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What will girls tennis look like for high school teams this fall?

Glenbard West's Sienna and Shannele Lopez competes in the Class 2A doubles finals on Oct. 26 in Buffalo Grove.
Glenbard West's Sienna and Shannele Lopez competes in the Class 2A doubles finals on Oct. 26 in Buffalo Grove.

Proper etiquette within the Benet girls tennis program is that doubles partners high-five after every point.

"We teach the kids to do that after every single point," Benet coach Mike Hand. "The girls will tell you, I'm not a fan of tapping racquets. I never liked it."

But Hand understands that tapping racquets may be part of a new normal of tennis during a pandemic.

No physical contact celebrating after points, sharing of balls or post-match handshakes, competitions limited to 50 participants and masks and social distancing for all non-competitors are some of the changes girls tennis players will have to adjust to as the IHSA this week released sports-specific guidance.

The good news? At least they can play.

Girls tennis, along with golf, cross country and girls swimming and diving were the sports to get the green light for competition this fall.

"It was awesome to hear that," said Oswego East senior Makayla Buenafe, a returning state qualifier. "Senior year, you want to have the most fun you can. With the times going on, it's hard to find anything. When I heard the news it was cool and fun to imagine what we can accomplish."

Practice may begin August 10, with the first allowable date of competition August 20. The end of the season is October 24, with or without a state tournament.

"First off, I'm just excited that we're one of the few sports that get to play. We'll just have to see how long that lasts," Ottawa coach Steve Johnson said. "Hopefully we'll be able to get in a full season. I know the girls are ready to play."

Scrambling to schedule

Competitors are limited to a combined total of 50 participants, and that includes coaches, officials and trainers.

IHSA administrator Susie Knoblauch said they are leaving it up to the local school districts to determine how they want to schedule within that capacity. The 50-person limit almost certainly eliminates large-scale weekend tournaments. Knoblauch said that for contract tracing purposes the most controllable environment would be dual meets.

Oswego East coach Pete Conrad said that the Southwest Prairie Conference will likely hold two conference duals a week, leaving Saturdays open to potentially schedule nonconference duals. If that isn't possible, he's explored in-house scrimmages with varsity and JV.

"There are a lot of ways to enjoy the season and get the most out of the season, even if we are a little restricted," Conrad said.

Restrictions limiting teams to competing against schools in their own conference or COVID region could make filling out a schedule tricky.

Conferences like the Fox Valley and West Suburban have opted for a conference bubble with weekday dual meets exclusively in-league. Benet had a match scheduled with Neuqua Valley, but since Neuqua is in Will County Hand isn't sure if that will be allowed.

"All of us are scrambling around to see how we do this within the guidelines," Hand said. "I look at the schedule with three highlighters – black, yellow and pink. The yellow are teams I think I can play but got to confirm, black wipe them out, can't play, pink is a maybe."

St. Charles East coach Matt Bulman said that coaches in the DuKane and DuPage conferences have been in contact about rebuilding a Saturday schedule. Bulman's team was going to compete against Fox Valley opponents before they went to a bubble.

"We're trying to fill out a schedule but we're definitely going to have less matches than the past," Bulman said. "I've had kids play 50 matches in a season, we'll be not even close."

New protocols to mitigate risk

Several protocols have been put in place to promote social distancing and mitigate the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

When possible, alternating courts should be reserved for a buffer if there is no barrier or fence between courts. Players should bring their own balls and identify them with magic marker.

If they have stray balls, tap them back to players with a racquet or foot. Using new balls on a regular basis is encouraged and racquets and towels should not be shared.

"In terms of competition it's not that bad for tennis," Bulman said. "It's good that they're allowing the kids the freedom to compete without a mask; that would restrict kids. We're trying to provide enough tennis balls so only the server touches the ball. Don't pick up the ball, just kick it over. You have two balls when you serve, your opponent has two balls when they serve, and only the server's hand touches their ball."

Jacobs coach Jon Betts said he doesn't think competition will be too big of an adjustment. Many of the girls have been competing at events throughout the summer that used the same guidelines.

"For tennis, we're in a pretty good position, the nature of the sport is physically distant," Betts said. "Some of the things in practice with spacing and drills we'll have to adjust to do what we normally might not do. But as far as matches go, not a big change. They've got to see how it works."

Knoblauch recognized that doubles has a few unique challenges.

"We are encouraging that they have a strategy beforehand for what part of the court they're covering," Knoblauch said. "We're encouraging them to maintain social distancing, prohibit celebrating with high-fives and whispering strategy. You might need to congratulate your opponent after a match with a wave. We're really proud of the etiquette in tennis, they always practice great sportsmanship so this will be a shift."

Coaches agree that a bigger challenge could be the procedures off the court. Hand, who said that he's memorized by now the screening questions before workouts, said at Benet they may need to stagger practices with a 15-minute lapse to maintain social distancing. Temperature checks and screenings before practices and matches are a new normal.

Every non-competitor must wear masks and keep at least six feet apart, which could eliminate some of tennis' socialization – one of the sport's biggest attractions. As soon as athletes are done competing, they have to leave the facility to prevent congregating around.

"It makes it almost a virtual experience while you're there," Bulman said. "I know what they're trying to do, but in tennis it will be strange because usually when a match is going on that's a team-building moment. We're going to have to send kids to a designated location or send them home."

Johnson is hopeful to have assistance making it work.

"I'm not used to having to monitor outside the court; it's busy enough to watch eight matches going on at one time, let alone outside the courts to see what people are doing," Johnson said. "But we've had great parents for a long time, hopefully that will help us out and monitor themselves. If we screw it up, that's no good for the girls, the school or the season."

What about state?

A big question on the minds of coaches is will there be a postseason, and what will it look like.

Knoblauch said that the IHSA is continuing to have discussions about a limited state tournament.

Bulman said the DuKane Conference athletic directors have a plan for a conference tournament in October, spread across multiple dates and multiple sites to more easily contract trace.

"So there is at least some finality," Bulman said.

The IHSA said it has recommended keeping Oct. 16 and 17 and Oct. 23 and 24 as open dates for the purposes of some form of a state series.

Hand, who has two state qualifiers back from a team that took second in Class 1A in 2019, is hopeful for something.

"We have a nice nucleus back which is why it would be a shame if we didn't have a state tournament," Hand said. "Is there going to be a state series, or is it going to be a lackluster end to the season? The boys last spring had a chance to win a trophy, that's gone. The girls I don't know if they do or not, but it's kind of anticlimactic if you're not doing that."

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