As has become the norm with sports and the new coronavirus pandemic, everything looked the same on the volleyball court Thursday night at Nikiski High School, but nothing looked the same off the court.
The disparity was punctuated by players using hand sanitizer when subbing into and out of the match, almost as if they were stepping into another world.
Under a week ago, the Nikiski and Kenai Central volleyball teams were still practicing outdoors, spaced 10 feet apart, and doing only conditioning.
Over the weekend, the central peninsula dropped enough COVID-19 cases that the area went from high-risk level to medium-risk level. This meant the central peninsula could now hold practices with limited contact and limited sharing of equipment.
It also meant competitions could be scheduled. The Bulldogs and Kardinals capitalized with the first indoor high school sports event held on the central peninsula since the pandemic closed down schools last spring. Visiting Kenai defeated Nikiski 25-19, 25-15 and 25-13.
“It was nice to be in the gym,” Nikiski coach Stacey Segura said. “What I kept reminding the girls, especially when they started getting in little ruts, was just to remember that they’re playing, have fun and do the best they can.”
While the play on the court looked like what a spectator would see before the pandemic, spectators had a different experience off the court.
Nikiski athletic director Dylan Hooper said the bleachers were limited to 85 spectators, allowing fans to social distance according to household groups or other pods, such as the football team pod. Hooper said all parents were able to get into the match and only a few spectators were turned away.
The match also was streamed on the Nikiski Middle-High School Facebook page.
Fans had their temperatures checked and answered screening questions at the door to the high school. Fans also were required to wear masks.
Before the match, Dan Carstens, Nikiski principal, thanked the fans for taking the time to come out and support the teams while following all of the COVID-19 mitigation measures.
The match featured two of the top three finishers at the Class 3A tournament last season.
The Kardinals have four returners from a team that finished second at state. Kardinals coach Tracie Beck said she could see evidence her team had just three indoor practices in the last two weeks.
The coach said Kenai’s strong hitting and serving was able to carry the day against hustling, hard-working Bulldogs.
This match was about more than that, though.
“The biggest thing coming into this is kids just want a little bit of peace and normal,” Beck said. “It doesn’t feel normal when you’re trying to coach through a mask, kids are sitting with masks and sanitizing, but at least it’s some piece of normal.”
The Bulldogs were third in the state and lost a lot of key contributors from that team.
“My expectation for the way the girls handled themselves was a lot better than I expected, and I mean that in the most positive way possible,” Segura said. “We had three returning starters on the court, and only two whenever Lillian (Carstens) is off.
“We had a lot of girls new to varsity time and with zero time on the varsity bench because they’ve been behind a solid, big group of players.”
Segura said the players kept a positive attitude, showing the team will only get better. While play looked normal on the court, Segura said things like wearing masks on the bench and sanitizing when subbing in and out add to stress.
“What looked normal was stressful for the kids,” Segura said. “We had one of the girls playing with a mask. She forgot to take it off.”
It is common for a player to sub onto the court right before having to serve.
“They’re nervous and probably taking too much sanitizer and having it drip off their hands,” Beck said. “The jerseys are not meant to wick from the outside to the inside. We’ll do what we have to so these kids can play.”
Beck said the Kards have five seniors and she has to be able to look them in the eye and say she’s doing everything she can for them to get out on the floor and be safe.
Hooper said putting on a volleyball match made him as tired as putting on a big wrestling tournament, while Segura said coaching with a face shield was challenging.
“It was just weird as a coaching staff having face coverings and trying to yell at these kids,” she said. “It’s not very comfortable, but we’re doing the best we can so these kids can have an opportunity to play.”
Kaylee Lauritsen had 20 assists and five aces for the Kards, while Abby Every had 15 digs, eight kills, five stuff blocks and five aces. Also for Kenai, Andie Galloway had 13 digs, Bethany Morris had 13 kills and 13 digs, Erin Koziczkowski had six kills and Emma Beck had five kills.
Jaycee Tauriainen had seven assists for Nikiski, while Emma Lakin had six assists. Carstens and Savannah Ley had five kills, while Alyssa Nunley had four kills. Rosalie Anderson had 15 digs, while Lakin had 11 digs.
Nikiski plays at Soldotna today at 6 p.m., with restrictions on spectators once again in place. SoHi athletic director Kyle McFall said Thursday he is hoping to stream the match, as well as Saturday’s football game, on the SoHi Athletics Facebook page.