Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) and its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee released its guidelines and recommendations for sports and activities last summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fall sports at Rock Bridge have seen a significant change in abiding by these guidelines. As COVID-19 continues to impact academics and sports, the viability of several sports’ seasons is under question, especially with the recent positive COVID-19 cases in the Rock Bridge sports community.
Like most sports, the RBHS cross country team has been working to adjust to the requirements that will allow for their season to proceed safely and keep student athletes at low risk for contracting COVID-19.
Following protocol to keep students safe is a challenge when it comes to meets, even with runners being outside and easily able to social distance during normal practice. Normally the team practices five days a week. During practice, runners are required to wear masks and social distance when possible.
“We have had athletes quarantine, train by themselves, ride to competition with parents in some cases, take temps every day,” coach Neal Blackburn said, “essentially [cross country athletes] live in the masks when not running.”Sophomore Morgan Sexten talked about the team’s structure and plan for this year. “Coach Blackburn has a Google Classroom and Google Sheet set up so we are able to transition to fully virtual practices whenever we need to, everyone has their temperature checked before entering the pavilion.”
The CDC’s guidelines have not only changed the way practices are run, but also altered the way the race events have proceeded over the course of the season. Sexten said that she new racing would be limited this year so she was thankful for any opportunity she got to compete.
This year, cross country races have wave starts to limit the number of teams on the starting line; only 3-4 teams race at a time. Spectators, if allowed, are limited to two per athlete and masks are required.
“Spectators aren’t always allowed,” junior Gillian Barrett said. “So when normally you’d have people cheering you on, it would be a lot quieter on the course.”
The events and meets have changed to only regional schools and the JV team had to end the season early due to a limited number of people able to participate in meets.
“COVID-19 has really changed our sport,” coach Neal Blackburn said. “We don’t get to cheer for teammates, have coaching specific opportunities for every athlete competing and mostly have been denied any kind of crowd.”
Softball is one sport that is seeing limited pandemic-related damage, in addition to their so-far undefeated season. Senior Margo Frossard said that the complications of the pandemic haven’t majorly impacted the team’s season.
“We haven’t had any schedule changes that are related to COVID-19, and we’ve stayed healthy even with the other fall sports around us having recent cases,” Frossard said. “Actually playing softball in the field hasn’t really been affected but spectator numbers are limited. We have to wear masks in the dugout, teams have to provide their own balls and no shaking hands at the end of the game.”
Regarding safety, Assistant Coach Jeffrey Bazat added other things that the team is doing to stay safe. Both Bazat and Frossard mentioned the importance of another key element in the success of the softball team’s health, which is critical leading up to sectionals and the remainder of the season.
“The girls and coaches are limiting their outside contact while [the] season is still going on,” Bazat said. “We’re wearing masks in the dugout, on the bus, and anytime we can’t be socially distanced.”
After their district game against Hickman on Thursday, which they won 10-0, Bruins softball will use this momentum as sectionals start Wednesday, October 21 and quarterfinals and state soon after. As the season enters its most crucial point, Frossard is able to enjoy her last year as a Bruin despite the challenges of this year.
“This season has just been a ton of fun,” Frossard said. “And as a senior I’m just trying to soak everything up and just enjoy every little moment.”
While COVID-19 has affected members of the swim team this year by stopping swimmers from wanting to participate in meets, the swim season has been largely unaffected by the pandemic. MSHSAA nor the host schools have rescheduled meets taken place all over Missouri. While participants in competition must abide by the MSHSAA’s social distancing rules, senior Mohammed Abu-Salah, who has an at-risk toddler living with him, said he’s still concerned about attending meets .
“I haven’t gone to any meets this season.” Abu-Salah said, “My dad is a healthcare worker and is not comfortable with sending me to meets this year as long as COVID-19 keeps up. I don’t want to put [my brother Faris] at risk of getting it. For now I’m trusting what my dad says.”
RBHS’s swim team is continuing with their season as they originally planned. Swimmers have to wake up at 4:00 a.m every morning for practice in preparation for meets that take them all over Missouri. While Abu-Salah is hesitant about returning to meets,, coach Taylor Brisa said she thinks swim meets will be safe for competitors.
“The small amount of meets we have attended this season have been laid out really well with the precautions the host team or school put in place,” Birsa said. “They asked us to take temps, have swimsuits on before getting there, wear masks and turn in a COVID questionnaire for the entire team. Some meets had baggies for the boys to [cover] their masks when they are behind the blocks so they won’t get soaked during the race.”
While COVID-19 has not affected the scheduling of swim meets, it has affected team morale. Birsa said the swim team has missed out on team bonding activities they did in previous seasons.
“We cannot do things we normally would do like ultimate frisbee, water polo or the boys would go paintballing, and we can’t put everyone on the same bus,” Birsa said. “It’s just different. We’ve had to spread them out around the pool and in their lanes, little things like that. It has taken the boys some time to get used to, but they have done a good job. They still are the same boys who like to joke around, ask the most random funny questions but still work hard when it’s time.”
The RBHS girls’ tennis team won their sectionals tournament Monday and will attend regular practices until the MSHSAA state tournament Oct. 23. During breaks in practices and matches and during warm-ups, the players are required to wear masks and refrain from touching each other.
“It’s taken some getting used to not high-five each other after a great point,” junior Abbie Sivaraman said, “or to not hug teammates after playing a tough match.”
The players have also experienced changes when greeting opponents. Typically, the Bruins line up and face the other team before every match while the coaches specify what girls are playing at what spots. This year, however, this process has been either cut short or cut out altogether. Tennis players are also usually expected to shake hands with their opponents after a match.
“Tennis isn’t really a sport where you have to be in close contact with people so not a lot has changed, but a few things have,” sophomore Kinley Schade said. “We have to wear masks when we’re around each other and we can’t do traditional introductions at duals. Instead of shaking each other’s hands, we tap racquets.”
Despite the increased physical distance between players, the Bruins have not seen a difference in their closeness as a team. Coach Ben Loeb often facilitates bonding between the girls by sitting down with them after practice to go over articles about mental toughness, talk about teamwork or lead them in breathing exercises.
“I don’t think [the rules have] affected the team environment at all,” Loeb said. “There’s no need to assume the team environment has changed if indeed it has not.”
After a player’s match is over, Loeb encourages her to watch teammates who are still playing and cheer them on. Schade said the Bruins place an emphasis on team support.
“I don’t think it has changed the team environment too much,” Schade said. “We still hangout and cheer each other on at duals and practice, we just wear masks now.”
The Bruins also have assigned seats on the bus when they travel, which places each girl as far apart from each other as the size of the vehicle allows. Loeb must report this seating chart to Student Transportation of America for contact tracing purposes, because if a member of the team tested positive for COVID -19, health officials would want to know who they were in close proximity with. Everyone on the bus must also wear a mask for the whole ride.
“It’s definitely a big change to have to social distance and follow COVID restrictions, but we’re all understanding that it keeps us safe,” Sivaraman said. “We’ve overall been able to have a great season with being together and competing.”
Unlike other sports, in golf, players generally stay more than six feet apart. In comparison to contact sports like soccer and football, the measures the golf team takes are light. Head coach Melissa Coil encourages players to wear masks, but not at all times.
“With [COVID-19], we have to wear masks anytime we’re within 6 feet of each other,” senior Madison Moller said. “However, because you can easily distance yourself in golf, it is not too much of a problem.”
The team is still taking certain COVID-19 precautions like mask wear and social distancing. Luckily, MSHSAA has not canceled any of the golf team’s games in regards to COVID-19
“We did have one tournament that was cancelled, but that was more because the date was scheduled to be the host school’s first day of school,” Coil said, “and we were quickly able to fill that tournament with another one.”
Moller said she feels the season could end at any time. Like many other students that participate in athletics at RBHS, Moller said she’s thankful the team has the opportunity to play.
“We have adapted the mindset that we need to be thankful for every opportunity together on the golf course because we truly could get shut down any day,” Moller said. “No matter what happens in life, we have each other to support and celebrate.”
A player on the boys’ JV soccer team tested positive for COVID-19, and coaches have decided it would be best for both the JV team and the C team to go into a 14 day quarantine as of Monday, Oct. 12. Head coach Scott Wittenbron said the varsity team is not quarantining, and are following the guidelines they’ve followed all year.
“We are screening players and taking temperatures before practices,” Wittenborn said. “With players using hand sanitizer before and after all practices, and social distancing as much as possible.”
Players and coaches are doing their best to socially distance, sophomore midfielder Drew Schlimme said.
“Obviously there’s no social distancing while practicing [or] playing, but during water breaks or any other time we’re required to wear a mask and distance,” Schlimme said. “there were assigned seats on the bus for away games, too.”
While COVID-19 has posed challenges for the boys’ soccer team. Wittenborn said he is staying positive.
“In terms of moving past the challenges, we are just trying to do what we are expected to do as much as possible and just playing soccer,” Wittenborn said. “The season has felt surprisingly normal and we just enjoy every day we get to go out and play.”
In abiding by the new MSHSAA guidelines, the RBHS cheer team has implemented temperature checks, hand sanitization, social distancing and the use of masks when possible.
Sophomore Sunday Crane said limitations have been added when it comes to cheering at games. With only 15 people being allowed on the sidelines, the team alternates positions so that five members sit out per game.
“We can’t do any of the typical pregame stuff where we would be close to the football players or anyone who isn’t our team,” Crane said. “Depending on where different games are, the restrictions change, but we try to always be good examples for our crowd members by wearing masks and social distancing.”
The competition season has also seen adjustments with MSHSAA pushing back competitions to the second semester and regionals being changed to a video submission. State is still scheduled to be in person in March, but because of restrictions regarding out of state travel, the team will not be allowed to compete at Nationals in Orlando, Fla. this year. RBHS cheer coach Kristine Hayes said that the team would instead be competing at a competition in November to help guide their work and goals towards next year’s Nationals competition.
The team has been able to adapt to the new challenges presented this year largely in part to the strong leadership present amongst many on the team, Hayes said.
“This year’s team is very driven. Almost half the varsity team are 3-year member juniors that have a competitive spirit and [have] been waiting for the chance to be leaders,” Hayes said. “We have two seniors that are very team-oriented and want to meet the team goals. When you have natural leaders step up, you really just have to keep them focused on the goals that they set.”
Though the effects of COVID-19 have created obstacles, Hayes said that in some ways it has brought the team closer together.
“I really feel like they don’t take anything for granted this year as they know it might end at any minute. This has honestly been the best-bonded team I have had in five years,” Hayes said. “I think [COVID-19] is teaching them lessons that we coaches try to instill in them, but since they are living [through unprecedented times], they are putting them to use.”
Crane and Hayes agree that working together through challenges has allowed the team to become closer and more understanding of one another.
“Of course, there are things that people miss doing together, but we’re all trusting one another to be responsible and safe so that no one tests positive, or puts the team’s safety at risk,” Crane said. “There’s a strong sense of community, and we all just want the best for each other and our families.”
In compliance with the new MSHSAA guidelines, RBHS Bruin Girls are required to exercise social distancing and mask use for the entirety of practices. Head coach Lyria Bartlett said that having a full squad of 21 has made it easier for the team to social distance comfortably in practice spaces.
“We follow all protocols including use of facilities, temperature checks, hand sanitizing and required questions,” Bartlett said. “We do our best to be safe so that we can continue to dance together in person and consider ourselves very lucky to have the opportunity to do so.”
In addition to new precautions during practice, team bonding has also been limited. Sophomore Whitney Blackburn said that the team is no longer allowed to get ready together before football games or socialize afterward. They were also unable to attend the annual National Dance Association (NDA) camp in July due to its cancellation.
“Last year, we had a lot more time to bond. We got to attend NDA camp in Iowa for three nights. I was a freshman, and I was really nervous, and I remember getting closer with the upperclassmen just because of those three days,” Blackburn said. “It makes me sad that this year we don’t have that opportunity, but of course, I understand why.”
Little information has been confirmed yet in regards to the competition season and there is still uncertainty surrounding the team’s postseason.
“We know that at least one of our competitions will be entirely virtual, meaning we will need to record and upload our performance,” Bartlett said. “We are hopeful to compete and perform in person as many times as possible.”
With the many changes being made due to COVID-19, Bartlett said she is trying to keep a sense of normalcy for her team.
“Given that things are more fluid than normal, I believe that my consistency and focus are much more critical this year,” Bartlett said. “I have to be very mindful of what I say and how I act as everyone is looking at me as an example.”
Though the team misses aspects to a more regular season, Bartlett said she is confident that the team will overcome their obstacles.
“These girls are resilient and talented. We try to be transparent about expectations and optimistic about opportunities. However, the strength and determination of each person on this team is spectacular,” Bartlett said. “We continue to grow and improve, adapt, and pivot. We are the same focused, spirited, technical team that ranks among the nation’s best each year.”
Like all other RBHS sports, RBHS volleyball has also required all players to wear masks coming into practice and afterward while breaking down nets. Only one team practiced per gym, and there was an implementation of sanitization with extra precautions taken while handling balls. Sophomore Hannah Crites said that COVID-19 related changes have not only extended to practices but games as well.
“During games, we don’t shake hands before and after the game anymore, and referees and coaches wear masks,” Crites said. “On bus rides, we all get our own seats and wear masks.”
Head coach Nicole Murphy said that there have been some changes in the team’s schedule; there have not been guaranteed tournaments and games, and the team has been adapting and rescheduling as issues arise.
“We have lost a volleyball tournament due to [COVID-19] restrictions in a certain county, so that will shorten the amount of games that we get to play this year by about seven matches,” Murphy said. “It also took away two of our regular season matches that I was luckily able to find replacement matches for.”
When games were canceled or postponed, Crites said the team did not feel as if their execution was affected.
“We are still performing well, and our team bond is strong,” Crites said. “We just focus on practicing hard for our next game.”
Murphy said that the new procedures were just habits the team had to get used to in order to ensure they got a season and that if anything has changed, it would be the team’s appreciation for each match.
“Performance-wise, I don’t think it has affected the girls. I think if anything, it’s helped the season because we play every game like it’s a blessing and a gift,” Murphy said. “We don’t take anything for granted because we know this season could be ended at a moment’s notice, so knowing that they leave it all on the floor, every single game is a great blessing that I hope [COVID-19] has taught us all to do even when [COVID-19] is not a factor.”
Anjali Noel Ramesh
As a largely close-contact sport, football has seen major restrictions to their season in response to COVID-19 safety regulations. Head coach Van Vanatta said that they have to practice and compete under severely different conditions compared to previous years.
“We still do a lot of the same things [at practice],” Vanatta said. “[But] we have modified our teams into groups and wear masks when not participating in drills.”
He also said that during games, the number of nonparticipants and students not part of the football team is limited in order to keep fewer people in one confined space. Players and coaches can only bring a certain number of spectators with them, students are not allowed into the stadium and the marching band is not authorized to play at any games. Additionally, masks are mandatory for everyone who does not take part in the game, and players do not shake hands at the end of the night. Vanatta said that the restrictions this season are especially taxing for the seniors on the team.
“We are at least getting to play,” Vanatta said. “But the seniors have had a hard time because the atmosphere is not Friday night lights.”
Friday night lights, he said, describes the atmosphere of competing with crowds cheering in the stands after a day of celebrating school spirit in the RBHS halls. With the school building closed due to the shift to virtual learning, and a cutback on viewers to comply with social distancing guidelines, this season differs from years past.
“Football is the beginning of a new school year and it is supposed to celebrate pep rallies, homecoming, team dinners and extra activities to keep us inspired,” Vanatta said. “But all of that is gone. I don’t know what else to say, it has been a hard year on these kids.”
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