Words could not describe what last Monday meant to the returning Highlands Bluebirds fall student-athletes.
"Everyone was excited to be together. It was just varsity," said Lauren Buemi, a junior middle blocker/right side hitter on the Highlands volleyball team. "We'd been in contact with virtual meetings. But we really missed each other."
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A week ago today marked the first day that in-person activities could resume for the Fort Thomas Independent Schools. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association approved schools to resume in-person activities on May 29 and forego the regular dead period that generally lasts June 25 through July 9.
But the FTISD school board and administrators decided to resume things on July 13 because families and coaches normally schedule vacations during the usual dead period. No team at Highlands had any formal practices since March 12 when the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic started to flare up.
On Friday, the KHSAA voted to allow golf to start tryouts and mandatory practices on the normal July 15. But the other fall sports in cross country, volleyball, cheer, dance soccer and football can condition, but can't have any tryouts or mandatory practices until Aug. 3 for the current time.
"We're just trying to follow the guidelines and try to get better each day. It's a waiting game," said Wes Caldwell, Highlands Director of Athletics. "This thing is bigger than athletics. In my realm, I want to keep everybody safe. Hopefully, we can find a vaccine or something and we can move forward. But the bottom line is making sure every kid returns home the way they came here."
Highlands boys golf Head Coach Bert Richey said tryouts took place July 15 through 17. Prior to tryouts, he expected 18 to 20 kids try out for the team this year.
The Bluebirds return seniors Luke Muller, Justin Gabbard and sophomore Joel Craft among others from last year. Muller and Gabbard qualified for state individually last year with Gabbard tying for 22nd.
"It was good because it gives the kids something to look forward to in this time where there are not a lot of things that they're able to do," Richey said. "I've seen a lot of the kids at (Highland Country Club) playing. They know it's safe as long as they follow the guidelines they're supposed to follow."
The biggest safety emphasis is on flagsticks. The guidelines state that during play, players can't remove them from holes. One stroke is added for the first violation with second and third violations resulting in a general penalty then a disqualification. But Highlands girls golf Head Coach Mike Lipscomb said a lot of people do not remove flagsticks anymore.
"It was definitely addressed (at try-outs)," Lipscomb said. "Courses have taken the proper precautions to kind of set up the course so that's not an issue. With World of Golf (in Florence, Kentucky), they've put these little contraptions as cups so you can just use the end of your putter and pull up on it. It spits the ball out so you don't even have to touch the flag."
The Highlands girls golf team is scheduled to open the season Aug. 1 against Villa Madonna at Twin Oaks Golf Course in Covington. Tee time is 1:30 p.m.
The Highlands football team had workouts with one coach and no more than 10 players in a group. That comes in accordance with the Health at Sports guidelines the KHSAA worked out with Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear's office.
"The guys responded well to everything we threw at them," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands head football coach. "There was no complaining. Every guy showed up at the times we told them to be there."
Weinrich said two players can throw a ball back and forth. But the ball must be wiped off or a new one used if one player wants to throw with another player.
Weinrich said nothing has changed with the regular season schedule for now. That includes the Aug. 29 Cumberland Falls Pigskin Classic game at Corbin against Chattanooga (Tennessee) Notre Dame. Tennessee is currently under a no-contact executive order under Governor Bill Lee through that date.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association recently declared volleyball a non-contact sport. Highlands volleyball Head Coach Katelyn Sallee noted the contact in volleyball is generally teammate to teammate as opposed to one side of the net to the other.
In serve reception, Sallee said all six players should move toward the zone where the ball is headed. Sallee noted the biggest challenge there will be emphasizing one person passing to stay six feet apart. But the coaching staff does not want the girls to develop bad habits.
Volleyball is the lone fall sport at Highlands that is held indoors. The team normally has Bluegrass Games coming up in addition to other team functions.
"We've just been really honest with our girls trying to not sugarcoat it, but keep a positive spin on it," Sallee said. "We're just taking it a day at a time recognizing that everyone is in the same boat as us across the state. We're not going to be any less prepared than anyone else."
Highlands cross country Head Coach Brian Alessandro said not much has changed with that sport. Alessandro still sees the runners working out around town.
"If the KHSAA is committed to having post-season races like the regional and state, we can still get fit with intra-squad races because we have such a big team," Alessandro said. "It's not as fun. But we can certainly be prepared if they don't cancel it."
The Highlands girls soccer team has finished state runner-up the past two years. The team's Twitter account reported 50 girls showed up for one of the two sessions held Tuesday.
"We're probably going to start without the ball and work our way into using the ball," said Alex Dean, Highlands girls soccer head coach. "But a lot of our girls have been working hard in the off-season. We gave them a mile time of seven minutes as a target to work on. Each week, a majority of them have been sending us their mile time. Just in the last couple weeks, we've seen improvements. Is that what soccer is really about? No. But it's great to see they're putting in the work even when we were unable to meet together."
The Highlands boys soccer team has had a lot of people try out in the past. That is one of many challenge the team faces in coming weeks.
"We're just now trying to figure out what this looks like because we have to get so individual-focused. The idea of playing another school in a game environment does seem really far-removed from what we're allowed to do at this point," said Chad Niedert, Highlands boys soccer head coach. "I don't anticipate us all of a sudden being able to on Aug. 3 being able to scrimmage right away either. That's the same kind of theme with all this stuff. We're going to grind it out and prepare for our full season as best as we can. We know it's not going to be perfect and it's not going to look like any years in the past."
More decisions will be made closer to Aug. 3. The first Highlands football game is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 7 p.m. against the Scott Eagles.