s-MaskedMatches

COVID-19 has impacted every week of the college volleyball season. With two weeks left until the NCAA Tournament, teams are looking for solutions to keep the virus in check.

In the Big Ten, all but one weekend of the 11-week volleyball schedule has been impacted by COVID-19 cancellations. No team in the conference played a full 22-match schedule, the number of games originally scheduled for each team by the Big Ten. Top-ranked and first-place Wisconsin has played one match in the last five weeks.

The latest hit to the Big Ten slate came Tuesday morning when a ranked matchup between Nebraska and Penn State was canceled. Both teams sit idle ahead of Sunday’s selection for the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska has appeared in every NCAA Tournament except the first in 1981, while Penn State has never missed the postseason.

Now, perennial volleyball blue bloods like the Huskers and Nittany Lions face a more uncertain tournament future than ever. While a berth into postseason play is likely not in jeopardy for the Huskers, there is concern about how the tournament plays out amid the looming threat of COVID-19.

Nebraska head coach John Cook spoke at a weekly press conference just 10 minutes after this weekend’s cancellation was announced. He emphasized the importance of protecting the team with the postseason approaching.

“This is what happened with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State. You’ve got one team that’s contagious and infects other teams,” Cook said. “[Our players] were concerned about how much risk we have. Of course, we don’t want to have an outbreak two weeks out from the tournament.”

A COVID-19 outbreak within a tournament team would mark the end of that school’s season. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament saw one such occurrence, with VCU bowing out due to positive tests mere hours before its opening-round game against Oregon. Those same guidelines will apply to volleyball’s postseason.

Whichever team wins the national championship at the end of April will have fought off a handful of elite teams, as well as COVID-19. With numerous preventative measures being taken, it may be time to consider whether masks should be worn during play.

This year, the Big Ten chose not to mandate mask use among players on the court. Like many other sports, only coaches, officials and players on the bench are expected to don masks.

That has not stopped some teams from voluntarily bringing masks into on-court competition.

Ohio State has battled to a 15-3 record this year, all while choosing to wear masks during play for much of the season. The Buckeyes have seen mostly unmasked competition across the net this season, but nonetheless scored big victories over teams like Nebraska and Penn State.

Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield discussed his team’s COVID-19 shutdown in an interview with former Nebraska head coach Terry Pettit. Sheffield said that out of the seven Wisconsin players that tested positive for the virus after its meeting with Michigan State, “almost all of them” were front-row players who had the closest contact with opposing players. The Spartans went into their own COVID-19 lockdown soon after.

When the Badgers finally returned to the court on March 21, they wore masks during competition for the first time all season. Their opponent, Minnesota, did the same.

It would be difficult to measure the extent to which mask use during play would alleviate COVID-19 problems that have plagued college volleyball. Masks would surely have some positive impact on infection rates, though, with the CDC releasing a recent report on declining case numbers related to mask mandates.

Another premier volleyball conference took a more aggressive stance on mask use this season. Unlike the Big Ten, the Pac-12 mandated on-court mask use for the entire spring season.

Directly comparing the two conferences yields almost no striking differences, though. COVID-19 issues have still impacted teams like Washington State, USC, and defending national champion Stanford. The Cardinals will finish the season having played only 10 matches, and 1-19 California is the only team in the conference on track to play its entire schedule.

The underlying problem is that implementing a COVID-19 “bubble” is largely impractical in collegiate athletics. Sports is not the only significant time commitment of a student-athlete, and school-related exposures are often difficult to avoid.

Geographical luck plays a part, too, which further complicates the comparison between the Big Ten and Pac-12. Schools like Michigan and Michigan State have dealt with outbreaks while the teams’ states carry high infection rates. Early in the season, COVID-19 spikes in California forced many teams in the area to shut down.

Wearing masks on the court may be just one mitigation step in a confusing array of challenges related to college volleyball and an ongoing pandemic. There’s no way of definitively knowing whether stricter mask use might save a match from getting crossed off the schedule.

But, once the tournament arrives, an entire season is at stake.

The threat of an abrupt and disappointing end to a grueling year might be enough to convince teams to expand their mask use. Others may take a chance and trust their programs’ quarantine measures.

For all 48 tournament teams, though, advancing to the next round will require more than just winning.

sports@dailynebraskan.com