Sanitize and sip.
That’s what NorthWood girls soccer coach Tom Shields keeps stressing his players during every water break he gives his team. He’s hoping the alliteration will help remind his players to stay as clean as possible when practicing for the upcoming soccer season.
“They’re doing a really good job at it; there’s a couple that we have to get on every once in a while, but it’s not really difficult,” Shields said.
Among the non-football fall sports, soccer and volleyball appear to face the biggest challenges in terms of staying safe amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. For soccer specifically, there’s more direct contact between players when fighting for possession of the soccer ball, groupings of players near the goal for corner kicks and high-fives during celebrations of goals.
For the first two weeks, the IHSAA has allowed schools to practice, there has been a no-contact rule. This limits teams in what they’re allowed to do.
Assistant coach Micah Miller rolls the soccer balls, while fellow assistant Vincent Baltazar sprays them with the sanitizer.
“Not being able to do any type of contact has been the biggest problem,” Northridge boys soccer coach Lawrence Baltazar said. “You can only do so many ball work or passing or dribbling [drills].”
These past two weeks have been called “Phase One” by the IHSAA. Phase Two can begin Monday, but most Elkhart County schools have announced they will not advance to the second phase due to health concerns. Instead, schools will stay in Phase One until the end of the month, with the potential to move into Phase Two on Aug. 3.
For soccer, this means that Elkhart County schools cannot scrimmage against each other. This is a big loss for a young team like the NorthWood girls.
“We’ve got to be able to scrimmage to figure out what kind of formations we’re going to use,” Shields said. “We’ve got girls that have never played, so we have to get them into a game situation to show them exactly what to do. We’re going to be behind the 8-ball if we don’t stay focused in what we’re doing right now.”
While not being able to scrimmage will also put the Northridge boys behind others, Baltazar isn’t worried about his team being ready for the season. With 16 seniors on the roster, he’s confident in his players’ ability to get back into the swing of things quickly.
“It would’ve been much tougher had it been a normal year where the classes were a little more evenly distributed, but having such a heavy senior class and strong leadership has made it quite easier,” Baltazar said.
Volleyball is the only indoor fall sport, which could make the playing of the sport even more difficult. For now, though, volleyball is continuing to get ready for a fall season, which means practices are happening across the state.
“I think the girls are motivated,” Wawasee volleyball coach Jeff Phillips said. “Obviously, they haven’t been able to do anything for a while, so it’s a little bit easier to get them active in practice.”
Wawasee is located in Kosciusko County, meaning the school can move into Phase Two of its comeback plan next week. This will allow the volleyball team to scrimmage and practice more. For the first two weeks, they were limited to only two days a week of practice.
There will be some COVID-related restrictions if games are played. The most notable one will be teams will not switch benches after every set, with minimal exceptions. There also won’t be a coin toss to determine who serves first, as the visiting team will always serve first.
Concerns over players giving high-fives and hugging after each point have been raised, but Phillips thinks that’s a non-issue.
“There’s six people within a 30-by-30 square for two hours; it doesn’t really matter if they high-five or not,” Phillips said. “I think some of those things are probably more of a gray area, where some of those (other) changes probably are good ideas.”
When asked if he thought a season would happen, Phillips said “no.” He also knows that it’s not his decision either, so he has to continue to get his team ready as if there will be a season.
“We’re going to do what we do with the expectation that we’re going to make it all the way through state tournament time,” Phillips said. “We’ll deal with it when and if something changes.”
Shields also expressed doubt of a season being contested. He just hopes all the safety and health protocols that have been put in place will allow for a season to happen.
“We’ve talked before that if we want to continue what we’re doing, we have to do this,” Shields said. “I think they’ve got the grasp of it and they just want to play; they’re itching for it.”
Baltazar has been close to this year’s senior class since they were nine years old because his son, Vincent, is in the class. After back-to-back seasons of losing in the regional finals, Northridge is motivated to make it beyond the regional round. To not have the chance would be even more painful.
“It’s right there. They want another shot at it,” Baltazar said. “They really believe they can go all the way, and to not be given that chance after playing together since they were nine years old is going to be a very difficult pill to swallow for everybody, including myself.”