Amy Willis has cooked up a plan to crown her Kodiak High School volleyball team as the 2020 Northern Lights Conference champions.
The coach’s vision has Kodiak — the only school in Region III currently in the COVID-19 low-risk category — hosting the November postseason tournament.
“Since we are green, and no one else is, no one will come, and we will be the region champions, just because the community is taking this seriously about keeping our kids safe,” joked Willis on Monday, two days before the start of the 2020 campaign.
Joking aside, Willis knows the pandemic is serious stuff as she enters her 15th — and most unusual — season as Kodiak’s head coach.
While other school districts in the state are sidelining the beginning of fall sports because of rising COVID-19 numbers, athletes and coaches in Kodiak are embracing the return to the fields, or in Willis’ case, the return to the court.
“This is a blessing. I have kids who lost spring sports, and this is, hopefully, an opportunity to practice and be together,” Willis said. “I have soccer athletes that never stepped foot on the field, and they are excited and are really hungry to play a sport and be with their teammates.
“I’m hoping that our community will continue to take the recommendations and the mandates seriously so these kids can have this.”
Tryouts for the volleyball team begin Wednesday. Kodiak’s first two home matches of the season against Houston (Aug. 21-22) and Redington (Aug. 28-29) were canceled when the Mat-Su Borough School District announced last week that sports teams would not travel out of the district in August. The decision also wipes out a trip to the island for the Wasilla and Palmer tennis teams.
“They are going to reevaluate things mid-August to make some decisions in regards to what they will do for September,” said Debbie Rohrer, the activities director for the Kodiak Island Borough School District.
The volleyball schedule now has Kodiak opening at Ketchikan on Sept. 11-12, followed by trips to Anchorage, Wasilla and Colony. The Bears are set to host Palmer (Oct. 16-17) and Soldotna (Oct. 30-31) before the region tournament begins Nov. 5 in Palmer.
“It is going to be different,” Willis said. “We are going to be completely flexible, but we are going to try to provide an August that would be really similar to how August has looked in the past for the Kodiak High School volleyball program.
“The coaching crew are really invested in helping these athletes not lose a season. We are going to pack as much into August as we can.”
And that begins with tryouts, but even that will have a different feel. The Kodiak district capped the number of inside participants to 30, which forced Willis to create a different plan — splitting the grades up in two sessions each day.
Athletes will also be required to wear a mask when not involved in an activity, while equipment will be wiped down during and after practice.
Willis’s biggest obstacle is not having her entire program — C squad to varsity — in the gym at the same time. A program drenched with history attracts more than 45 girls.
“I really want them to meet their younger counterparts and to be encouraging mentors,” she said. “That part will be a challenge, but we will figure it out.”
Willis referred to her time with the athletes as “2 hours of heaven” — a moment where she can take her mind off of the outside world and focus on volleyball and her athletes.
“It really makes my mental attitude a lot better,” Willis said. “It feels my cup for the day and makes me feel happy. I’m an older athlete and I’m hopeful it is doing the same thing for these guys.”
While Willis is preparing for Wednesday’s start to the season, KHS swimming and diving coach Maggie Rocheleau will have to wait a few more weeks to jump back in the water.
Swimming and diving were supposed to start Wednesday, but the Alaska Schools Activities Association delayed the beginning of the season to Sept. 2.
“It gives our athletes around the state the best opportunity for a normal season,” Rocheleau said. “Hopefully, it works to our favor and we will be able to go out there and practice and compete without any hiccups or any interruptions.”
The first competition date is set for Sept. 17, with the season wrapping up with the state championships on Dec. 4-5. The regular season will conclude the week after Thanksgiving.
Rocheleau said that the delayed start to the season could increase her roster size as students return to school on Sept. 8.
“It will be a different season, absolutely. We are just going to try to keep rolling with the punches,” Rocheleau said.
Rocheleau is also the head coach of the Kodiak Kingfishers youth swimming program. She said some swimmers have returned to the pool for practices.
“They are just excited to be back, and it is a good reprieve,” Rocheleau said.