BILLINGS — Less than 24 hours after Billings Senior volleyball coach Karen Switzer sent out word that open gym would commence the next evening, 29 Broncs hopefuls were running around the old gym, bumping, setting and spiking Tuesday night.
It was just the night before that Billings trustees gave schools the OK to open district facilities to their athletes as the state continues to relax restrictions and guidelines that were in place to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, the players needed it, and Switzer could see that with the energy they brought Tuesday night. Perhaps she needed it, too.
“There, of course, has been some frustration over the last couple months, just for how many camps I’ve scheduled, hotels I’ve scheduled, and for them to just be canceled,” Switzer said Wednesday afternoon, an off day from her program’s resumed schedule. “Man, that was just really frustrating and you go through this wondering is this worth it, for the amount of time and effort?
“But being in the gym (Tuesday) night with the kids was so great. It didn’t take me long to remember why I do this.”
Of course, Switzer’s tale is hardly unique. It’s been a long spring of inactivity since the steady stream of cancellations first struck at the state basketball tournaments in mid-March. Once given the all clear to resume activities, programs dove right in.
Football programs quickly hit their weight rooms followed by “open field” work, all the while adhering to the now memorized safety precautions. Small groups. No high fives. Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.
“They were so eager to get out,” Skyview football coach Nathan Wahl said Tuesday night after wrapping up an open-field workout. “Even with the very modified schedule that we have, they’re very excited to be out on the field, to be doing stuff as a team, as a group again. Being able to connect with their teammates.
“I think the weight room and the workouts are so important for our kids. Not only physically but mentally. We had a great series of workouts, and certainly it’s a one-day sample, but I just really feel good about the positivity of our kids, the energy and enthusiasm to attack the weight room and to get back, at least a little bit, what they’re used to this time of year.”
Tuesday’s restart was just one day later than what has been the normal schedule. In non-pandemic summers, high school coaches get access to their players starting June 1 and ending July 31, the no-contact rule then lasting until the first day of practice allowed by the Montana High School Association.
So, while not much has changed in terms of time, just about everything else has.
Team camps, particularly those held out of state, are off the books, at least for now. Maybe some will be picked up later in the summer, but that remains to be seen. Wahl said the three Billings public schools plan to hold their traditional summer-ending football camp, while Switzer said she’s hopeful Senior, Skyview and West can schedule some volleyball scrimmages to make up for lost matches at team camps.
“We’re missing out on the (Northern Colorado) camp, and that’s a guaranteed 12-match tournament,” said Switzer, who acknowledged all coaches are in the same boat. “That’s a big deal.”
For now, the big deal is just to have team workouts again. Broncs athletes are working out in the old gym — new bleachers are being installed in the main gym — and Switzer and Senior girls basketball coach Connor Silliker, who share many of the same players, have worked out schedules so as to not overload their athletes.
Soccer teams, like defending AA girls champ Billings West for example, start up next week, while softball players are getting most of their work in with their club teams.
While the future still holds some uncertainties, the present is a good place to be.
“Just to get back to competing a little bit, just having those healthy habits within their life,” Wahl said. “I think that’s a big issue that starts to arise. You know, we demand so much out of our kids and they’re going, going, going and then all of a sudden you just pull the plug on all of that. I think it’s tough for them to go from a completely scheduled system to, you know, nothing and sitting at home.
“I contacted a few of our players to keep them going on school and grades and all that, and as coaches we do that anyway. But it just looked differently during this stay-at-home order. I Just think returning to things has really lit a fire under our kids and got them excited to be back and be a part of what we’re doing.”