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Athletic programs adapt to challenges in wake of pandemic

News Photo by James Andersen Alpena’s Kate Skiba, far right, hits a ball over the net during a volleyball match against Traverse City Central. Athletes in sports such as volleyball and soccer have had to adjust to wearing masks during games and practices in efforts to deter the spread of COVID-19.

ALPENA — No matter what her team’s record is at the end of the year, Melissa Doubek knows the 2020 season will be a memorable one.

Alpena High School’s longtime volleyball coach has been involved with the program for nearly 30 years, but it’s doubtful that any amount of ups-and-downs or wins and losses could have prepared Doubek for the challenges of this season.

“This is one of those years we’re always going to remember,” Doubek said. “We’re going to look back on it. We’re going to count our blessings that we got to play. Even if everything changes tomorrow, we got to play.”

This is the fall sports season in Northeast Michigan and in countless other districts around the state; a season where coaches, administrators, and athletes have had to adapt to continuous changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most athletes have to wear face coverings at all times during practices and games. Equipment is sanitized before and after practices and during games. Crowds are smaller because of social distancing guidelines, and those in attendance must also wear face coverings. Schedules have been changed and then changed again, including the football season, which was postponed to spring 2021 in mid-August and then reinstated in early September to happen this fall.

News Photo by Jonny Zawacki Alpena running back Charlie Williams (4) tries to avoid a Cadillac defender during a Big North Conference football game in Cadillac. To deter the spread of COVID-19, many football teams, including Alpena, have been wearing protective face shields during games.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride in a lot of ways, but athletic directors, coaches, and players say it’s all necessary if it gives athletes a chance to play.

“There are things you’ve got to do to make sure kids have a chance to play, but it’s the job,” Alpena Athletic Director Jon Studley said. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of hours, but, when you can sit and watch an athlete compete, it’s all worth it. We’re excited to be playing again, and the kids are following all the rules.”

It’s been nearly six months since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Michiganders to stay home unless absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced the cancellation of the 2020 spring sports season. Whitmer loosened restrictions for northern Michigan by Memorial Day, and has gradually begun lifting many other restrictions throughout the state.

The effects of COVID-19 have manifested differently, but every sport was affected in some way. Athletes were forced to work on their own and adapt different training regimens. Some went for runs around their communities. Some used home workout equipment to stay in shape.

But, without a proper training regimen, no summer camps to take part in, and no coaches on hand to offer guidance or encouragement, local coaches knew some athletes risked falling out of their rhythm or losing interest, no matter the sport.

Alpena’s Austin Townsend (13) battles for control of the ball during a soccer game at Park Family Field at Wildcat Stadium.

Some chose not to play because of their own personal concerns about COVID-19 while others took up different sports because some seasons, such as football, were in limbo until early September.

“I think you (potentially) lose a lot of them,” Alpena cross country coach Joy Bullis said. “They kind of lose interest because they’ve lost momentum … I feel like that definitely contributes to the lower numbers in all of our sports. Being a coach is so much more than being at practice. It’s offering encouragement. It’s frightening to think of someone with so much potential losing that heart.”

Even with increased safety measures, coaches and athletes are aware that an increase in the number of coronavirus infections could throw a monkey wrench into their seasons. Still, they’re happy to be competing, no matter how different it looks or feels.

Athletes aren’t taught to play sports with face coverings — such as masks — and, for many of them, playing with a mask on has been an adjustment.

While many football teams have ordered face shields players can wear on their helmets to keep players safe, other athletes, such as those in volleyball and soccer have had to get used to playing physically demanding sports with face coverings on.

Alpena boys soccer coach Tim Storch watches his team from the sidelines during a tournament. Coaches like Storch are required to wear masks on the sidelines during games.

“Wearing a mask while trying to do any form of exercise is challenging, let alone running and jumping for long periods of time,” Alpena senior volleyball player Allie DeRocher said. “Almost every aspect of the game looks different, from not slapping hands with the other team before and after games to not being able to embrace teammates when we celebrate points. It adds another element to the game that you have to adapt (to) and overcome.”

After the disappointment of missing out on softball this spring, DeRocher said she expected to miss volleyball, as well. When the MHSAA gave the go-ahead for volleyball to start last month, DeRocher and her teammates were determined to make the most of their chance to play, knowing that sports are helping to bring about a sense of normalcy in communities around the state.

“Overall, these past several months have really taught me not to take anything for granted,” DeRocher said. “I would’ve never guessed that a pandemic would have cancelled so many important events so quickly. Everything is so uncertain nowadays, and we’re super fortunate to be able to return back to sports.”

Some of the effects of COVID-19 — changing schedules and enforcement of social distancing guidelines — have been immediately evident. But other effects, such as an athlete’s development and a team’s ability to be competitive, may take longer to manifest, especially next spring, when many coaches may have to make up for lost time.

Ultimately, time will tell what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are on athletics.

Fans are pictured during a soccer game at Park Family Field at Wildcat Stadium.

“There could be a gap,” Alpena tennis coach Charlie Giordano said. “There’s going to be a gap in education, just like there’s going to be a gap in athletics.”

Alpena High School volleyball coach Melissa Doubek instructs her team during a timeout.

Alpena volleyball player Jade Gray waits on the opponent to serve during a volleyball match at Alpena High School.

A list of rules for spectators is displayed outside the Alpena High School gym.

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