Ontario's Lady Tigers volleyball team after practice during the last week in February. (Jessica Rodriguez/submitted photo)

VALE – As what would normally be the fall sporting season gets off to a late start this week, perhaps the biggest surprise is the return of volleyball – an indoor contact sport that was formally banned under state Covid metrics.

Local teams, however, had already secured exceptions to the rule to allow play before the recent change in Malheur County’s risk ranking from extreme to moderate.

Shannon Steele, Vale High School volleyball coach, said that the Lady Vikings were practicing in shifts to comply with Covid restrictions during the four days between the start of the season and Malheur County’s shift in Covid risk status. 

“(Friday) was our first practice,” she said. “I think the kids left pretty energized about how the practice went. We keep adding things to our list of things we want to work on. They’re great kids - hard workers, very energetic, very thrilled to be back doing something that they love. That’s really all I ask for.”

Steele said that her varsity team will feature five returning starters from last year’s competitive team. The Vikings won the league and advanced to the state tournaments, knocking off the No. 4 team in the state in the first round. 

Tyanna Norton, who is back this year, was on the all-state team last season. Other talents on Vale’s team of 12 include Emmy Johnson, Lexi Cleaver, Jaymo Jensen and Taleah Zueger.

Still, it will be a difficult season, Steele said, pointing out that instead of the usual three weeks of practice prior to game play, this year there were barely three full practices. 

As with other sports, volleyball will be played in regional leagues this year to accommodate concerns about Covid transmission during travel. Vale’s league includes Burns, Nyssa, La Grande, Baker and. 

“Usually my volleyball team, we put on like 3,800 miles a season,” Steele said. “Because of Covid and pandemic reasons, obviously that’s not happening, but it’s great we’re getting to play.”

Also because of concerns related to the pandemic, all contests will be closed to spectators – except parents of the senior class. 

The Lady Vikings will play their first game at home against La Grande on Tuesday, March 2, at 6 p.m. 

Over in Ontario, volleyball coach Jessica Rodriguez said that she was a little anxious about the return to play. Strict Covid precautions in the district have meant that unlike the other schools in the league, her team hasn’t touched a ball since last summer.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez said she was excited about her team’s potential.

“(Last year) is a good year to build off of because I feel like we can only get better, and the girls are more used to playing with each other,” she said. “I’m excited to see what they can do this year in the short season.” 

Rodriguez named Corrine Maag and Lexy Jordan as likely impact players going into the season.

Ontario’s Lady Tigers will face Nyssa in an away game Wednesday, March 3, at 6 p.m., the first of the season for both teams.

Representatives of the volleyball program at Nyssa did not return requests for updates by press time. 

Adrian’s Lady Antelopes will have their first of just three games scheduled so far against Nyssa on Tuesday, March 9 at 6 p.m.

“We can have 11 playing dates and we’re trying to fill those,” said Adrian’s coach and athletic director, Aimee Esplin. “Our expectation is to enjoy getting the chance to play finally. It’s probably not as long to prepare as we would like but we have four seniors that are looking forward to having a season. We’re just looking forward to have a lot of playing time.”

Esplin said she was looking forward to a good season with her team of 18 girls. She highlighted her seniors Lizzie Morford, Mesa Zimmerman and Isabel Garza as exciting players to watch.

“We haven’t had a lot of time to really play together, but I do feel like the (team) enjoys the game and they’re coachable. I think we have some young girls that are really coming up as well,” Esplin said. “I think trying to gel as a team will be one of our biggest challenges.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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