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Michigan AAU Volleyball Programs Embrace Responsibility Of Hosting Regulated Competition

Linsey Momrik

Playing competitive volleyball during a pandemic isn’t easy, but local AAU teams are finding ways to stay safe and active.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan youth volleyball clubs around the state have implemented strict COVID-19 protocols as tournaments continue playing during the pandemic.

To ensure a safe experience for participants and spectators, clubs are placing social distancing, contact and other COVID-driven restrictions on competition.

One of the clubs following COVID guidelines is Top Gun Volleyball Club, a Michigan Junior Volleyball Association (MJVBA) club based in Howell.

Top Gun hosted its first competitive day of events on Feb. 6 and 7. Such a responsibility required an agreement among staff, fans, players and other participants to follow the club’s COVID-related rules.

Jennifer Dhaenens, Top Gun’s director and a former Michigan State director of volleyball operations, said that the club uses Brighton High School as its primary home court.

“For us, the bleacher system at Brighton high school — one section seats a thousand people — so we have limited the number of spectators that can come in and we are requiring them to fill out a health questionnaire and an agreement questionnaire, basically that says that they’re going to follow the rules and abide by the six-foot distancing from anybody that does not belong to their household,” Dhaenens said. 

All event participants are asked to uphold Top Gun’s requirements when they enter the gym. According to Dhaenens, if a program is unwilling to heed the club’s COVID orders, it will not be allowed to participate in another one of Top Gun’s events. Dhaenens hopes spectators will abide by the event’s rules for the players’ sakes.

“These kids are so excited to be able to be back playing, and we’re hoping that the parents can see that and understand that as well and do whatever they are willing to do — whatever they can do — to help make it a safe environment so the kids and all the participants, parents, [and] everybody stays healthy and we can keep doing this,” she said.

Obeying the new COVID guidelines also meant contradicting norms that coaches would have normally encouraged. For example, customary team bonding things like high-fives after a good play or slapping hands are not permitted. Dhaenens said it was tough to enforce such transitions.

“Like for so many people, it’s a new situation for us,” she said. “So many of our volleyball activities have always centered around social engagement, so it’s been really difficult for us to teach the kids to stay away from one another, but for years we’ve been [trying to] teach them to come together — lots of high-fives and contact with their teammates — and now we’re like ‘No, no, no’.”

While participating in events under COVID guidelines was demanding, hosting the events took an extra sense of caution. Dhaenens said there was both pressure and excitement that came with hosting events for the first time this year. 

“I think we feel a certain amount of pressure to make sure that we keep these athletes safe and that they can continue to play the sport of volleyball,” Dhaenens said. “It’s so important for them to be active, and they’ve missed it for so long and haven’t been able to [be active]. So, we do feel that pressure, but at the same time, we’re super excited to have the opportunity to be able to do so.”

Legends Volleyball Club in Brighton is also taking cautionary measures as it prepared to host day-long events on Feb. 20 and 21. 

“We have to make sure that we have proper contact tracing procedures set, so we spend a lot of time working with our admission crew to get the proper information from spectators,” Kristen Althouse, the director of Legends Volleyball, said in an email. “We make sure that the chairs at the score tables are spread out, as well as the chairs for the team benches. We create bags of wipes for the score tables so that the balls can be sanitized after each set of game play.”

She added, “We also make sure we communicate ahead of time to ensure that coaches are following all procedures and protocols for themselves and their players, as well as filling out the required paperwork.”

Other programs around the state are kicking off COVID restricted events as well. Dead Frog Volleyball has operated in Southwest Michigan for more than 27 years. According to the club’s website, Dead Frog consolidated with The Courthouse Athletic Center at the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids locations. 

Credit Linsey Momrik

Dead Frog Fitness Director Nate Casanto said the club has had no positive COVID test results so far. The club staff had to all be on the same page for the program’s health and safety.

“I think it just shows how much they [the staff] love the game and they really love helping these kids,” Casanto said. 

He added that the job already requires a lot of time that the staff sacrifices, and COVID just highlights their commitment.

“It just kind of shows you to their character,” Casanto said. “And how much they want to help really groom these kids to become better people -- not just athletes, but people.”

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