The Strange Season Starts: Men’s Volleyball, Women’s Tennis Weigh in on Modified Matchups

Sandro Luis Lorenzo/The Miscellany News.

Rescheduled games. No spectators. Gameday testing. Socially distanced benches. Masks on. No handshakes. No celebrations. When Vassar announced that spring athletes would be allowed to compete for the upcoming season, no one knew exactly what competition would entail. Now, after two weeks of games (the first that any Vassar team has seen in a year), it seems we still don’t know exactly what a season looks like in the time of COVID-19. From other teams’ viral concerns leading to time changes for testing and matchups at the last minute, to not knowing when (or how) to celebrate after scoring, competition still remains a big question mark for Brewer squads. Planning weeks in advance is a thing of the past. Yet, despite these new variables and unknowns they face each day, Vassar athletes have found success in returning to their sports.

For men’s volleyball, one of the biggest challenges of playing during the COVID era was always going to be fitting a three month season into two or three weeks. When asked via email, volleyball players Andrew Kim ’23 and Matt Usui ’22 both highlighted the condensing of the season as one of their toughest hurdles. The shortening of the season means more double-headers, which can impact class and sleep schedules and result in less time to prepare for other teams. Usui also cited the restrictions on celebrating as something that was particularly hard to overcome. Yet, it seems the squad has already found ways to persevere past these hardships: They are 6-3 and currently ranked No. 4 in all of Division III, continuing their run as one of the most successful programs in Vassar’s recent history. 

Although both Kim and Usui acknowledged the strangeness of the season, they remained appreciative of the chance to play even a few games. “Returning to competition with the team is a dream come true considering the circumstances,” Kim explained. The fact that the team has found unity through the unknowns is an added bonus, Kim elaborated: “Team comradery has been developed with this team differently than I have ever seen because of these restrictions, but we face these challenges and smile (under our masks) while we enjoy this strange season.” Usui called the season “unprecedented” and reflected, “It’s been a huge blessing, especially considering last year’s season ended prematurely. After a year of no competition, I forgot how much I love being on the court.” 

Although they have only played one match so far, the women’s tennis team is also no stranger to the ebbs and flows of COVID athletics. Their first match on the docket, against Union, was postponed due to viral precautions on Union’s side, an early setback in another condensed season with only seven matches scheduled. The team was finally able to play against Ithaca this past weekend, a matchup they won 7-2, resulting in their first victory. Captain Melina Stavropoulos ’22 referred via email correspondence to the postponement of the Union match as one of the first big challenges for this season: “We had spent the week preparing for the match, so having it postponed was difficult news to accept at first. However, the fact that we had the match postponed is a reminder that the system setup for competition is working.” She further added that it has been an adjustment to learn to play with masks on, but quipped, “Our stamina levels are off the charts now!”

Even with all the tribulations of playing a season with COVID restrictions, like Kim and Usui, Stavropoulos and teammate Sofie Shen ’24 both expressed how thankful they were to be given the chance to play again. Shen wrote via email, “As a student-athlete, it has been really exciting to have something to work towards which I feel has brought me a greater connection to the team, more meaningful practices, and a renewed love for tennis…The return to competition has definitely brought a sense of normalcy.” Stavropoulos addressed how enthusiastic not only her teammates but her competitors seemed to be for competition: “We were all so excited and nervous for our first match, and as we played it really felt like each and every person on our team and on the opposition was deeply appreciative to be competing.”

While men’s volleyball plays in their conference semifinal this Friday against St. John Fisher College, women’s tennis will play in only their second match, against Skidmore, on Saturday. When Vassar decided to commit to spring competition, no one, not even the administration, really knew how this season would play out. Although COVID restrictions and precautions are no doubt extremely necessary when it comes to allowing competition of any degree, it wasn’t clear how this would affect the success of teams, on and off of the court. But if men’s volleyball and women’s tennis are any indication, even under changing circumstances and new rules, Vassar’s teams can still find success in their leagues. And rather than being sluggish and out of practice, the squads seem reenergized. In the end, it is clear that win or lose, student-athletes are just relieved to be playing again. Perhaps Usui put it best when he wrote, “COVID has made it abundantly clear that I won’t be playing volleyball forever, so I cherish each moment that I get.”

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