Volleyball coaches, players dealing with MSHSL decision
Park Rapids head coach Christine Sauer disappointed, but understands why volleyball was moved to the spring.
After having a productive summer, Christine Sauer was looking forward to beginning her second season as the head coach of the Park Rapids volleyball team.
Sauer’s enthusiasm for her second year as the Panthers’ head coach will have to wait since the Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors pushed the start of the volleyball season from the fall to the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Sauer and her players, it’s a strange feeling not being in the gym when fall sports began practicing on Monday, Aug. 17.
“This is the first time in over 21 years that I will not step onto the volleyball court this fall as a player or coach. It is incredibly strange,” said Sauer, who led the Panthers to a 23-8 record and a trip to the Section 8AA championship match last season. “I had a difficult time Sunday night (Aug. 16) going to bed knowing that I wouldn't be waking up and heading to practice. But you know what? I woke up Monday and life continued, and that is so important for our athletes to remember. Life doesn't go as planned and things will continue to change around us. It's not what happens to us that matters, it's how we react. Yes it's strange and yes I want to be in the gym, but I am not going to let it get my athletes, coaches or myself down, but rather use it as a time to reflect and become more motivated to get back in the gym.”
Sauer was looking forward to starting the season after a very productive summer.
Even with guidelines of having only a maximum of nine players on the court at a time with no ball sharing, Sauer and assistant coaches Ellie Riihiluoma and Katelyn Seehafer saw the players making progress. Summer practices featured four groups meeting for 90 minutes a day, four days a week starting in the middle of June.
“I was so proud of this summer. It was not easy, but it was so worth it,” said Sauer. “I was shocked how many girls wanted to practice. My JV and C squad coaches were in the gym for four back-to-back sessions Monday through Thursday. We wanted to be there if the girls were willing to come, and they did. We improvised big time with what we could do, but it worked.”
When the regulations changed to allow up to 25 players in the gym at one time, Sauer changed her practices to two two-hour sessions Monday through Wednesday. Even though more players were allowed in the gym, there were still strict restrictions in place, such as taking temperatures daily, answering COVID-19 symptoms questions, wearing a mask between physical activities and sanitizing balls between sessions.
“Not one athlete ever complained. We had over 40 girls commit to our summer practices. That was over 90% of our returning program players,” said Sauer. “We were able to do a lot of ‘normal’ things in July. This will be very strange waiting our season out until spring. I am going to turn it positive though and continue to use it as a form of motivation; something to look forward to.”
Sauer remembers the day the MSHSL made the decision to move volleyball to the spring.
The team was practicing at the time and Sauer was following the board meeting on Twitter.
“I was mentally prepared for either our season was going to be canceled or our season was going to be on with restrictions. When I found out that the board couldn't make a joint decision and multiple options were voted on, my stomach was twisting and turning. My heart was sinking a bit as I saw the vote didn't pass to have our normal season in fall,” said Sauer. “When the vote went through to have our season in the spring starting in mid-March, there were many emotions that were flying through my head at a rapid-fire pace. It was quite overwhelming to be processing the decision while simultaneously telling the girls that we wouldn't be in the gym August 17. I was expecting that we would have our fall season with only varsity and limited travel. This spring I am guessing it will be something different. One thing I have learned through this pandemic we are living through is to stop guessing what is going to happen and try your best to live in the moment.”
With the majority of the team in the gym at the time of the announcement, Sauer was impressed with how her players handled the news.
“These girls are tough. Over 90% of the (grades) 7-12 program was in our high school gym for the announcement as we were having summer practice. They knew the announcement was coming, but like me, they didn't know what it would be. Although the girls had different reactions that were visible, I think overall most were disappointed, but understood the ‘why’ and accepted it and are motivated to prepare for the spring season,” said Sauer. “It amazed me the motivation from many of them. There were girls that literally five minutes after we were done speaking and practice was done came up to me and said: ‘Coach Sauer, how can we get into the gym before the season starts?’ This makes me so happy to see where our program is going. To see the dedication from the girls this summer to their response to the MSHSL Board decision, these girls are resilient and motivated. The message that I gave the girls was their fall would look different, but that it was going to be OK. I really emphasized that it's not the difficult things we go through that define who we become, but rather how we respond to those difficult things is a testament of our character.”
The MSHSL has permitted volleyball teams to practice this fall with a maximum number of 12 training sessions between Sept. 14 and Oct. 3. The regular season won’t begin until mid-March right after the completion of the winter sports season. No tournaments will be allowed during the season. A decision on whether or not to hold section tournaments and a state tournament will be made at a later date.
“I will always be supportive of athletes playing multiple sports. If girls are in winter sports, their priority is finishing their winter sport and focusing on that and starting volleyball when winter has finished,” said Sauer, who hasn’t decided whether to take advantage of the optional fall training sessions. “I hope there is a chance for playoffs. It's hard to have a season without the thought of playoffs. I think that is an important part of the season. I am optimistic that the girls will get an opportunity to be a part of everything that goes with being on a team and we will have a great season.”