Friday, a day later than intended due to weather postponement, the Parsons Vikings girls tennis program brought high school sports back to the community from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forest Park played host to the season-opening meet for the fall campaign, which marked the first time Parsons High School competed in a sporting event since March 12, when the boys basketball team lost to Rose Hill in the KSHSAA 4A State Tournament.
All of the state basketball tournaments were canceled later that day after Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus. Schools, as well as sports, were canceled for the rest of the academic year.
Friday’s tournament looked vastly different from previous tennis events at Forest Park. The bleachers were overturned to prevent fans or teams from congregating. There were signs asking all in attendance to wear masks.
Mask wearing was required of coaches, staff and players at all times except when players were on the court.
“Wearing the mask was the most important thing,” Parsons Vikings girls tennis head coach Tyler Beardmore said. “We took out the bleachers so we don’t have people congregating there. We designated the shelter for just our team for social distancing.”
Fans who normally gathered almost exclusively on the north side of the venue were spread out around the perimeter of the courts on all sides.
Mask wearing was not enforced by Parsons staff, but the vast majority of fans did wear masks.
“We’re trying to mitigate our risk,” Parsons High School Principal Eric Swanson said. “Not everybody is adhering to wearing masks if you look around. But as long as they’re social distancing, I’m not going to go around and police those masks. We just ask people to take the right precautions. We want to continue to play as long as we can. We ask people to bear with us.”
Beardmore sent letters to the three other participating schools — Independence, Fort Scott and Pittsburg — informing them of the health guidelines. Friday’s tournament was also the first varsity event since the outbreak of the pandemic for those three schools.
“If they asked us to run a mile before every meet and that would help, we’d do it,” Independence tennis head coach Sam Carnes said. “These girls are so hungry to do it. People predicted that they wouldn’t want to wear masks or have temperature checks. But they’ll do whatever it takes to get back on the court.”
Other guidelines included not having a players meeting upon arrival, no scorecards on the court and a distribution of hand sanitizer, provided by Labette Health, to all players.
“I was just happy to see some Vikings sports,” Swanson said. “It’s outdoors so that makes it even better. The fact that our high school sports are starting up again feels great. I hope we get to do this as long as we can.”
Independence, which hosts its own varsity tennis meet on Saturday, asked Labette Health to provide them with sanitizer and other health products for its meet.
“We have wonderful sponsors, hospitals, parents and supporters that will do things like that,” Carnes said. “It means a lot to have the kids play. We have a lot of partners willing to help us.”
The turnout at Friday’s tournament with social distancing in place proved how starved the area was for high school athletics.
“We had a really good turnout,” Beardmore said. “As this goes on, we’ll have more people show up. People in the community are excited to have some high school sports back. We’re getting support that we usually don’t get.”
Schools and programs for all sports will continue to adjust on the fly, implementing guidelines in an ongoing fight against the coronavirus.
“At the Indy meet, we’re marking balls and not sharing them,” Beardmore said. “That might be something to consider for our next meet. We’re going to be constantly learning. At regionals and state, those are things that might be required. So it could be something we implement.”
“By the time we get to regionals and state, you’ll see new things that we’re doing,” Carnes added. “We’ll problem-solve everything to make sure it’s safe for kids.”
Ultimately, Friday served as a sign of progression back to a new normal from a pandemic that has challenged every institution.
“Our philosophy and approach is to err on the side of safety,” Swanson said. “We’re going to ask people to wear masks because what’s the worst that can happen? If nobody wears the masks, things will shut down. As far as what activities mean, this is huge. If we can continue to have activities, we’ll continue to have school.”
Results from Friday’s tournament will be published at a later date.