By Carey Phillips

 

Eight months and one week after Smoky Mountain’s last athletic event, high school action will return to Jackson County on Tuesday when the Lady Mustangs take to the volleyball court.

Pisgah will visit the SM gym for the Mountain Six Conference contest. The JVs will play at 5 p.m. followed by the varsity.

That’s one day later than announced in the original schedule. There have also been a couple of other schedule changes in December because of exams.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan was to allow parents of home players to have two tickets, with no visiting fans allowed.

However, on Tuesday Gov. Roy Cooper announced that he was reducing the indoor gathering limit from 25 to 10 and extending Phase III COVID reopening through 5 p.m. Dec. 4. In answer to a question at a news conference, Cooper said schools were exempt from the gathering limit, but it was not clear if that exemption extends to athletics. School officials were expected to take the reduction into consideration while updating plans for next week’s athletic events.

Under the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s revised calendar, volleyball teams are allowed to play up to 14 regular season matches. MSC schools will be limited to 12 since a conference tournament is scheduled.

Home matches will be streamed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3W3MtQJYdksH1eHNFKXEGA.

“I’m excited,” Coach Megan Dezarn said. “Practices have been really good. We’ve got a good core group of girls. Some of them have not only been playing for us, but also for their club teams. I think they’re geared up and excited to have the opportunity to play. I think we have the potential to do really well.”

Senior setter Ella Gamble and junior libero Kennedy Stewman return after earning all-conference honors for an 11-17 team that placed fifth in the MSC.

Other returnees include seniors Melanie Hoyle, Natalie Parris and Hannah Huddleston; junior Alexa Anderson; and sophomore Carley Raleigh.

Joining the team are senior Addison Buchanan; juniors Rani Patel and Raeleigh Hall; and sophomores Olivia Rice and Macy Wike.

Looking at the MSC race, Dezarn said Franklin will have a number of experienced returnees. She added that defending champion Brevard should also be in the hunt, although the squad will be younger and not as experienced as last year. Hendersonville has a solid program that is competitive year after year.

“Our conference is solid all the way around,” Dezarn said. “It’s very competitive.”

She knows things will be different with so few fans at matches.

“A lot of the kids like the support of their families,” Dezarn said. “That’s disheartening, especially for the seniors. It also might allow some of the kids to just focus on the game and not be worried about outside influences. It will be interesting to see how it works out and how the athletes react to that scenario. We will just have to generate our own energy.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Athletic Director Adam Phillips said of the restriction on fans. “I wish we could have more people in the stands, but at least we are having progress and getting our season under way and giving our kids and coaches an opportunity to compete.”

There will be some rule changes caused by the pandemic. The most obvious will be teams not switching sides of the net after each set.

A scrimmage is planned today (Thursday) at home against Robbinsville. No fans will be allowed, and the action will not be streamed.

It is expected that at least some road games will be streamed.

The schedule is as follows:

Nov. 17 – Pisgah; 19 – Hendersonville (at East Henderson); 23 – at Blue Ridge (varsity only); 24 – Brevard.

Dec. 1 – East Henderson; 3 – at Franklin; 8 – at Pisgah; 10 – Hendersonville; 18 – at East Henderson; 21 – at Brevard; 22 – Franklin; 29 – Mitchell (varsity only).

The conference tournament semifinals and final will be played Jan. 4 and 6, respectively, at East Henderson. Plans have not been announced for first round matches.