By R.L. Bynum
If you watch a college volleyball match this fall, you’ll see something you are unlikely to see in any other sport — entire teams wearing masks during competition.
North Carolina is one of those teams.
Since preseason practice started Aug. 1, Coach Joe Sagula’s team has worn masks for every practice. All of the measures seem to have been effective since no Tar Heels have tested positive for COVID-19.
As odd as it was to see every player wearing a surgical mask during a match, it didn’t seem to have any effect on their play as the Tar Heels split the first two matches of the season at Virginia Tech, winning 3–1 Thursday and losing 3–2 Friday.
Making it a bit more odd-looking was the contrast between the teams since every Hokies player decided not to wear a mask. Players on their bench wore masks.
Wanting his players to stay safe is one reason his players wear masks, but setting set an example for their fans was also important.
“There’s no reason why someone should not wear a mask because that’s just showing respect for everyone else and it’s our way of doing it and showing it and maybe being a little bit of a role model.“
“Absolutely. We think about that, said Sagula, in his 31st season as UNC’s coach. “Our team has said that if we can wear a mask in practice for two hours, in a hard-fought practice, then there’s no reason why someone else can’t put on a mask when they walk into a store.
“There’s no reason why someone should not wear a mask because that’s just showing respect for everyone else and it’s our way of doing it and showing it and maybe being a little bit of a role model,” Sagula said. “If that’s what people get from that, great.”
Wearing masks at the start of practice was the decision of the coaching staff but Sagula wasn’t sure if the team could make it work. They decided to use disposable surgical masks after first trying out gaiters. Sagula said the gaiters didn’t work that well for volleyball.
“They said it was a little bit of a struggle early, but they were okay with it and the continuation of it came from the team,” said Sagula, whose team gets COVID-19 tests three times a week when there is a game. “They felt better about creating better safety and creating a statement of how important it is to wear a mask every day. So, once we did that we just said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do that.’ ”
During a match, the ACC only requires coaches, team support personnel, game personnel and referees to wear masks.
“It hasn’t hindered anyone. I can tell you that,” Sagula said.
The Tar Heels (1–1, 1–1 in the ACC) aren’t the only team in the league wearing masks. When Notre Dame played Louisville on Thursday and Friday, both teams wore masks. Virginia also is wearing masks for matches.
Notre Dame coach Mike Johnson told Sagula that the Irish players were adamant about wearing masks.
“They wanted to wear masks, and they wanted the opponents to wear masks,” Sagula said. “They were going to ask. I’ve kindly asked as well but it’s not required.”
Already this season, a Clemson-Wake Forest match and an Appalachian State-Georgia Southern match have been postponed because of COVID-19 concerns.
UNC buys the surgical masks in packs of 100. Players wear a fresh mask every day and they change masks after particularly long rallies. Players changed masks during the first two matches.
“The biggest thing is the sweat,” Sagula said. “Also, I think it’s probably better for their face that they’re changing masks every now and then rather than having that sweat stay on their face. After long rallies [in practice], we take water breaks, we have them socially distance, but they can just take in some fresh air. They just lift the mask a little bit away from their face, they’re not taking it off. So we’re very respectful of that. We will tell them if they need time getting a breathing timeout, just let us know.”
There are other safety measures during this ACC volleyball season. Instead of postgame handshakes, there are postgame waves. Instead of the teams switching benches and sides as they normally do in volleyball between sets, the teams use the same benches and play on the same side of the net for the entire match.
There are designated towels for each side to use to wipe the floor. A trainer with gloves handles the towels.
The pandemic meant that preseason practice that normally lasts 14 to 17 days lasted seven or eight weeks. Sagula, who last summer was inducted into the North Carolina Volleyball Hall of Fame, saw that as a huge positive.
“This has been a real blessing in some ways to have this time to develop and to learn how to deal with the unique things in practice — wiping down volleyballs, wearing masks and taking precautions,” Sagula said. “They’re using hand sanitizer probably 10 times, maybe more, in a practice just to keep the hands clean from the volleyballs. We take precautions — no high fives, no slap fives and maybe a fist bump or elbow bumps. They want to protect each other. I think that’s a really big commitment.”
The extended preseason was particularly helpful for UNC’s freshmen. Four first-year Tar Heels played well at Blacksburg, led by Kaya Merkler (on left in top photo) and Aziah Buckner (in middle in top photo).
The pandemic has created a college volleyball season like no other. UNC will play eight ACC games in the fall then play about 10 more, plus 6 to 8 conference games, starting in January. The 2021 portion of the schedule hasn’t been set yet.
The fall schedule features four sets of back-to-back matches at the same site, concluding with two home matches against Duke on Oct. 23 and Oct. 25. The league was divided into three pods for geographic purposes with Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia and N.C. State in the Tar Heels’ pod.
The NCAA championships will be held in April and every volleyball program will play games in 2021. The ACC, SEC, Big 12 and the Atlantic Sun are the only leagues playing games in the fall, when the entire season usually plays out.
That will mean that after the last Duke game, the team will be off for two months before the season resumes in January. Although the eight fall games count in the ACC standings, Sagula looks at them as a bit of a preseason.
“Hopefully, we can position ourselves and play well this fall,” Sagula said. “We’ll come back in January, and the bodies could be rested. I think what it could do is show some more higher-level volleyball in the spring again.”
Carolina’s next game is its home opener on Oct. 9 against Virginia. The teams also play at Carmichael Arena on Oct. 11.
And the Tar Heels will be wearing masks.
Photos courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics