in one space. Even if we were to split the gym in half, it's still considered one space, so the older set of girls are practicing in the gym on the actual court and the other set are practicing in the gym foyer area, so they're not coming in contact with one another.
"It's really tough, but the girls understand the seriousness of this, and they want to be able to continue to come out and practice, so they know what we says goes.
Of course, the biggest challenge so far is keeping up with all of the added protocols, especially everything that needs to be done before practice. Temperature checks and health questionnaires take up a good amount of time before practice starts, which is noteworthy when the team has a very limited time slot for workouts. While it takes up a lot of time, Myer said it's worth the lost time to keep everyone healthy.
"The process is very tedious, so the small things like temperature checks, symptom checks, proper sanitizing -- just getting them checked in alone is a long process," said Myers. "We're trying to just make sure everyone is doing what they need to do so we can stay practicing. The girls are excited, they want to have a season, I want to have a season, but we're not going to jeopardize that by making careless mistakes."
While the temperature checks and the rest of the protocols are tedious, Thomas said they're not her biggest obstacle. This is Thomas' first year back at Lakewood after stepping down so she could watch her daughter play middle school volleyball. Now that she's back in charge of the Lady Gators, she has to get used to a mostly new set of girls, which is a little more difficult when everyone has masks on and you have to socially distance.
"The main challenge that I have right now is that only two of the girls that are currently coming out right now know who I am," said Thomas. "I only know two of the girls, so I'm having to learn everybody, I'm having to watch them more than I would normally to see how they work together and place them in positions. That's a big challenge for me right now.
"We haven't even been in a huddle yet in practice. Normally we come together and it's a group hug at the end of practice, but we haven't been able to do that yet. We're having to raise our voices in a larger huddle so that we can remain six feet apart, so it's really difficult right now, but it is what it is."
Over at Sumter, Griffin learned a lot about how to run these COVID-19 workouts efficiently. He spent a lot of time talking with other coaches, but his biggest lesson came when he took his Sumter-area travel team down to Florida for nationals last month.
"I run a juniors program here in Sumter, also, a travel ball program. We've got about 120 girls and we took two teams to nationals in Florida last month," said Griffin. "They had it so organized with temperature checks, hand sanitizer, wiping balls, social distancing. It kind of taught me a lot and gave me a lot of ideas for what to do here."
Now that practices have started, the biggest hurdle is just getting the girls ready to go for games. Coaches know that staying in shape has not been everyone's top priority during the pandemic, so now they need to sprint to get conditioning done.
"In reality, most of our girls didn't do anything all summer," said Myers. "They've been out of conditioning for really a year, because we finished volleyball last October. We were supposed to begin this April, but obviously we were all out. Just getting them back into shape is one thing, but then skill developing is another."
Lakewood may be the most behind because of the coaching change. Luckily, last year's head coach, Ashley Cappelmann, is still on the staff, so Thomas plans on trying to keep as much continuity as possible to keep the girls on the same page.
"I'm going to stick with what they did last year because a lot of the varsity team are returners," said Thomas. "So as far as offense and defense goes, we're going to stick with what they did last year, so actually they're going to show me what they did.
"I feel like showing them something new right now, there's no time for that. We can maybe integrate something new later, but I'm gonna stick with what they already know now so we can get it going faster."
Even with a lot of continuity at each of the three schools, the timeline is tight. Games are currently slated to start on Sept. 8, so there isn't much time to get everyone up to speed.
"But as of right now, our first game is Sept. 8, so we don't have a lot of time to figure it out," said Griffin.
That's also if everybody the three schools expect to play decides to come out. All three have seen low numbers to start, and Myers knows she has some girls on the fence at Crestwood.
"It's a few that are kind of hesitant," said the Lady Knights head coach. "We anticipate them playing, but they're not sure yet. We're still playing it by ear."
With all the craziness, Griffin is just glad to see his team back on the court. His No. 1 focus is making sure they get to stay on it.
"I think our biggest hurdle was getting the OK to be able to play," said the Sumter head coach. "Once we got the green light, I'm hoping we can keep it that way. Of course, our biggest fear is somebody shows up positive with a case and then we've got to quarantine a whole group and everyone has to get a doctor's approval to come back. Of course, that's in the back of your mind the whole time."
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