‘I have felt pretty safe all along:’ Volleyball team prepares for shortened season with new protocols

Outside hitter, Anna Dixon, bumps the ball. The Wildcats defeated the Horned Frogs in five sets in Ahearn Field House on Nov. 2, 2019. (File Photo by Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

When practice came to a close on Tuesday, the volleyball team managers gathered the remaining volleyballs off the floor and started rubbing them down with a sanitized towel — one of the many safety procedures the team is adapting to due to COVID-19. Players and coaches were all wearing masks and sanitizing stations lined the tunnel in Bramlage Coliseum.

It’s the new normal.

Head coach Suzie Fritz has not been worried since practice started back up this fall. Outside of the visual changes, practices run normally. Fritz ultimately had trust in the Big 12 Conference and Kansas State to provide her players and staff with a safe environment to compete in.

“I have felt pretty safe all along,” Fritz said after practice on Tuesday. “I think we knew from an institutional perspective and the Big 12 perspective that there would be pretty significant measures in place to protect the safety of student athletes. I didn’t have any major concerns with that, but a lot of that is still evolving”

Practice is now in full swing and redshirt junior defensive specialist Jacque Smith realized early on that the adjustments were not going to be as tough as expected.

“Honestly, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be because our team is very adaptable,” Smith said.

The Big 12 is trying to cut down on potential exposure to COVID-19 with a new scheduling format. Last week, the conference announced it would be having a 16-match season, but instead of having all home-home match-ups, the matches would be in double-header format. By doing this style of scheduling, teams will be on the road four times this season, rather than eight.

Even though Fritz wasn’t thrilled by the idea at first, she said she understands why it had to be done.

“I think the biggest thing it does that helps us is there’s pretty significant travel reduction,” she said. “Now, instead of going on the road eight times, we’ll go on the road four times. So, I think just from that perspective, it certainly decreases the likelihood of exposure.”

With only 16 matches and no non-conference opponents to prepare for a conference title push, both Fritz and Smith know the importance of getting off to a hot start when the season begins in three weeks.

“Non-conference always helps the team, but I think it gives us a sense of urgency knowing we have 16 games and we have to go into every game and do our best every time,” Smith said. “I think [it’ll be more intense] just because we play back-to-back now. I think we’ll know more about each other, so I think it’ll be more intense the second time around for sure.”

Fritz said in order for the team to be the most prepared they can be for the season-opener, the team is doing weekly intrasquad scrimmages to get up to game speed.

“You won’t be able to ease into anything, you’ll have to be ready to go when it’s time to go,” Fritz said. “We’ve been playing, at the end of each week, intrasquad scrimmages because we feel like that’s the best we can do given the situation. On Friday and Saturday’s every week we basically try to line up and create as competitive of an environment as we can against each other without fans.”

Fritz was extremely pleased with the team’s performance prior to the start of classes. However, she felt like the team’s overall focus has slipped some since classes began — something she has learned to deal with over the years.

“I felt like we were really, really good in the segment up until classes began. I think that’s pretty common. Once classes begin and they take on that role of genuinely being a student athlete, then it’s more difficult,” Fritz said. “Their time demands are more significant and we ask a great deal of them. Their focus is a lot of different places, they aren’t necessarily getting as much rest, both stress and anxiety levels I think go up in terms of academic accomplishments.”

Even with the drop in focus, Smith still believes the team will be ready by the season’s start.

“I think we are really prepared for this season,” she said.

The Wildcats are scheduled to start the season against Iowa State at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 25. Unlike last season, all volleyball matches will be played inside Bramlage Coliseum.