Volleyball: Widespread optimism for fall season, a few questions about logistics remain

Eugene Rapay
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

In a matter of days, gymnasiums across the Hudson Valley will be filled with the familiar sight and sound of volleyballs flying around.

Monday marks the first day of official tryouts and practice across the state. In Section 1 and Section 9, this will be the first time the sport is back in the fall since 2019, after it was played in the Fall II season last spring.

Even with the New York State Education Department's recent return-to-school guide and recommendation that "high-risk sports and extracurricular activities should be virtual or canceled in areas of high community transmission unless all participants are fully vaccinated," coaches and players' excitement are undeterred.

Previous attempts by volleyball advocates to change the high-risk label were denied by the state, but teams remain steadfast.

They're preparing for a triumphant return, while remaining highly optimistic that a full season can be completed this fall.

"At this point now, we're 18 months into this (pandemic), nothing surprises or gets you going crazy anymore because you know there's something else right around the bend," said Pelham coach and teacher Mark Finegan, who also serves as the vice president of the New York Volleyball Coaches Association. "I was always pretty confident that we would get this fall season, and I think we have to get back to some level of normalcy. ... When I heard the little things coming out of Albany the last couple of weeks, it concerned me, definitely, but I think the overarching theme among the people in education is to get back to normalcy as much as we can."

Pelham defeated Mamaroneck in a varsity volleyball match at Pelham March 29, 2021. Pelham won the match in four sets: 20-25; 25-22; 25-19; 25-19.

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The recent document from NYSED won't be affecting their plans for the first week of practice.

"We're not going to prepare any differently, until we hear something final," Suffern coach Samantha Gutmann said. "We're going to keep that same mindset of just focusing on what's in front of us and preparing as if it's any other year. I think naturally there's always concerns, but I think (the players) learned last year that things can change, and they can really only control what they can control, so we're not going to put too much emotion into things that are outside of our hands."

Suffern volleyball beat North Rockland 29-27, 25-18, 25-20 at Suffern March 30, 2021.

The successful completion of the Fall II volleyball season has given teams more reason to be optimistic than doubtful.

"If it doesn't happen and they push us again to the spring for whatever reason that I wouldn't even know anymore, then so be it," Eastchester coach Kathy DePippo said. "Kicking and screaming really does not fix anything, but we're very optimistic predominantly because we had so much success in the spring."

The concern is shifted elsewhere, but coaches aren't expecting anything drastic to change until the season opens.

Some teams, like Pelham, will be practicing and playing in masks. There are other lingering questions regarding how tournament play will work this year. 

Eastchester players celebrate after sweeping Scarsdale 3-0 in volleyball action at Scarsdale High School April 13, 2021.

In John Jay-East Fishkill's case, coach Maria Mahoney felt her team's biggest obstacle was ongoing construction in the gymnasium, which shifted the Patriots' summer work outside. She's also curious about how or if tournaments will return, especially since there weren't any last season.

"I haven't heard anything yet, but I think every single coach is afraid to say it out loud," Mahoney joked. "That's the only thing I'm a little nervous about. If that's the only thing they take away, then I'm OK, personally. I don't want them to take it away, but if that's the only thing, and we can go ahead about our regular schedule, then do whatever you want."

John Jay's Emma Mahoney jumps into the arms of Paig Sadowitz while celebrating their win over Arlington in the Section 1 Class A  volleyball final on April 22, 2021.

Other questions are centered around attendance policy. While Section 1 limited audiences to just two spectators per player for the home team only, Section 9 didn't allow anyone into the gym last season.

Section 1 and 9 have not yet announced its fan policy for the 2021-22 season.

"I'm hopeful we're going to move forward and hope for the best that we will be starting on Monday, and I'm hoping for fans," said Melyssa Klempner-Amelio, who coaches 18-time Section 9 champion Pine Bush. "For the parents, I feel badly. My daughter played volleyball in high school and college, and I can only imagine how hard it was for some of those parents not being able to watch."

Pine Bush captured its 18th Section 9 title in 2021.

While a few logistical questions remain, teams across the Hudson Valley are looking forward to starting. The offseason was filled with summer workouts, camps, clinics, and open gyms, so they're looking forward to having a routine fall once again.

"Many of us who have been coaching or playing for years, we have our routines," DePippo said. "We do what we do in the spring, then the summer, and then bang -- we hit it in the fall. I really didn't mind this spring because it was a little bit of a changeup, but it's great to go back to the fall."

Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5 and on Instagram at @byeugenerapay.