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Confusion, frustration over 'high-risk' designation for high school volleyball

Volleyball has been deemed higher-risk by New York

Volleyball has been deemed higher-risk by New York state while sports such as soccer and field hockey are considered lower-risk. Credit: TIM ROSKE/Tim Roske

The issues surrounding the return of high school fall sports during the coronavirus pandemic have been nothing short of a quagmire. But no sport seems more stuck in the mud than volleyball.

Though it has nowhere near the level of contact as football or lacrosse, it has been designated by New York state among the higher-risk sports that likely are last in line to be cleared to play. That designation has many players, coaches and parents upset enough to write letters to state and local education officials and start online petitions. They don’t see how volleyball brings more risk than soccer and field hockey, which were deemed lower risk and have been cleared by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to be among the first sports to start playing in the fall.

“The initial reaction was a little bit of shock, I have to say,” said Matt Rivera, Sachem North boys volleyball coach and president of the Suffolk boys volleyball coaches association. “We expected to be low- or moderate-risk. Then we got categorized with football and lacrosse, which everyone expected would be called high-risk sports.”

“People are up in arms and that designation for volleyball could be the triggering event,” Pierson girls volleyball coach Donna Fischer said. “There is frustration because everyone wants to play.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations put out guidance and protocols in May for the phased return of high school sports. It classified volleyball as a moderate risk sport with the caveat that players wearing masks and appropriate cleaning of equipment, such as the volleyballs, could then classify it as low risk.

Then on the morning of Aug. 24, Gov. Cuomo issued guidance to bring fall sports back with the lower-risk ones – he specifically named tennis, soccer, cross country, field hockey and swimming – beginning practice and play on Sept. 21 if deemed safe by local education officials.

Later that day, his office issued further guidance with two very separate instructions that left some confused. It said that higher-risk sports – named as football, lacrosse and volleyball – may begin practicing on Sept. 21 as well, but cannot play games until a later date or Dec. 31 and are restricted to "individual or group, no- to low-contact training.” 

To the volleyball community, the morning news started a confusing day since their sport wasn't included with tennis, soccer, cross country, field hockey and swimming. The later guidance was the crusher. State rules take precedent.

“A lot of the coaches I talk to are extremely upset,” said Toni Mulgrave, girls coach at Bayport-Blue Point and the president of the Suffolk girls volleyball coaches association. “There is a feeling that volleyball is no more high-risk than soccer or field hockey or mostly any other sport.”

But Cuomo and his staff had their reasons. 

“Volleyball is considered higher-risk due to use of a single shared ball, the density of players on a relatively small court, and the regular face-to-face contact between players [at the net],” Cuomo administration spokesman Jack Sterne said. “We continue to follow the science and work with experts to determine when higher-risk sports can safely resume competitive play. . . . Thanks to New Yorkers’ sacrifices, we have achieved — and so far maintained — one of the lowest infection rates in the country, and while we understand and share student-athletes’ disappointment at a delayed season, our guidelines are focused squarely on keeping New Yorkers safe and protecting that progress.”

It's much bigger right now in Suffolk (Section XI) than in Nassau (Section VIII). Section VIII announced last week it will not play sports in the fall and instead hold three seasons from January to June. Section XI is following the statewide guidance.

Suffolk's high school volleyball teams will be able to begin practices with the state restrictions on Sept. 21, but as Mulgrave pointed out “while most other fall sports will be getting a schedule of games to play in September, we will be trying to practice under [thus far] unspecified rules with no starting date.”

“There’s a lot of information that’s needed and until we get it, it’s like we’re on an island,” Rivera said. “If we are limited to individual instruction and small groups, there will be no six-on-six. It could look more like the drills at a clinic.”

He said his players see practicing as a glass-is-half-full measure because they saw classmates who weren’t even able to be together when the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year wiped out spring sports.

The last big part of the volleyball conundrum is that the fall season ends on Nov. 26, and there is no set date for competition to begin before that. If that day comes and goes without play beginning, it’s a lost season.

There had been some discussion among coaches and some administrators about making volleyball a spring sport for this year in Suffolk, but nothing came of it. Mulgrave said she has told members of her association to work as hard as possible to get their teams ready and hope for an October date to start competition.

“We know that the fall season is going to end on Nov. 26,” she said. “We don’t want a situation where if you got to play a few games it was great and if you didn’t our season is over. . . . But right now we have no start date and feel a little caught in the middle.”

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