CHAMPAIGN — Cliff Hastings received news last month every coach dreads hearing in 2020.
The veteran Parkland volleyball coach normally spends his fall guiding his Cobras into the perennial power they are, consistently reaching the NJCAA Division II national tournament and vying for national championships the week of Thanksgiving.
Those plans, obviously, were altered this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic that is forcing Parkland’s traditional fall season into a January start. And the pandemic has hit a bit too close to home for Hastings’ liking.
A little more than a week after Parkland started weight lifting and training sessions at the school’s fitness center, practices in the gym at Dodds Athletic Complex and study tables on campus in early September to give them a semblance of normalcy in a year that has featured anything but, the Cobras had to shut it all down.
The reason? A player started exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and ultimately tested positive for COVID-19.
The result? A pause in preparation for the upcoming season that is slated to start in about three months from now.
“The past few weeks were difficult for the girls from multiple perspectives,” Hastings said. “First, they were quarantined to their apartments for two weeks straight. It was a novel concept for 1-2 days, but then boredom dominated their lives.”
Watching movies and online shopping, along with academic work, took up most of their time, Hastings said.
But once they received letters from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District allowing them to physically return to campus, work began again last Sunday on the next volleyball season for the Cobras, who went 57-3 last season and took home national runner-up honors.
Parkland will most certainly not play 60 matches in its next season, but it still could contend for a national title. The NJCAA is planning on holding volleyball national championships from April 15-17, 2021, with practices able to start for the winter/spring season on Jan. 4, 2021.
“Overall, if things proceed in a positive direction, it should have the look and feel of a pretty normal season,” Hastings said. “But we aren’t able to have the same number of dates or matches we’ve had in the past as many states and conferences are only allowing in-state play and there won’t be any multiple-day tournaments with overnight stays.”
Last season, Parkland competed at tournaments in Perrysburg, Ohio, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Boone, Iowa, and Las Vegas. Those are all off the table now for the pandemic-affected season.
“Scheduling has been a beast because Iowa, Kansas and Michigan, for example, won’t let their college teams play or travel outside the state,” Hastings said. “So we will be playing a lot of Illinois teams this year in one-day triangular or single matches. It will feel different from past years, but we’re just so thankful to have a plan for a season at this point. We all know that this plan might change several more times, but it feels good to have something to plan for, if nothing else.”
Before the two-week pause the program experienced last month, Parkland had built somewhat of a routine — and is working on re-establishing this precedent — with its players from Sunday through Thursday after the NJCAA established teams could have 60 days worth of practices in a 90-day window.
Hastings initially opted to use all those days in September and October, but will adjust based on the recent quarantine experience the Cobras had to endure.
Still, the team holds study hours in a classroom underneath the Dodds Athletic Center from 3-4:30 p.m., followed by an hour of lifting at Parkland’s fitness center and then practice in the gym from 5:30-8 p.m.
All while wearing masks or face coverings for those activities.
“The college requires masks in classrooms for the study hours and in the fitness center for workouts, and then I require masks for practices as well,” Hastings said. “I am cherishing these 60 days, so in an effort to hold these 60 days as a gift, I felt keeping the mask requirement was the right thing in the gym, too. It’s not bad — just different.”
Other protocols that Hastings and the Cobras are doing amid the pandemic: cleaning and disinfecting all items they touch during a practice, along with symptom and temperature checks.
“They are just new elements,” Hastings said. “Nothing that gets in the way of having great practices.”
Practices, lifting and keeping their grades up are the only tangible items the Parkland volleyball team can do this fall to prepare for when they can actually play matches later this school year.
Of course, change is a constant at a two-year program like Parkland — and the Cobras already knew pre-pandemic they’d have to replace their top three offensive options from last season in Amanda Greening, St. Joseph-Ogden graduate Abigail Burnett and Ryleigh Warfel since they were out of eligibility.
But the changes the Cobras have had to navigate through the past three weeks is unlike anything Hastings has experienced in his 12 seasons in charge of Parkland.
It’s why he was grateful to get the chance to talk in person with his team — which features local products like Katie Kaiser (Unity), Ella Godsell (Unity) and Kayla Brandon (St. Thomas More) — earlier this past week after so much uncertainty.
“We had a focused conversation on turning this into a positive and providing them the opportunity to start again by redefining their work ethic, their leadership, their communication style and more,” Hastings said. “We talked a lot about defining the kind of individuals they want to be as well as the kind of group they want to be and how to accomplish that so it was a nice opportunity to stop, reassess and start again.”