Volleyball’s post-season run ends with COVID-19 case

Redshirt junior middle blocker Annie Ellis and senior setter Sarah Armendariz look to block a hit from UT Martin during a match in mid-March.

One day after finding out the Cougars would travel to the Ohio Valley Conference Championship, a positive COVID-19 test on the team ended their season.

After their win against Eastern Illinois University on March 29, the Cougars earned themselves a spot in the tournament. As part of the tournament’s rules, all teams had to take COVID-19 tests before competing. The day after defeating Eastern, the players were notified of one member of the team testing positive for COVID-19. 

“We re-ran it to make sure it wasn’t a false positive,” Head Coach Kendall Paulus said. “There was still this small possibility [of playing], but it officially came back on Wednesday. The girls were waking up saying, ‘Are we getting on the bus or are we not?’”

With the disappointment of their season ending early, junior libero Grace Hurst said it was upsetting at first, but grateful it didn’t happen earlier.

“It could have happened to us at any point in the season and it just happened at the wrong time,” Hurst said. “What was amazing was the thought that we ended our season on two sweeps. There’s not many times in my athletic career where I can say I ended the season with my team with two back-to-back sweeps.”

Volleyball’s season is usually during the fall, but because of the pandemic, their season was moved to the spring this year and included a handful of changes.

“We only played part of our conference and had no preseason games to prepare for conference [games], so that was very different,” Hurst said. “I think that we just focused on what we could control.”

Paulus said her team was able to succeed during a season full of unknowns through the help of her six seniors who took the team to an overall record of 10-4. 

“What drove [the seniors] was how they wanted people to feel by being a part of this team and how it made them feel when they thought about the senior class,” Paulus said. “We showed up last summer thinking we were going to play in the fall, so we show up in the summer [holding] open gyms [and] working hard. I think it was the weekend before we started we got told officially we’re not going to start.”

In addition to the shortened season, the OVC also minimized the amount of players who could travel with each team for their games.

“The OVC this spring only let us travel with 15 [players], which was a really big bummer,” Paulus said. “That meant we left two people at home during COVID-19 when they had nothing to do.”

Sophomore defensive specialist and libero Nicole Kijowski said through all the changes, the hardest one was not being able to be as team-oriented compared to past seasons. 

“[The biggest change was] not being able to hang out on the weekends, not being in teammates’ rooms in the hotels, being separated in the locker room, not having the whole team traveling,” Kijowski said.

Despite the COVID-19 precautions, Hurst said their team was able to maintain a close-knit feel throughout the season.

‘We all love each other and would do anything for one another on and off the court, which is what makes this team so special,” Hurst said. “We were a unit on and off the court, and knew that no matter what was going on with volleyball, winning or losing, or what was going on outside of volleyball we were all there for each other.”

Even though their season ended faster than they wanted, Kijowski said knowing their senior class was a special group pushed the rest of the team to give it all they had.

“The best part of being on a team is making memories with each other and always feeling included and welcomed,” Kijowski said. “Despite all the adversity, we wanted to show everyone how hard we had been working and how much we [could] overcome challenges and setbacks.”

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