The COVID-19 era is upon us and it continues to leave the sports world helpless.
Due to high-risk fall sports — volleyball, football and cheerleading — being considered unsafe due to concerns over the coronavirus, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced on Sept. 9 that all three would be pushed to March 1, 2021, for what will be called the "fall sports season II."
Two days later, NYSPHSAA officers reaffirmed the July 16 ruling that there'd be no regional or state championships this year for any fall sports, including those moved to spring. Essentially, the furthest any fall player or team can go this season is to its sectional final.
This news sent shockwaves through our local sports scene, and one team in our area certainly has an ax to grind. One of the few Western New York teams to win a state title during the 2019-20 school year, Grand Island boys volleyball will not be permitted to defend its crown after winning the first team state title in school history.
"That's definitely the worst part, knowing that there is no real chance at repeating as state champs," said Zach Cramer, one of the Vikings' returning senior first team All-Western New York selections and one of four GI players to earn first team All-Niagara Frontier League honors a season ago. "I think our team will have the talent to do so but the opportunity isn't there. I think as a group (we) will look to make the best of the situation in the spring, hopefully."
Going through the fall with no Vikings volleyball, GI's top setter will be practicing twice a week in a limited capacity with his club team, which has been moved up to start in early October. Additionally, due to NYSPHSAA's designation in the return to interscholastic athletics document, Cramer will also be able to buy his time with a fourth sport.
The NYSPHSAA tournament all-star plans to play golf this fall, basketball in the winter, volleyball in the "fall sports season II" and baseball in the closing spring season.
Cramer was also accurate in assessing GI's returning squad. Despite the losses of All-NFL picks Tom Shemick, Dave Wynne, Nick Keller, Brett Shickluna and Sean Murry, the Vikings could return eight players from a squad that went 23-1, won its second straight Division II-A sectional title and has not lost a game in Section VI since the 2018 Division II crossover.
Being a part of GI's most decorated senior class means a lot to Cramer. But so would bringing home a third consecutive Section VI title.
"That’s definitely the ultimate goal for this season. Coming into my freshmen year, our volleyball program had never won one so it’s still a huge honor," Cramer said. "There will definitely be tough matches to achieve that goal, so I think that’s what is on everyone’s mind as we train and prepare for the season."
One of the key returners for the Vikings, whenever they do play, will be Billy Wieberg Jr. The senior was also first team All-WNY last season, as he led GI as a class B sectional all-star and was named the MVP of the state tournament all-star team.
"I was looking forward to getting back out there and playing with my friends and defending our state championship," Wieberg texted. "But obviously we can't do that anymore, so it is upsetting to hear but we will be ready to play in March."
Wieberg has already received a scholarship offer from D-II Daemen and he's received interest from Division I schools like UC San Diego, Purdue Fort Wayne, Saint Francis University and St. Francis College, as well as Division III powerhouse Springfield.
Similarly to other top prospects in our area, Wieberg has tried to navigate a recruiting trail that's been influenced by COVID. As hard as 2020 has been for his high school playing days, a senior season being shifted to the spring could also have adverse effects beyond this school year for the 6-foot-5 outside hitter.
"It has been a challenge but mostly through emails and Zoom meetings I've been trying to stay in touch with coaches," said Wieberg, who also won the New York Volleyball Coaches Association player of the year award for Section VI. "But these coaches want to see us in action to see how we're developing. COVID has made it hard but we're trying our best to go and see these schools and coaches."
Head coach Bill Schultz has also been adjusting to a time that'd normally be filled with games. Last week he attended a Section VI meeting to discuss the plan for the 2021 start, but there's still much uncertainty as to what the spring will look like.
"There's not a lot of answers really. ... (We're) hoping to see what happens in the spring there if we get a season or not," said Schultz, the reigning All-WNY coach of the year. "(It's) a little disappointing because I'd like to defend our title."
What was troubling for the Vikings head man in this meeting was that even sectional play doesn't seem like a certainty at this point. Although the hope is that sectional title games come about, volleyball — like many other indoor sports — may run into additional coronavirus complication.
Although he's not happy about the shift to the spring, Schultz knows his and other programs would have had an uphill climb getting kids up to speed with a Sept. 21 start, without having worked with their teams since last school year. Up to this point, Schultz has only been able to email his team to keep in contact.
With the daily bind the coronavirus has placed at school, Schultz does not plan to press for gym time until things are somewhat settled. Even if things clear up sooner than expected, Schultz does not intend on physically reconnecting with his squad until the turn of the new year. In the meantime, the team has been able to meet at a former teammate's at-home sand court to get some work in.
Schultz just hopes he and the squad at least get the chance to run it back for a third straight Section VI championship.
"I think there's a long ways to go before sports come back (to normal)," Schultz said. "Unless all things go good and we get a vaccine and they say 'alright, go back to normal life.'"
Follow sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, be sure to listen to the GNN Sports Podcast, on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and more.