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Can prep volleyball go on safely? NMAA thinks so

St. Pius celebrates its state championship over Albuquerque Academy last November at the Santa Ana Star Center. The NMAA hopes to play a regular season and even a state tournament, but with significant cautionary measures. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal )

There won’t be any major college volleyball in New Mexico this fall.

There will be – fingers crossed – high school volleyball.

It is one of three prep sports, along with golf and cross country, that the New Mexico Activities Association hopes to stage, each starting in early October.

And by then, there may, in fact, only be two substantive types of major team sports being contested in the state – New Mexico United soccer and high school volleyball.

But how can prep volleyball go forward safely while the colleges remain dark?

“There are major differences,” NMAA executive director Sally Marquez said. “In college, they are in a communal living situation. We are mostly single-family homes. And our scheduling is a lot easier for travel.”

High school practices are scheduled to begin on Oct. 5, with matches starting no sooner than Oct. 10.

The novel coronavirus remains a formidable obstacle, although it is trending in the right direction with a recent drop in cases.

La Cueva’s Sidney McIntosh, shown in action last September vs. Volcano Vista, is hopeful to play this fall. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“If you look at the (COVID) numbers, they suggest things would be reasonably safe,” longtime Las Cruces High coach Keith Leupold said. “I’d hate to see an outbreak, but I think we can avoid that. The numbers are dropping quite rapidly right now, (but) will they stay that way?”

Assuming for the moment that volleyball moves forward on schedule, the NMAA is preparing a meticulous set of safety protocols that schools will have to adhere to.

They are not yet set in stone, but the NMAA has been closely tracking some neighboring states. New Mexico seems likely to mimic some, or many, of the measures being utilized by Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, all of which are either already in season or are about to start within a couple of weeeks.

But, as the NMAA has been doing throughout this pandemic, it will continue to take its lead from the governor’s office in terms of what precise protocols will be installed.

Among the expected guidelines are these:

• Volleyballs (three for a match) will continually be wiped clean and disinfected throughout;

• Teams will not switch benches between sets;

• There will not be pregame or postgame handshakes;

• Everyone in the gym, including the athletes – at least, for now – will be in masks.

“If we’re able to play,” Cibola coach Christina Norton said, “I’m all for it.”

Players competing in masks would obviously be the most jarring visual.

“We have to practice in them (first), but when it comes down to it, I think we can play in masks,” said senior outside hitter and arguably the state’s top player, La Cueva’s Sidney McIntosh. “It’s nice to know they want us to play and make it safe to play. … We are the guinea pigs to see if (this) actually works.”

Olivia Andersh, Volcano Vista rising senior, says she is OK with masks and is eager to get back on the volleyball court. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

“I’m willing to do anything. If we have to wear a mask, that’s fine,” added Volcano Vista senior hitter Olivia Andersh.

As for whether the season will begin in October, among the players, not everyone is convinced that the season will go off as currently planned. McIntosh said she doesn’t believe there will be a full season. “Cautiously optimistic” is a phrase oft-repeated among coaches; players are perhaps slightly more pessimistic.

“That’s what we all talk about, that it’s probably not gonna happen,” said Andersh. “Not in October, but maybe during the spring. (But) I feel lucky to play volleyball. I think we have a better chance of having a season, unlike sports that are more contact.”

Sandia Prep fifth-year senior libero Kirschtin Kinberger is of a like mind.

“I don’t think so, personally,” she said, asked if she thought the season would occur this fall. “We’re still hoping that spring happens.”

Early October creeps ever closer, and the questions, like an object in a rear-view mirror, become larger by the day.

“Can we have a full season without any incidents?” Norton asked. “And can our student-athletes do the right thing?”

Said Leupold: “It’s a crapshoot.”

FANS: Marquez said she believes 25 percent of a gym’s capacity is “manageable” for the volleyball season, but state government will have to give their go-ahead for spectators before the NMAA can even think about moving forward.

“First and foremost, we are making sure we are able to get kids back into the classroom,” she said.

If fans are allowed, digital ticketing would be likely, and fans would be subject to temperature checks. Also, Marquez said, schools would mark bleachers to direct fans where to sit.

STATE TOURNAMENT: There won’t be double elimination at state this year, as has been previously reported.

For the eight-team fields in Classes 5A through 1A, the quarterfinals will be held at home campuses on Dec. 4 or 5.

The semifinals and championship matches will be held the week of Dec. 7. The semis will be played early that week at the Santa Ana Star Center – which will reduce the number of courts it uses from four to two.

Since there are no overnight stays permitted, teams who travel here from far outside the metro area will have to return home after the semis, then come back to Rio Rancho for the title match at the end of that week.

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