Cromwell volleyball coach Tracie Capodice flanked by team captains Driona Statovci, Alexandra Umelo (left) and Jasmine Hampton, Brynn Kovacs (right)
Not long ago, high school volleyball was in a similar position as football over whether to play with the current concerns over COVID-19.
The 2020 high school volleyball season was on the brink of extinction before a series of concessions, including requiring players to wear mask, allowed fall’s only indoor sport to proceed.
Head coach Tracie Capodice and her Cromwell Panthers spent most of the summer in a state on uncertainty and are now quickly rebuilding and learning on the fly, “We weren’t allowed to go inside at all until last week. For a long time, we were on the track, on the tennis courts, so you make do with what you have. We were forced to work on basics, we were forced to work on fundamentals, which is great because we have such a young team this year. We have a lot of new faces, so it was nice to have a fun environment. We were able to go outside, adjust to the mask and have some fun with it.”
Cromwell is coming off a stellar season last fall, winning 17 games including a straight sets tournament win over Classical in the first round of the Class S tourney.
All-state outside hitter Sadie Budzik and setter Kaitlin Lewkowicz graduated, leaving a sizable production and leadership void.
“It’s going to be hard, but the girls have stepped up and they’ve shown so much through the adversity,” added Capodice, “These girls have just been amazing. They’re mentally tough, they’re prepared.”
Returning captain Driona Statovci is both confident and thankful heading into the season, “Last year I had experience at being a captain and I have the other captains to help me, so it’s pretty much business as usually but it’s been hard to adjust with all the new stuff that has happened. I’m just grateful that we have a season right now. I think it’s brought us closer together. Things happen we can’t really control, but we have to try our best and keep working hard.”
Statovci is returning to her libero position after leading the team with 235 digs in 2019, “We’ve had a lot of changes on our team, but our main thing is adapting to them and working with them. Each game is going to be a challenge now that we have new hitters and a new setter, but as long as we work together and communicating, we should be good.”
Joining Statovci in the captain chairs are Alexandra Umelo, Brynn Kovacs, and Jasmine Hampton.
Umelo played in nearly every set a season ago and is embracing her new captain’s role, “It’s something that I’ve always done. I’m just trying to go one-on-one with each player and trying to help them get the basics down, especially now we have to be more lenient and patient. We actually get to slow down and teach them the skill.”
The senior middle hitter played Huskie (club) volleyball in the offseason, prepping her for her senior year.
Capodice called both her senior captains “incredible kids”, credited them for four years of hard work.
Hampton is a junior captain, aiming to make an impact at the varsity level, “I think our biggest challenge has been trying to get everything into one practice, because the practices are so much shorter than they were last year. I feel confident, I have my teammates to help me and they are always staying positive and giving good advice. We have each other as a team to stay positive.”
Kovacs, a sophomore, is the youngest captain, “I’m taking this opportunity to step up and take that leadership role to show the younger players, because I was in their position last year and I know what it’s like. I just want to help them get to where I am now.”
Capodice will rely on several young players this season and Kovac provides a great example for the incoming freshman, “Brynn has stepped us tremendously since last year. She went from being a weakside to a starting outside hitter, and that’s a big change.”
Fellow sophomores Anahya Demers (setter) and Dasani Storey have also been thrust into starting roles.
The youthful Panthers have already battled through a challenging offseason and will now began a season full of adjustments.
Along with wearing masks, the regular season schedule has been cut in half to 10 matches, and they will not have the support of spectators at home games due to safety concerns.
“We’re just happy to be out there. Whatever they’re going to tell us to do, we are going to do it. It’s been an adjustment just because things change so often. I could find something out as soon as we walk into the gym and you just have to make the change and go with it. You have to be able to adjust on the fly this year,” said Capodice, who navigated the team through the uncertain offseason by staying in constant communication with her players, “I’ve been honest with them since day one. They’re in high school now, they need to be told the truth. I don’t want to get their hopes up and then all of a sudden they get shot down. I just wanted to give them the truth every step of the way. As a coach I’m always positive, every day. When we come into this gym you’ve got to be ready to go and we’re happy that we are here.”
So far the biggest adjustment has been the masks, which must be worn before, during and after competition.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment. It can be pretty hard to breath at times, but if it lets us play then we’ll do it,” said Kovac, “Some of the things that have happened around here have been very discouraging, but you can’t let that get to you. We just have to always stay positive and the rest will fall into place.”
No matter the obstacles, the girls are happy to be together and for a chance to play.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out there and just being in the moment with my teammates,” said Umelo.
“I’m excited to play the first match and help out the younger players improve,” added Hampton.
Last Thursday, the Panthers dropped their first match of the season, losing in three sets to the 2019 Class S runner-up Hale Ray.
Win or lose, in a year of uncertainty, Capodice’s message to her team remains consistent.
“I tell them all the time, it’s one game at a time with us. Never look ahead, look at what we have coming up.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin