Alexander: Winning a long-awaited title, and then … silence

In eerie fashion, the championships occurred within two hours of each other, to the minute. Two teams, two sports, two counties, two different levels, two coaches who had achieved everything at their schools besides that last magical victory of the season before finally breaking through.

At 4:06 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2019, Riverside City College wrapped up a 13-0 season and its first state community college football championship by beating San Mateo in Bakersfield, and when the JC Gridiron national rankings were released days later the Tigers also could boast their first national Juco championship since 1989.

Two hours later, at 6:06 PST (7:06 MST) that Saturday evening, Cal State San Bernardino won its first Division II women’s volleyball championship after seven national tournament experiences and two previous trips to the championship game, blitzing Nebraska-Kearney in Denver to win the title and finish 33-0, just the third undefeated season in the 39-season history of Division II volleyball.

The next season should have been one of joyous celebration, or at least quiet pride, right? Unfurl a banner, or paint “National Champions” on the scoreboard or press box. Introduce the team at the home opener as “defending champions.” Gear up to run it back, if you can. Allow your fans to boast and savor the experience, particularly when interacting with the fans of their rivals.

Uh, not in 2020.

Other teams in other parts of the country may have been able to play full or partial schedules, but the state governing body for community college athletics in California shut down. So did the California Collegiate Athletic Association, Cal State San Bernardino’s conference. So there was no celebration, no introduction as champions, no games period.

And yet there were so many other, more important issues swirling in a pandemic that losing not only a chance for an extended celebration but just the opportunity to get back on the field or the court seemed small stuff.

“Under I guess any other circumstances, it would have been insufferable,” said Kim Cherniss, who has been the Coyotes’ volleyball coach since 1991. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle it with any type of sanity because there’s really not very much that can keep me from going to the floor and coaching and getting my team ready, other than the fact that the world is in a pandemic.

“…It was much more about caring for people, trying to help people to get through. It became a small concern in some ways. You can’t really cry and moan about not being able to play a volleyball game when you hear about someone losing a loved one, or somebody being in the hospital or somebody not being able to spend time with their grandparents or whatever. But on the other end of the spectrum, for these young women this is so much a part of their identity that it was almost like stripping them naked, having them just feel so much like a fish out of water.”

It was a burden they had to bear. Senior outside hitter Alexis Cardoza, the Division II National Player of the Year and national tournament MVP in 2019 and an Academic All-America in 2020-21, recalled that players went home in March of 2020, after spring sports were canceled and campuses closed. They spent the next few months preparing with the hope that there would be a season, only to find out there wouldn’t be. But they were able to lean on each other, from a distance.

“Coach was trying to keep our heads high and get us through it with team Zooms, staying in touch through social media and stuff,” she said. “… Obviously we didn’t get to meet face to face, but we’re thankful for social media, Snapchat, FaceTime. All that stuff kept us connected pretty well.”

In community college football, the footprint is a little different. Players are around for two years maximum, and only a handful of players from the 2019 champs are currently on RCC’s anticipated roster. They went into a holding pattern early last week when things came to a halt after one day of practice. Coach Tom Craft said their spring conditioning sessions had been shut down after three weeks because of a similar abundance of caution.

One of his concerns is that stoppages in the preseason could have a serious effect on the team’s ability to even play an opening game Sept. 4, when the Tigers are scheduled to play at Mt. San Jacinto. It is one thing to have adapted to the change in routine and the health and safety protocols involved – Craft stressed the ability to “adjust and adapt,” and noted that his staff is working on getting his roster “100 percent vaccinated” – but there are no shortcuts for preparing for the normal physical demands of football. Missed preparation time impacts player safety.

“The thing that everybody’s missing,” he said, “is the liability that we’re putting our student-athletes in when we shut them down repeatedly and then expect to start up and play a season where you haven’t addressed joint, tendon, ligament strain, strength, bone density, mass muscle, change of direction movement. There’s a six-to-eight-week period of training that needs to take place for safety purposes. And you can’t just shut people down and then expect them to play a game in a week.”

There remains the risk of COVID-related cancellations throughout sports, especially as the Delta variant spreads. Craft said there had been no indication whether cancellations would be considered forfeits and what that might do in terms of power rankings and postseason opportunities. That isn’t small for a program that is 102-15 in Craft’s 10 seasons and has reached seven straight SoCal regionals – and lost five regional finals, three times to the ultimate champ, before kicking aside that barrier in 2019.

But his bottom line, as he put it: “I’m not willing to put our kids at risk.”

These are players, by the way, who are competing to get to the next level of college football. Delays such as last year’s can derail dreams.

“I just couldn’t put myself in their situation, if I was a (high school) senior and I got football taken away, basketball taken away, baseball taken away,” Craft said. “I’d probably go to work. And then when you want to transfer and go to college and then that’s taken away, you almost throw your hands up. But I know kids have dreams and aspirations and goals and I hope that we have a situation that we can get through with these protocols that allow us to have a season, so these kids can reach their goals and aspirations.”

On that, the two coaches agree. To these players, the value of the sport goes beyond wins and losses.

“It (volleyball) is very much a foundation in their lives,” Cherniss said. “It’s an anchor … this thing that keeps you centered, that dictates your schedule and the rhythm of your week, forces you to be a good time manager, forces you to be focused and driven, to be a good communicator, to be accountable.”

To take that away abruptly, she said, was “like a plant that wasn’t being fed.” Bringing the players back into the gym last spring for offseason workouts served as a reminder of what they’ve been holding onto all this time.

There will be differences, of course.

“Even as a senior myself, when freshmen are asking me questions I’m like, ‘Well, usually this is how we do it, but there’s no telling how it’s going to be this year,’” Cardoza said. “I think we’re all kind of at the point where we’re just trying to navigate through COVID athletics at CSUSB and trying to take that day by day, figuring that out together.”

The Cal State system and the Riverside Community College District both require vaccinations for on-campus activity, as well as mask use, regular health screening and periodic testing. Cardoza said she believed the CCAA was mandating mask use during matches, adding that while she’d gotten used to wearing a face covering, “it’s going to be very interesting trying to run a three-hour practice with a mask on as well as during competition days.”

But that idea of defending a championship? Craft has never subscribed to that idea anyway, because of the frequent roster turnover from year to year on the community college level. “I don’t look at it as defending anything,” he said.

As for Cal State? The American Volleyball Coaches Assn. held a Division II tournament in Dallas this past April, a 14-team event won by Angelo State. But on the NCAA website, CSUSB is officially listed as the most recent winner.  

“Without question, we are the defending national champion,” Cherniss said.

The Coyotes will soon have a banner in Coussoulis Arena to prove it.

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