The Out-of-Door Academy volleyball team's 2020 season opener was by no means ordinary.
It was a road match against Bradenton Christian on Sept. 17 and an error with ODA's roster left just six varsity players eligible for the game. That meant the Thunder had no substitutes and no libero.
Due to the pandemic, the match was one of only six regular-season matches on ODA's schedule (20-to-25 is common), so the Thunder wanted to make the most of it.
Even so, ODA volleyball coach Stefanie Betz said ODA's practices don't have the same emphasis on the next opponent which is traditionally the case. With so few games, ODA's practices have taken the look of a skill camp, with all the players focused on developing their own skills.
When the Thunder arrived for their match, they had a different look as well.
Out of a dedication to student safety, ODA has elected to have its volleyball players wear masks during matches.
"Volleyball is a moderate risk sport," ODA Athletic Director Kippie Crouch said. "We felt it was important to play with masks because of that. Some opponents were uninterested, but we found some like-minded schools and reached out to them."
It seems like a reasonable request to me, especially since volleyball is played indoors. Betz said she and her players have fully supported the school's dedication to safety from the start, and added that while wearing masks during play has been an adjustment for her players, they are now used to it.
But would they be used to it over a two-hour, 20-minute slugfest in which they had no substitutes?
The Thunder prevailed 3-2 over Bradenton Christian despite all the challenges.
Betz said her players never complained about the challenges. They stayed positive and encouraged each other.
"That was one of my top-three favorite matches I have ever coached," Betz said.
The Thunder will need to appreciate every highlight they can. Already, a home match against Tampa Prep scheduled for Sept. 23 was canceled the day of the match when the visiting team had a player test positive for COVID-19.
Nothing has been a sure thing.
But Betz said the Thunder's extra practice time — since they aren't playing as many matches — has helped players like senior Shelby Fulton and junior Aaliyaa Genat, both of whom switched from playing middle blocker to playing outside hitter. Betz said both players have blossomed.
Betz said aspects of the team's new training regimen will carry over to future seasons, though she hopes this will be the only season to feature this much practice time.
For now, though, she has to concentrate on a postseason that will provide an entry to any team willing to participate. The Thunder's district tournament is scheduled to start Oct. 12.
"I always joke that if someone asks us to play volleyball in green polka dots, we'll play in green polka dots," Betz said. "We just want to play. I'm proud of how our team and our school are responding to everything."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.