LA GRANGE — There were as many smiles as spikes at La Grange High School on Tuesday, when the hometown Leopards opened their volleyball season against neighboring Weimar.
And why not? It had been five long months since La Grange and every other high school in the state had played a meaningful sporting event, and the familiar rhythm and routine of the game mattered much more than the final score.
"We want them to have fun," La Grange volleyball coach Leslie Coltrain said. "These kids have been through a heck of a lot in 2020 already, and we have plenty of reasons that we’re playing. We want it to mean something beyond the fact that it’s just another volleyball season."
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The University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing body of high school athletics, halted all high school sports in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the state. Cases increased over the summer, and the UIL released its plan for fall sports in July. Smaller schools such as La Grange would be able to start their fall athletic seasons on a regular schedule depending on local health ordinances while larger schools — primarily located in the state’s urban centers — would have to wait until mid-September.
That meant La Grange, which competes in Class 4A, was among the hundreds of schools in the state that started its fall athletics season with a volleyball match Tuesday.
"It felt so good to actually play and have a real game," said La Grange senior Megan Brothers. "After what happened (in the spring), you don’t take things for granted anymore. We could have not had a season, but we’re getting one. We’re going to enjoy it."
Hundreds of fans, friends and family members who filed into the La Grange gym felt the same as they adapted to new safety protocols. Waves and hellos replaced handshakes and hugs. A homemade sign on the door asked visitors to "please wear a mask," and virtually everyone complied. Blue tape marked off some rows and seats to encourage social distancing in the stands and ensure a maximum of 50% occupancy.
La Grange High School Principal John Pineda, who watched the match while also keeping an eye on all the safety protocols, appreciated what he called "the community buy-in."
"If you want to get back to a sense of normalcy, you have to follow the rules," he said. "For the most part, everyone understands that this is the new way of doing things. If we want things to move forward, we have to do the right thing."
The action on the court also followed the new guidelines meant to limit the spread of the virus. The two teams didn’t engage in the low-fives under the net that usually mark the start and finish of a volleyball match, nor did they switch sides after each set. Players drank from water bottles brought from home, and they immediately donned their masks when they rotated from the court back to the bench.
"This is really the only thing that felt different," Coltrain said, motioning to her mask after the match. "Wearing this, not switching sides, waving at each other instead of shaking hands. ... It’s different, but we don’t care. It felt like volleyball. We’re playing, and we’re OK with that."
The social fabric of many small towns in the state wraps tightly around high school sports, including in La Grange — a town with just under 5,000 people located in Fayette County alongside the Colorado River about 65 miles east of Austin. Athletics is important for the community, and Coltrain sent a message to the fans Wednesday morning via the school district’s social media platforms, thanking them for their "cooperation with the new protocols."
"Our motto is ‘Enjoy every moment,’" said Jennifer Golan, a teacher at La Grange Elementary and the mother of senior volleyball player Ashlynn Golan. "Enjoy every moment, enjoy every time you’re in the gym, and just have fun. You never know when it could end."
Golan’s apprehension is understandable, even though the COVID-19 has had less impact on many rural areas than in Texas’ cities. As of Tuesday, Fayette County had 390 confirmed cases and six deaths since the start of the pandemic. Only 21 cases were active in the county of approximately 25,500 people. The infection rate in the county is about 0.15%, compared with a rate of 1.8% across the state.
But the anxiety created by the virus can’t be measured by statistics, especially for high school students hoping for a return to normalcy.
"I had a few moments where I didn’t know if we would play," said La Grange senior Lanie Doyle, a stellar track athlete who missed out on a chance to compete at last season’s state meet. "During the summer, I was freaked out that it would get worse."
But the anxious moments were gone when Doyle woke up Tuesday morning.
"I thought ‘Game day, boy,’" she said with a grin. "We’ve been working for this, and we were ready."
On Tuesday, Class 2A Weimar surprised the Leopards by winning in a thrilling five sets despite a match-high 21 kills from Doyle. The match featured a bit of everything, from diving digs and thunderous kills to long rallies that had the fans screaming behind their masks.
But it’s just the start of what hopefully is a long season, said Coltrain, who reminds her players to be careful after every practice and every match.
"Protect the season," she said. "Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you put yourself at risk. That’s stuff we tell them year in, year out, but it takes on a different meaning now. It takes on more meaning this year."