Iowa volleyball senior Halle Johnston wasn’t necessarily surprised by the Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall athletics to the spring.
The concept of a postponement because of the COVID-19 pandemic was something that was always on the table, but that doesn’t mean she and her teammates weren’t upset, by any means.
“It’s been hard,” Johnston said. “There’s so much uncertainty about everything, it’s really hard to wrap your head around everything going on.”
And that’s what Johnston, her teammates, and the Iowa coaching staff are trying to do at this point: Wrap their heads around everything going on.
“This is going to be a period of adjusting,” head coach Vicki Brown said. “The best thing we can do here is when we have to adjust, that’s when we have to overly communicate with each other, but also know that there’s a little bit of sanity in how we can adjust. If we’re not having a season this fall, we can still train and you can find some normalcy of coming into the gym, being with your coaches, being with your teammates. There’s always ways to find normalcy even if it’s modified in the sport you love.”
Communicating the Big Ten’s announcement after the derecho
Before a derecho ripped through eastern Iowa on Aug. 10, Brown and her players spoke via Zoom about the impending announcement. Nothing was official yet, but the team started to hear rumors about the postponement of fall sports. Brown and her staff told the team to hang tight until the conference said anything.
Later that day, the storm's damage across the area knocked out power virtually everywhere and left cell service shaky at best.
It just so happened the Big Ten made it’s official announcement on Tuesday, one day after the storm. Brown wanted to set up a Zoom meeting to discuss the news with her team, but with the internet down and some players without power, she went with a text in a team group chat.
“Only one of my roommates had service,” junior Courtney Buzzerio said. “Luckily we kept our power, but a lot of our teammates live in houses and downtown, and those went out. She sent out a text and if people got it, they got it. If they didn’t, they had to wait a little bit until they got internet or service. It was kind of a mess, but we all got the message at some point.”
Brown let the players digest the announcement for a bit, but then she scheduled an in-person team meeting with Iowa athletics director Gary Barta and deputy athletics director Barbara Burke.
“In that moment, it was good to see (Barta and Burke) in front,” Brown said. “You could see it wearing on them how upset they were that they had to make this announcement.”
Once Barta and Burke left, Brown held two separate meetings — one with the entire team and another with just the seniors.
“There’s always been some part where, yeah, I empathize with where they’re at because either I’ve coached a player through that or even as a player I went through that,” Brown said. “This is the first time I feel like my empathy only goes so far because I’ve never had to go through this or coach seniors through this announcement. I just let them have an emotional reaction, let them vent and ask questions that seniors would only ask, because they’re in a different space.”
“You want to know what you’re working toward”
One of the biggest questions asked is in regards to the feasibility of the postponement: Will there even be spring sports in 2021?
Iowa played its last volleyball match on Nov. 30, 2019, and that very well could have been the seniors’ final appearance in Hawkeye uniforms.
“You want to know what you’re working toward, especially with this being my last season,” Johnston said. “If it turns out in two weeks from now, they’re like, ‘There’s not going to be a spring season,’ well then I’m done. I don’t have volleyball anymore. That’s it for me, because there’s no point in training if I’m not going to have a season.”
No one has the answer to that question at this time; it’s all speculation at this point.
But what the questioning has done, however, is force many to constructively think in a different way than usual.
“Sometimes you get in such a routine,” Brown said. “You know this is something you love to do, but sometimes a routine makes it feel like a routine. I think because there’s no consistent routine we’re in right now, it’s actually caused for the evaluation of why you really love your sport. Being able, even during that quarantine time, to really miss your sport, it’s a great self-reflection, and not a new motivator, but a remembered motivator.
Returning to a sense of normalcy
Iowa hasn’t completely shut things down with volleyball, and it doesn’t have any plans in the near future.
The team has worked together for most of the summer, and in turn, it brings a sense of normalcy to the team.
“Volleyball has definitely been that glue piece to make life better and normal,” Buzzerio said.
The extra time off has provided a chance for some of the newer players to get acquainted and for the veterans to sharpen their skills, because the goal is the same as it was for this fall: compete at the highest level possible if and when the Big Ten gives the green light.
“Majority of our team was here in the summer getting better, having multiple open gym hours a day,” Johnston said. “Seeing that effort from them makes other people want to work hard. It builds the momentum into the fall, which is what we need to do now into the spring.”
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