Like many, Highland volleyball head coach Jordan Neal spent this summer wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect his future. More specifically, he wondered how— or even if—he would coach his team in the fall.
While it may have been a little different than normal, Neal and the Hawks played with new protocols in place but the same competitive spirit.
Neal struggled with the thought of being unable to coach this season. And while not pessimistic, he had doubts that he would ever be able to coach some of his players again.
“I had some real anxiety this summer about the possibility of our season being canceled,” Neal said. “It was so hard to think about missing out on that experience with these kids. We have eight seniors, all amazing young women, and we wanted so badly for them to have the chance to experience this season together.”
In order for the season to be played, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) had to pass a series of votes. Neal held camp with his team throughout the summer as the AIA decided the fate of the season.
“We were so excited every time a vote passed, but there were so many different times that happened that at a point, we just put our heads down and kept working,” he said. “If someone came and told us to stop, we would, but we stopped reading the news. Every week someone was voting or debating about whether we would have a season or not.”
With the AIA eventually confirming a season, Neal and his team made sure to set up protocols limiting the spread of the virus.
Highland wore masks entering and leaving the gym, and even sometimes during practice. The Hawks also cleaned their equipment more often, as well as split the varsity and junior varsity teams up more than a normal season.
Highland asked players to self-quarantine and not play through even the smallest of illnesses.
“We know there is a risk that someone could bring in a positive case,” Neal said. “We want to make sure that it is isolated and quarantined as quickly as possible and that we control any spread within the program.”
Game days looked different for Highland with only 25 percent capacity of fans allowed at games. According to Neal, that is about 350 fans allowed per game: 200 for the home team and 150 for the road team. Neal also mentioned that most of the fans are family members due to the discouraging of big student sections.
While it would make sense for fewer students to try out for sports and stay home instead, Highland volleyball saw the opposite happen.
“We had great numbers at tryouts this year,” he said. “It became a challenge for us because we had to split the tryout into smaller groups to satisfy our gym capacity requirements.”
Despite the abnormal season, Highland played just as it would any other season.
“We play with the same toughness and passion, we just have to be careful while playing and responsible with sanitizing,” senior Kennedy Williams said.
In fact, Highland believes the pandemic taught valuable lessons.
“It's helped us because we appreciate the opportunity to be present and live in the moment and not worry about things outside of our control, which translates well to the volleyball mindset we like to help grow,” assistant coach Jeff Grover said.
The Hawks made sure to cherish the moment they had together because this pandemic has shown just how unpredictable life can be.
“We've learned to appreciate every chance we have to play together,” Neal said. “We don't know which day will be our last and so we treat every day with a little more care.”
Quinton Freestone is a sports journalism major at Arizona State University covering Highland High School.