After one of the best seasons in Pueblo West girls volleyball history, COVID ends Cyclones season before Class 5A regionals

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Alexis Smith, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.
·5 min read
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May 4—After successfully taking the South Central — League, the Pueblo West High School girls volleyball team were headed straight into the Class 5A regional tournament.

Until COVID-19 abruptly ended its season.

It was determined by the District 70 COVID response team and the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment that the team was exposed to individuals who were presumed to be positive for COVID-19 after an away game on April 24.

The freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams held practice on April 22, traveled the next day in a bus to Loveland for a match, and the district was notified that the three individuals whose cases were later confirmed positive, were at practice and traveled with the team.

"Due to the identified exposure, PDPHE followed protocol and quarantined those that were identified as contacts to the confirmed cases during their contagious period in order to stop further transmission of the COVID-19 virus," said Public Information Officer for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment Sarah Joseph.

Head coach Casey King said the investigation started after the coaching staff provided the school district's response team with the information and an official investigation began on April 28.

"They have to follow very strict rules set forth by the health department," King said. "It takes a couple of days, and for a little while there I thought we were OK. But in the back of my gut, I just felt like maybe it wouldn't be. There just wasn't really much we could do."

While the confirmed cases weren't from varsity players, the decision to end the season just days before it competed in the Class 5A regional tournament was determined necessary because of the exposure to the positive cases.

"In our practices, we were very strict," King said. "We kept our varsity separated for the most part from our freshmen and jv. Unfortunately, there is always going to be some mixing. We had five girls on quarantine, so we had to bring kids up that we normally hadn't. When you're doing that, it's hard to keep everyone separated."

King said despite the need for mixing, the team was still wearing masks, social distancing on the bench and follow all guidelines set forth to prevent a situation like this from occurring.

Carly Willardson, a senior middle blocker for Pueblo West, explained her perspective of the abrupt ending of the team's season, noting the heartbreak she felt.

Willardson had chosen to move into remote learning as a preventative measure before the regional tournament, and said King emailed the team letting them know they needed to meet on a Zoom call.

"We're kind of like, 'OK he's going to talk to us about regionals. We'll figure out whether it's a game set up or maybe something changed.'" Willardson said. "We join the Zoom call and (King) tries to stay positive, but you can hear in his voice, something is wrong."

King let the girls know the season was over and that he with the coaching staff did everything they could to prevent the girls from losing the remainder of their season.

"When he said that, we all kind of broke down," Willardson said. "Especially for me, being a senior. It's so hard. With where my team stood, we were going to do so amazing. I'm just shocked that it was taken away so quickly."

The girls and their parents, in an effort to salvage the season contemplated getting rapid COVID tests, but Willardson's mother Rachel said that was almost a double-edged sword.

"We were hoping to go to the health department and have a good case we could put in front of them," Rachel Willardson said. "It almost felt like a lose-lose situation because I called the school district to talk to the COVID response team and I asked them, 'If we had our girls tested, would that make any difference?'"

Rachel Willardson said the response she got was that even if the girls had tested negative, it would not change how the situation was handled because it is the health department's policy to quarantine after a COVID exposure.

"We have an amazing parent group and an amazing group of ladies," King said. "So, they were going to fight to the end. They took that upon themselves, and it meant a lot to me that it means so much to them."

After the initial shock wore off, the girls decided it was in all their best interests to reframe the situation, focusing on all they had accomplished throughout the season.

"They know that this doesn't change the fact that they had an incredible season," King added. "One of the most incredible seasons we've had in the program. They only dropped three sets all year and then went on a 13-game winning streak. So, my job now is to get them to focus on what they did so well."

Despite the heartbreak the girls felt, King said the situation was put into perspective when the entire volleyball community of Pueblo reached out to him, expressing love to the girls.

"I just want to thank the Pueblo community and the volleyball community because that meant a lot to the girls," King said. "We have a communication line, and the girls are just overwhelmed with the support and love that has come out of this. It's been really cool."

King noted that the girls had two options remaining — dwell in the negativity or take pride in what they have done on and off the court and was proud when they chose the latter.

"Almost my entire team is academic all-conference," King said. "They are all just amazing young ladies and they have a lot to be proud of. They will always have my admiration, and they are a tough group that I couldn't be more proud of."

Chieftain and Pueblo West View reporter Alexis Smith can be reached by email at asmith@chieftain.com or on Twitter @smith_alexis27.