As COVID-19 upends volleyball season, Tolleson, Phoenix Union districts improvise

Volleyball is underway for some Arizona high schools, including Desert Vista and Chandler, but others have had their seasons postponed or canceled because of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy Les Willsey/AZPreps365)

PHOENIX – Although the girls volleyball season began on Sept. 22 under the AIA’s modified guidelines, several schools will not be eligible for the postseason, including those in the Tolleson Union and Phoenix Union school districts.

The COVID-19 metrics were high for residents in his district, Phoenix Union Athletic Director Zachary Muñoz said, and many zip codes in the district were considered areas of high infection. So an alternative season was created that will start later.

“We were not in a place where we felt safe to compete,” Muñoz said. “We presented it to our district leadership, and I felt it was the right thing to do at that time to postpone until we were at a place where we felt it was safe to resume.”

Volleyball isn’t the only sport affected but its scheduling challenges are symbolic of those faced by all sports in those districts.

Of the 16 traditional high schools in the Phoenix Union district, which covers much of the Phoenix metropolitan area, 13 are located in zip codes falling in the highest measuring group of confirmed cases by the Arizona Department of Health Services, 1,000-plus. Carl Hayden High School falls in the 85009 zip code, which had the highest amount of cases in the state with 5,017.

The district made it a priority to find a way to play. Schools in Phoenix Union began opening practices on Oct. 1 for an alternative season that the district petitioned to the AIA.

“We will not be part of the state playoffs or championship tournament,” Muñoz said. “We will run our own inter-district playoffs. We’re partnering with Tolleson Union (School District) with some games, too, because they were kind of in the same boat.

“We’ve created our own league, I guess you could call it, and we’re going to compete within the schools in our district and then and do a little bit of competition with the Tolleson School District as well.”

Both districts have acknowledged the situation remains fluid.

In the Tolleson Unified School District, which consists of schools in Avondale, Tolleson, Glendale and west Phoenix, six of the seven high schools are located in zip codes with 1,000-plus confirmed cases.

Muñoz and other district board members had hoped that Phoenix Union teams would be able to compete with other AIA schools for a state championship, but they were happy to be able to at least have an option.

“We really didn’t want to have to do something separate,” Muñoz said. “But we did what was best and safe for our communities, and we have no regrets. Our hope was to stay with the fall season if we could, with the regular AIA season, but that just was not going to happen. We did the next best thing, and we created our own league to compete (within) our communities and our schools are happy that we’re able to bring sports back into a modified season.”

The Phoenix Union and Tolleson Union schools will begin their seasons as early as Oct. 27. The AIA has already deemed these teams as “postseason ineligible.”

In most of the rest of the state, the season began as planned, with certain adjustments.
Fred Mann, coach of the Perry Pumas, the 2019 6A runner-ups who began the season with a 6-0 record, believes his team has adapted well to the climate of playing volleyball during a pandemic.

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“(Our team is made up of) mostly juniors and seniors,” Mann said. “They’ve been playing for years and years pretty much all round. It was weird for them not to be playing volleyball for month after month. So, when our season started they were super excited to have the opportunity to play because it was touch and go whether we were going to be able to play or not this year.”

Mann’s squad has been strict about protocols. Notable practice modifications include the players scanning a QR code (a barcode that can be scanned with a smartphone to open up the linked website) every day, wearing masks and cleaning volleyballs.

During games even more protocols exist, such as players having to wear masks while on the bench and coaches always wearing them.

“There’s things that we’re doing (differently), but the alternative is not to be playing, which we don’t want,” Mann said.

Mann is not too concerned about opponents having to cancel games due to internal COVID-19 outbreaks, such as the outbreak with the Chaparral High School football team that caused them to cancel their Oct. 2 and Oct. 9 games.

“I don’t expect that at all,” Mann said. “However, you never know what could happen out there. We were not anticipating it, (but) there has been kind of a club or two that have gone all summer long, and they had no problems at all. So, I’m expecting that we won’t have issues, but in today’s climate, something could happen at any stage.”

Mann had his doubts about whether the season would be played. Not only do districts and the AIA have medical concerns, but they also have legal concerns that factored into the decision to play fall sports.

“We were really worried about it, especially when they had that spike,” Mann said. “The part that scares me the most is, (that there) is not only the potential health risks, but (there are) potential legal risks. If the AIA and school districts are susceptible to getting sued, it puts them in a position where they’re worried about the legal ramifications of something going wrong.”

The spike that Mann referred to was when the number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona jumped dramatically from about mid-May until late June.

Xavier Prep, one of Perry’s chief rivals in the 6A Premier Division and a 2019 6A quarterfinalist, has gotten off to a 4-2 start after launching its season nine days later than most other schools.

Gators coach Lamar-Renee Bryant said the private all-girls Catholic school had a different set of guidelines and protocols to adhere to than their public-school foes.

“Well, (our season) started a little bit later because the Diocese of Phoenix has the final say of what we do here at Xavier College Prep,” Bryant said. “So, the AIA started on (August) 31st for tryouts. We didn’t try out until September 9th, so we’re about a week behind everyone else. And we’re just trying to do the best we can to adhere to all the guidelines. We definitely have (slightly) stricter guidelines (from the Diocese).”

Bryant’s team has been strictly adhering to the protocols set out to them by both the AIA and the Diocese. Bryant explained how different practices have been for her girls.

“Oh, definitely maintaining social distance,” Bryant said. “We clean balls multiple times through practice. We wear masks when we’re setting up equipment and during our warmup. Pretty much almost everything is done differently. The only thing that’s not done differently is the effort. Effort is our focus. That kind of remains the same.”

Now that the season is underway, Bryant said she does not have any concerns about opponents canceling games for reasons other than breakouts at their school, but there was a lot of doubt among her and her team about whether they would play before the AIA made their final decision on fall sports.

“There was doubt,” Bryant said. “There was a lot of doubt, especially with the Diocese. I think the AIA had a plan, but the Diocese wanted a little bit more time. We were definitely not sure if we were going to be able to have a season.”

As the Gators continue their season, Bryant set simple and highly attainable expectations for her team.

“Our expectations are to follow all protocols that are put in front of us and to give maximum effort, and hopefully (we’ll) have some fun,” Bryant said.

Brandon Jones

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brandon Jones, a Detroit native who grew up in Seattle, expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a certificate in sales and marketing essentials.

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