Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion                                 Juniors Alyssa Nunley (white shirt) and Rylee Ellis work out with the rest of their volleyball teammates Thursday at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski.

Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Juniors Alyssa Nunley (white shirt) and Rylee Ellis work out with the rest of their volleyball teammates Thursday at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski.

Yearning to go back

Nikiski volleyball seniors talk about how they’re coping with pandemic’s disruptions

In a normal year, the Nikiski volleyball team would have spent this week in the gym getting ready for the 13th annual Shayna Pritchard Memorial Tournament.

Instead, the Bulldogs’ practice was rained out Wednesday.

“I felt so bad when I told them we were going outside,” Nikiski volleyball coach Stacey Segura said. “I told them I’m so sorry. I know they didn’t sign up for conditioning and exercising, and I didn’t sign up to coach that.

“It’s discouraging in our job as the coaching staff at Nikiski, but we’re trying to stay positive.”

The Bulldogs are practicing outside because the central Kenai Peninsula went to high-risk level Aug. 18.

Both the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Alaska School Activities Association use the number of COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period to determine risk levels.

At high-risk level, teams can’t have competitions and are limited to outdoor conditioning with 10 feet of space between all athletes.

Indoor practices are possible, but come with more restrictions. Nikiski had a mitigation plan approved and can return to the gym Monday, but only 12 players and a coach are allowed in the gym. No equipment can be used.

Being at high-risk level is just one more disruption for players on the team. Last spring, the new coronavirus pandemic stopped sports completely and closed schools. This summer, ASAA rules meant players were outside conditioning instead of in the gym playing volleyball.

That changed Aug. 5, when volleyball practice started and players were once again allowed to play volleyball. That lasted less than two weeks.

In the meantime, players also had to start school remotely and deal with all the other stress the coronavirus is putting on households. Despite it all, seniors Rosalie Anderson, Lillian Carstens and Savannah Ley said they are weathering the changes brought by the virus as well as can be expected.

Grocery store instead of a basketball floor

On March 13, just 5 1/2 months ago but seeming much longer ago than that, Carstens had six points and 13 rebounds as the Nikiski girls basketball team defeated Kenai Central 37-25 at the Southcentral Conference Tournament at Anchorage Christian Schools to earn a trip to the Class 3A state basketball tournament.

Already, events were churning that would quickly overshadow the accomplishment.

Also March 13, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced schools would be closed until March 30 to contain the new coronavirus outbreak. They would remain closed the rest of the year. March 14, ASAA canceled the state basketball tournament.

“All the seniors are my friends,” Carstens said. “Not getting that last quarter with them was hard for me. Their graduation was just in our cars, and it didn’t seem as special.

“It was also hard not to have soccer. That’s just like a fun sport for me, but I’m super sad I didn’t get to do it this year.”

Anderson said she wasn’t looking forward to soccer that much, but indoor practices had started before March 13 and they had stoked her interest.

“I couldn’t hang out with all my friends during soccer and go on fun trips,” Anderson said. “We were planning to go to Juneau last year. When all those trips were canceled, it was really disappointing.”

By the time Carstens learned she had been named a first-team all-state Class 3A basketball player on April 1, she had already taken a job at Kenai Safeway that she would hold through the summer.

“I got bored really fast with online school and no sports,” she said.

Remote emergency learning

Anderson, Carstens and Ley all excel in the classroom. In addition to having to radically adjust their social lives, they had to alter their academic lives as well.

Ley said the transition to remote emergency learning wasn’t that bad. Anderson and Carstens found the switch harder.

“It was OK,” Anderson said. “I ended up getting decent grades, but it just wasn’t the same. I felt like I wasn’t able to learn as much online.

“I tend to learn a lot better when the teacher is there to converse with and ask questions.”

Carstens said she is not a big fan of computers as it is. Throw in the fact that teachers had little time to prepare, and Carstens said her education suffered.

“I learned a little, but not as much as I needed to,” she said. “I’ll have to make up for that this year.”

Summer offers no break from virus

ASAA had restrictions on summer workouts as well. The school district required each coach to submit a mitigation plan for holding practices. Nikiski’s summer volleyball program turned into an outdoor conditioning program where volleyballs were nowhere to be found.

Ley was visiting her mother in Wyoming for the summer, but gained an appreciation of her coach from afar.

“Stacey Segura had to submit multiple plans to the district to try and get workouts,” Ley said. “I appreciate that she really cares about the sport and wanted us to get together to do some team bonding.”

In an odd way, Anderson said the summer workouts prepared the athletes as much for practicing in the coronavirus era as they did for volleyball itself.

“We had to come in and get our temperatures checked and get asked questions,” Anderson said of the symptom check. “In workouts we were 20 feet apart and we had to wear masks when we came in, when we left and when we weren’t doing physical activity.”

Carstens had a big summer planned. She was going to help take her sister, Bethany, to school at University of Nevada, Reno. That didn’t happen because the two-week quarantine upon return would have forced her to miss volleyball and basketball workouts. All the basketball and volleyball camps Carstens had planned on attending did not happen, either.

The dentist can wait

Aug. 5, with the central peninsula at medium-risk level, players were able to go back into the gym and play volleyball again on the first day of practice.

“It was so nice,” Ley said. “It was such a great outlet to be around friends and to do something you love. At the end of the day, everyone in the gym really wants to be there.

“There was a lot of fun and a lot of laughter, because we were getting better at the sport we love.”

Sure, there were still masks, temperature checks, symptom checks, social distancing measures and sanitized balls.

“We didn’t mind because we got to play volleyball,” Ley said.

Then 12 cases were reported on the central peninsula on Aug. 16, putting the area on the verge of going to red — high risk. Another 14 cases Aug. 18 meant the central peninsula was solidly red.

“I remember we kind of knew we would probably be going into red,” Ley said. “I actually canceled a dentist appointment because I thought it could end up being our last practice.”

Ley was right. After Aug. 18, the Bulldogs were sent outside.

“It was nice getting to hit a volleyball, then they told us we couldn’t anymore and it was the worst feeling in the world,” Carstens said. “When my coach told us, she tried to get us to play this game. She looked at me and we both started crying.”

Segura said she’s been through a lot as coach, from lows and injuries to the ultimate high of winning the Class 3A state title in 2018. She had never experienced anything like Aug. 18.

“It was just different, the atmosphere was just different,” she said. “I told them we wouldn’t be in the gym and it was like they just lost hope.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my senior season and this thing is taking up so much of my life and my time.’ That’s the constant thing about the coronavirus.”

Change in perspective

While practicing outside on a football field with no nets in sight would have been inconceivable a year ago, Anderson said she is happy the team is still able to at least get together.

“We can still talk to each other, we just have to yell a little bit,” Anderson said.

Nikiski had a mitigation plan approved for getting back into the gym Monday, but just 12 players and a coach will be allowed at one time and no balls can be used. Cases also have fallen in recent days, putting the central peninsula on the verge of the medium-risk level and returning to competitions.

Segura has been running the outdoor practices three times a week, and she said about 10 players of the 35 total in the program do not show up for practice.

If the players do get back in the gym practicing and playing games, they said they will have a new appreciation for what it means. Carstens said 2 1/2-hour practices used to seem long to her, but right now she would appreciate every moment of those 2 1/2 hours.

Ley said happiness on the court is usually measured in how the team finishes at conference and state, but this year the measure of success will be more how many games and practices the team gets.

“Our big deal at Nikiski is we win some and we lose some, but we’re always family,” Ley said. “That’s the team quote we live by every season. This season, in the global pandemic and its struggles, we’ll be happy as long as we’re in the gym and playing.”

Still, some moments hurt more than others. Carstens said missing the Shayna Pritchard Memorial Tournament on Friday and Saturday is tough.

This would have been the 13th annual tournament. It raises money for a scholarship in honor of Pritchard, a 2007 Nikiski graduate who died in a Colorado car crash in June 2007.

“It’s a really meaningful tournament for us,” Carstens said. “All of the community comes and watches the games. It’s really sad we don’t get to have that tradition this year.”

Back to school

The three also started 100% remote learning Monday because schools are closed to on-site learning until at least Sept. 8 due to the high-risk level.

“I think it’s a lot smoother,” Anderson said. “They’re trying their hardest to make sure it works well for everybody, no matter their situation. Some don’t have good internet out here.

“If we do end up in school, they’re trying to make that a smooth transition as well.”

Ley said the remote learning was good in the spring, but it even better this school year.

“Every teacher at Nikiski is good at finding the individual needs of each student and meeting them the best they can,” she said. “It’s going even more smoothly than last year.”

Even so, Carstens said she can hear the clock ticking on her senior year.

“For all the seniors, we just want to have a fun senior year, with all the dances and events and everything,” she said. “Last year, we didn’t have prom. It’s frustrating.”

The stress brought by the virus also doesn’t stop at the household door. Carstens said her father, Dan, has been working a lot of late nights in his role as a Niksiki principal trying to iron out all the changes brought by the virus.

Segura is home-schooling her kindergartner and first grader this year because her family didn’t want to deal with the instability of schools closing down, then opening again.

“Both kids really wanted to go to school,” she said. “I had tears in my eyes when I told the kindergarten teacher, ‘I feel terrible, but this is what’s best for my family.’”

Segura said she has no idea what households are doing when both parents work. Segura is home-schooling her nephew, as well, because the parents both work.

“It’s a lot,” she said. “It’s very stressful on a household, even with young kids. It’s stressful for the kids, too. They can see it as well.”

‘I just really want to go back to school’

Despite the tough times, the three said they are coping with the disruptions.

“It’s definitely on some days, ‘Is it even worth it?’” Ley said. “Especially seniors. This is our senior year.

“The whole thing is really unfortunate but you have to have a positive outlook. You can’t spend all your time complaining and being upset about something you can’t control at all.”

The three said being around people helps. That’s why even the outdoor conditioning practices have been so helpful.

But hanging in there is different than thriving.

“I just really want to go back to school, that’s pretty much all I want. To go back to school and play volleyball,” Anderson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed school this much, ever.”

Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion                                 Nikiski senior Sydney Epperheimer and her volleyball teammates work out Thursday at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski.

Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Nikiski senior Sydney Epperheimer and her volleyball teammates work out Thursday at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski.

Nikiski junior Bryli Mullin stretches during a volleyball workout Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski junior Bryli Mullin stretches during a volleyball workout Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski volleyball coach Stacey Segura leads a workout Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski volleyball coach Stacey Segura leads a workout Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at the football field at Nikiski High School in Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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