Overland High School volleyball coach Neal Finch, center, watches his players perform socially distanced fitness drills during a team workout at Utah Park on June 16, 2020. Teams in the Cherry Creek School District were allowed to get together at outdoor facilities this week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

AURORA | The volleyballs themselves were largely ignored June 16 for coach Neal Finch and his Overland High School volleyball team.

The Trailblazers’ workout at Utah Park — one the first few held by programs in the Cherry Creek School District, which opened its facilities for athletics and activities the day before — consisted primarily of fitness and conditioning, but it was at least something.

Finch hadn’t seen his players since March — when schools were shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic that continues to have a heavy impact — so even a short time worth of socially distanced drills with nine players and a few coaches was good for the soul.

“They’ve been asking me, what do we need to do? What can we do? When can we meet? They are begging for that interaction,” Finch told the Sentinel. “So this is huge. We’re doing a very simple workout, but just to be together and recognize that we are still a team and we have things we need to do to be successful this season.

“This wakes their mind up, so it’s really crucial that I get to see them every once in awhile.”

Finch had been sending his athletes workouts to do on their own, but in-person connection proved cathartic for all.

CCSD moved up its timetable from its originally stated goal of opening facilities on July 1 thanks to the loosening of some restrictions on the size of gatherings — with proper social distancing and other health protocols — in the state of Colorado.

An abundant eagerness to connect with kids, the main goal even in normal times, also prompted the district to do what it could.

High school athletics directors in the district worked together on the details, tailored plans to each of their school’s specific and unique needs and got the go-ahead from CCSD Athletic Director Larry Bull and Superintendent Scott Siegfried to put it into practice.

Outdoor facilities are only in play right now as letting people into school buildings to use gyms, pools, etc., presents a more challenging layer at this time. That may change in the coming weeks.

“We’re really excited and if it wasn’t safe, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Bull told the Sentinel. “It’s going to be different and we’re adjusting to it, but we are going to do what we can and do the best we can to connect with kids. That’s the excitement.”

Smoky Hill athletic director John Thompson said that not every team at his school expressed the desire to get out on the fields — with athletes in some sports such as baseball, softball and soccer able to get in training with club teams — but he was glad to see the football team and his other programs get together.

“It was really good to see the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said Thompson, who said that athletes who participate must sign a waiver that they understand the possible health risks, use their own water bottles and not share equipment.

Private Regis Jesuit High School opened its facilities on June 8, a process simplified by having only one set of teams to accommodate safely, instead of an entire school district.

Regis Jesuit Boys Division athletic director Kelly Doherty said that coaches are using temperature checks and a series of health questions before allowing athletes into facilities.

Groups are limited in numbers and properly spaced out, while equipment is wiped down frequently. Football and baseball were among the teams in action in the first week.

“The kids were pumped and the coaches were pumped more,” Doherty said. “Getting back in touch with each other is huge, so it’s a really nice experience to get the kids out there.”
As of last week, the Aurora Public Schools have so far maintained July 1 as the target goal for resuming athletics and activities at its facilities.

In the meantime, the Colorado High School Activities Association continues to monitor the mandates coming from Gov. Jared Polis’ office and working to put guidelines in place for a possible return to prep sports in the fall.

Some of that may require shuffling of the calendar. To that end, Finch said he is “very confident” that there will be a prep volleyball season, but he’s prepared for the possibility that it could happen in the spring.

“Not many of my athletes do spring sports and gyms are usually wide open,” Finch said. “We’ll roll with those punches when they come.”

Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports