A family-like bond helped carry the Candor girls volleyball team to a state championship in 2019 and continues to provide a lift during a year in which the team won’t get a shot to defend its title because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Candor finished 20-0 in dual matches last season and dominated at the Class D final four in Glens Falls, posting a 6-0 mark in pool play before a 3-0 sweep over Panama in the championship match.
That type of season begs for a shot at an encore opportunity, particularly with a large core of returning players. Instead Candor’s players are joining the rest of New York state’s volleyball teams in being sidelined this fall, waiting and hoping for their turn to play in a condensed season the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has targeted for a March 1 start, albeit without regional or state tournaments.
“We were so excited. I think that’s what pushed us,” senior Braelyn Hornick said of seeking back-to-back state titles. “Of course being the best we can pushes us, but I think that was our main goal for this coming year. We wanted to see if we could do it again. It’s super disappointing that we can’t, but we were definitely willing to put everything out there for it again.”
Talk to returning Candor players about the disruptions to their season and you hear words like “hurtful,” “sad” and “frustrating.” The bright side is they have each other to provide support as they deal with these disappointments and others high school students have faced since March.
“Everybody right now can agree motivation is one of the hardest things,” said Hornick, a first-team Class D all-state player last season who has played varsity since eighth grade. “Even with stuff like getting our work done, getting out of bed in the morning when we don’t have school, and getting those workouts done, just to try to help each other keep improving even though these times are so tough. I think we’re really there for each other especially.”
Players aren’t seeing as much of each other in person. School is a mix of in-person and remote learning, with smaller class sizes. There is no high school volleyball and the club season many participate in together was halted in March. But texts and calls are frequent, there have been occasional get-togethers for back-yard volleyball and the bond remains strong. There is hope the team will soon be able to get together for workouts in the school gym.
This group’s friendship extends beyond the typical team bond. They hang out together, go to parties, even participate in Halloween and Christmas celebrations.
“The volleyball team is like my second family,” said senior Megan Henry, a second-team Class D all-state pick in 2019. “I can go to them and I can talk about anything I need to. If I need to relieve stress, if I just need a friend to hang out with, it’s pretty much like my second family. It’s a great group to be with. Not being with them now, it’s very sad, but I still get to see them in school.”
Volleyball is a perpetually joyful sport, with players gathering for mini-celebrations after each point. Even if you’re in a two-set hole and down 15-5 in the third, those two seconds provide an encouraging reminder everything is going to be OK. Now, more than ever, people need that.
“Everyone’s just very positive and very upbeat,” Candor senior Brayden Watkins said of her team. “There’s never any negativity, even if it’s off the court. We build each other up, we don’t break each other down. I’ve seen a lot of other teams that not everyone gets along. Our team just clicks. We have a lot of chemistry. We work great together off the court and on the court.”
Plans for fall season spiked
As much as any high school athletes in New York, volleyball players have faced uncertainty since many had their club seasons cut short when the pandemic hit. Volleyball joined football and a few others as sports the New York State Department of Health put into a higher risk category in August, leaving them to only practice with no certainty of competition.
Following a push from school districts and sections across the state, the NYSPHSAA chose to shift volleyball, football and cheer entirely to a March 1 start date. As it turned out, Section 4 schools moved all fall sports into that same window, citing health concerns and statewide cuts to school budgets.
Pam Quinlan, primed for her 24th season as Candor’s coach, described it as something of a “roller coaster.” Any hopes of playing as scheduled proved fleeting, but at least the spring season provides more clarity than the bizarre concept of a fall with only practices and team scrimmages.
“I think once it got pushed out to March 1, certainly (there was) disappointment of not being able to get on the court or even start practicing or playing, but at least having some hope there would be some semblance of a season,” Quinlan said.
She added the players have maintained a positive outlook throughout every dose of bad news, also understanding their coach often didn’t know much more than they did.
“I guess that’s one good thing about the era we live in now is keeping in contact with other people is pretty easy,” Quinlan said. “They all come from pretty supportive backgrounds in terms of their families. As a team supporting each other and realizing that we don’t really have any control over it, we just kind of roll with the punches and hope for the best.”
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Quinlan and her players understand some of the reasons given for volleyball being put into the same category as football when it came to competing. While not a contact sport, players are often face to face at the net and the ball is constantly moving from player to player and team to team. The indoor nature of the sport also worked against it in this case.
Ask Candor players, though, and they certainly would have been ready to join some neighboring states in going forward with volleyball as scheduled. That said, Hornick said it was perhaps for the best the players became acclimated to school before a return to athletics given the challenges presented by the pandemic. In the meantime players are doing drills and whatever else they can to be prepared when it’s time to play again.
“I understand why they’re doing it,” Henry said. “All the safety things about sharing the ball, especially because it’s with the other team, we’re considered a high-risk sport. I don’t necessarily agree with all the restrictions that were put on volleyball, but that’s my opinion and that’s because I want to play.”
Chance to defend title denied
Even before volleyball was moved to the spring, the NYSPHSAA announced there will be no state championships. Candor lost four key players from last year, including two starters, but the Indians return a lot of talent and would have been considered among the statewide favorites in Class D again this year.
There will still be a rush of excitement when the players get together for their first practice, but there won’t be an opportunity to duplicate that magical feeling that capped the previous season.
“I really enjoyed every minute of it. I’m sad that it ended so soon,” Henry said. “The season ended after states and we wanted to keep going, we wanted to keep playing. We didn’t want it to end. … Accomplishing what we did last year was just great. It was so much fun and I’m glad i got to do it with that group of people.”
Candor’s state run finished shortly before Thanksgiving, with practices for winter sports having already started. Although family, classmates and others joined the players for a celebration the night they returned from the final four, there was never an opportunity to have a formal gathering to commemorate the program’s first state title since back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003. Obviously, nobody was foreseeing a worldwide pandemic.
“We were kind of waiting I guess for a good moment. The next thing you know we were out of school,” Quinlan said, referring to the sudden March transition to remote learning.
Players got together as a group in August and reminisced about last year while looking ahead to what will still be a promising 2020-21 season together.
Quinlan and her players have discussed being more fortunate than their spring and winter counterparts, who either didn’t have a season at all or were shut down just before the start of state tournaments.
“You always hope you get a chance to go back and maybe repeat, but I guess this will be something else they’ll be able to talk to their children and grandchildren about. Why that didn’t happen,” Quinlan said.
Said Hornick: “I think even though we can’t try for that state title again, or to get to states, the fact that we finished with that accomplishment was a big blessing.”
Ready to reunite
Quinlan has watched beach volleyball on television or viewed some of her team’s prior matches as ways to stay close to the sport. She also has been a resource for players interested in continuing their careers in college. But there is still an obvious void.
“We’re back in school and we’re seeing them on a limited basis, but you’re used to spending three or four hours with a group of young ladies pretty much on a daily basis and really getting to form some bonds,” said Quinlan, a math teacher at Candor. “Fortunately, I have the girls that are back, but missing a little bit with the girls who are coming up.
“I think that’s the hardest part is just making that contact and just having those conversations with them about what they’re doing on the court, how they’re feeling about it. You just get to know kids at a different level when you coach them and that certainly is something that I really miss right now.”
Quinlan has concerns some of the school’s younger athletes will be impacted, wondering if there will be enough room on the calendar, or in the gym for that matter, to have the modified season that normally is played in November and December. Quinlan helps coach that group as well.
When volleyball returns, other questions will remain. Will fans be allowed at matches? Are all those high-fives and celebrations out of the question? Who will need to wear masks? Quinlan hopes some of them will be answered during the winter season that is set to precede the new fall campaign. Basketball shares some of the same coronavirus concerns volleyball is facing.
Hornick said it feels like “forever ago” when Candor won its state title and played together last given how much the world has changed.
“I miss it a lot,” Watkins said of volleyball. “I know a lot of my fellow players miss it a lot too. It wasn’t just us, it was the crowd, it was our community, it was the parents. Everyone around us was always cheering us on and always bringing us up and we were a big thing.”
Even if it won’t culminate in a state championship celebration on New York state volleyball’s biggest stage, it will be a big thing when this group is together on the court again wearing Candor blue.
“I really miss playing with my team. That’s what I look forward to in the fall is I get to play volleyball with all my friends,” Henry said. “That’s my place to go after school and just relax from a day of schoolwork. I understand why it’s happening, why we can’t play, but I miss playing. It’s my favorite sport. I love to be with my team. I’m friends with everyone on my team and I just miss them.”