The Return of Paly Athletics

While online learning has stripped Paly of its spirit, culture, and student life, after-school practices at Paly have brought the light back onto campus. The return has not been easy. The pandemic has challenged athletes with reduced practice time and limiting restrictions, but even if cheerful shouts of encouragement are muffled by a mask and six feet of distance, the sense of joy is undeniable. Editors Note: This story was written and researched prior to Santa Clara county reentering the purple tier on Nov. 17, which prompted school officials to suspend both indoor and outdoor workouts. Hopefully our athletes can get back to training soon.

Fall sports often serve as a gateway for incoming freshmen into the Paly community, but never have they been more vital in integrating new students into school life than in 2020.

Traditionally, the fall semester for new students is a period where they create their first links with the Paly community. These connections are formed through on-campus activities such as trips to Town and Country or spirit week, but for freshmen like Grace Gormley, building these relationships is more difficult because of remote learning. This year, Gormley’s lone physical connection to the school is the three weekly practice sessions that are offered for girls water polo.

“The biggest thing for [Paly water polo] is the sense of community that I’ve been missing,” Gormley said.

To maintain social distancing, coaches are limited in the drills that they can provide their teams, particularly for a contact sport like water polo, but Gormley is grateful for the pool time despite the alterations.

“I [am] really lucky to be able to have some sort of semblance of the practice that we had before,” Gormley said.

While it’s possible that the teams currently practicing will be unable to play when the season is set to begin in January, Gormley recognizes that these practices serve as more than just game preparation.

“I think that just being in the pool, getting to know my teammates, and getting to know Paly polo…  is something exciting,” Gormley said. “Even though we may not have a season at all.”

Boys varsity water polo coach, Ethan Look, understands the importance of giving new students like Gormley the chance to be a part of the Paly community.

“[We] give them a place where they can come together with other freshmen… and get to know the people that they would be in classes with,” Look said.

Despite limited practice time, the postponed season has provided some unexpected benefits for Look and his varsity and JV teams.

“In a normal season, we might not see most of these freshmen until tryouts started. So I think that’s kind of one of the beauties of this is that we have all four classes out here in a preseason,” Look said.

While many view the return of Paly sports as a return to some aspects of normalcy, Look had a different perspective.

“It’s everything we know and love, but normal is not the first word I would choose. [We cannot] take things for granted because they were taken away from us so quickly,” Look said.

Community members in Palo Alto have voiced concerns about the return of practices, but Look has worked tirelessly to keep his team, and the surrounding community, safe.

“We’re just doing what we can to be safe in the circumstances. We’re following all the guidelines and regulations,” Look said. “I understand why they wouldn’t want to be hosting practices. But I think the benefits that we get while still being very, very safe, outweigh that.”

It’s hard to be in the kind of mindset… to be thinking that everything’s going to get cancelled. So all we can do is… keep our eyes on the prize”

— Ethan Look

In the midst of a pandemic, the future is entirely unpredictable, but Look recognizes the mental space that he and his players need entering an uncertain season.

“It’s hard to be in the kind of mindset…  to be thinking that everything’s going to get cancelled… It’s going to wear you down pretty quickly in times like this,” Look said. “So all we can do is…  keep our eyes on the prize if the prize is going to be available to us.”

One of Look’s captains on the Varsity team this year is Sidd Sahasrabuddhe (‘21). As a leader, he recognizes the importance of team bonding that gives the squad strength in challenging moments. However, these values are more difficult to cultivate in times when players are supposed to stay away from each other and practice time is limited.

“Right now… it’s kind of hard to build the chemistry [that] we had in past years because we’re not able to have team dinners every week before actually playing games,” Sahasrabuddhe said.

The practices have also served to replace some of the social interaction that students have been deprived of with online learning.

“There’s a giant social aspect and I missed seeing everyone, [so] it was great to get back in the pool with my team,” Sahasrabuddhe said.

Sahasrabuddhe and his team have faced limited practice time as pool time is stretched thin between swimming and water polo, which has forced them to capitalize on the precious hours that they do have.

“There’s definitely a feeling of wanting to get the most out of each time we’re in the pool,” Sahasrabuddhe said.

While Sahasrabuddhe is hopeful for a season in January, he also has the bigger picture perspective.

“I would hate for my last high school water polo game to be a CCS loss to MA…. but obviously there’s bigger things going on right now than high school sports,” Sahasrabuddhe said. “And we all we’re all aware of that reality.”

For girls water polo player Aanya Kumar (‘22), the restrictions have changed a team sport into an individual game.

The guidelines have split Kumar’s team’s roster into pods, which has made it difficult to emulate the spirit of a typical season.

“The guidelines aren’t too unreasonable, but the team is split up which… makes it harder to bond as a whole team,” Kumar said.

This also forced Kumar to approach the team sport of waterpolo with an individual mindset.

Obviously there are bigger things going on right now than high school sports… And we all we’re all aware of that reality.”

— Sahasrabuddhe '21

“Now because we can’t work as much as a team, I feel like it’s a chance to work on the fundamentals of the sport and improve as a player individually,” Kumar said.

Kumar’s coach, Deke Rowell, has put additional emphasis on conditioning due to the limited pool time.

“We have a lot more swimming which is not fun…, but it gets us back into shape and faster,” Kumar said.

The renewed focus on individual fundamentals has allowed Kumar to build her confidence as a player.

“We work on the basics a lot because our coach…believes that if you have a solid foundation you’ll be a great player,” Kumar said.

For Paly junior Harrison Williams, an elite swimmer and centerpiece of the boys swim team, access to facilities has never been an issue, but with the arrival of the lockdown, he was forced to be creative with his training schedule.

“There weren’t many options,” Williams said. “In terms of offseason training I did what I could just going on runs doing bike rides.”

This fall, Williams has not taken the return of Paly athletics and their facilities for granted.

“Time spent at Paly is really valuable…  I try to take full advantage of it by competing with others and… spending that hour and a half efficiently,” Williams said.

Although it is not a fall sport, swimming is currently holding practices between the Paly and JLS pools. Williams believes that this extended offseason provides benefit to those who did not have access to proper training facilities over the break.

“For people that maybe didn’t [train] as much in quarantine, now is the perfect chance for them to get caught up,” Willaims said.

Between shutdowns from COVID and poor air quality from the fires, Williams found it difficult to establish mental consistency. He combatted this issue by leaning on the support of his teammates.

“[Every] once in a while, our team would get on the call together or do something in person, socially-distanced, [which] definitely helped me mentally,” Williams said.

While it appears that in the near future practices will continue at Paly, the primary event that Williams is concerned about happening is the CCS championship meet in May.

“For me, and for the Paly men’s swim team, I think we would all be really disappointed [if the event were cancelled] because we definitely have a really good shot this year to win our first ever CCS title,” Williams said.

For Isa Morabia (‘22), the restrictions have made cross country practices less accessible. Without the easy access of Paly facilities after school, the commute has become more challenging.

“I have to go from my house to practice, so it takes a while to get to Paly, and sometimes I don’t have a ride,” Morabia said.

Distance learning has also made it more difficult to attend practices.

“Once school ends I need some time to… sit back and rest because I am super tired from the day,” Morabia said. “When I go to practice right after school I tend to be in the wrong mindset.”

Due to the difficulty of attending Paly practices, Morabia has spent more time training individually, but she has found it tough to balance it with the school workload.

“Training at home can be challenging because, without a solid routine, it’s hard to find motivation to go out, but during the week I try to save time after school to go on runs around my neighborhood,” Morabia said.

Unlike Morabia, freshman runner Grant Morgenfeld has managed to maintain a consistent training schedule, despite the additional jump from middle school.

“I had a lot of fun running in middle school. And then I kept running during the pandemic; my routine wasn’t super different,” Morgenfeld said.

The lack of practices during the summer led Morgenfield to pursue hobbies outside of the track, such as learning to play the guitar.

“I already play the trumpet and piano so I wanted to learn something really different from both of those,” Morgenfeld said. “It was really cool trying out something unlike anything I’d done before.”

Even though the pandemic did not alter his routine significantly, the hours spent without his teammates ultimately spurred a deeper appreciation for the unity that team practices bring.

“I took it for granted before… I like running by myself, but it helps a lot to have someone challenging you,” Morgenfeld said.

Although in California it is more common to see athletes training in an outdoor pool or field, Justin Zhang (‘22) is an exception as an ice hockey player.

In mid-March, as the majority of schools and facilities began closing for quarantine, club and high school ice hockey also came to a halt.

As the pandemic has worsened, Zhang has become less hopeful about the prospect of a  season.

“We don’t really know,” Zhang said. “We’ve just been having camps so far, and tryouts have just been continuously pushed back. Before they said October and then pushed it back to the end of November.”

Even without the pandemic, there are many other challenges when it comes to playing ice hockey in California. Since there are not many teams, it can require teams to travel farther than other sports to compete. Although Zhang still hopes for even a postponed season, he is also concerned about what a pandemic season might look like.

“There’s only a couple of teams in California, which means we’d have to travel further to play other teams,” Zhang said.

While some students have been moving to other states to have school in-person, some of Zhang’s teammates have moved to other states that have less restrictions for hockey.

While Zhang has not pursued out of state options, his club has found ways to practice safely with new precautions and by skipping tournaments. However, Paly’s high school practices are still not being held. Although this situation isn’t ideal, Zhang is content with the ice time from club practices.

“We’ve been having practice for like four months now and it feels about normal in comparison to a usual season,” Zhang said.

The new safety precautions have also changed how Zhang trains. Previously, dryland workouts required the use of a gym and equipment, however due to high risk of cross-contamination in gyms and usage of shared equipment, the team was forced to find other ways to train.

“We don’t have access to the gym or weights anymore, because we couldn’t fit the whole roster into the gym safely,” Zhang said. “So we just do isometrics, body weight stuff, and running for dryland.”

The circumstances have forced Zhang’s coach to adapt to engage the team.

“I feel like the coach is just making up drills at this point. He does random agility and reaction drills I’ve never seen before,” Zhang said.

Dylan Oba (‘22), Zhang’s teammate on the Palo Alto High School hockey team, has also had a unique experience adapting to the new regulations.

Over the summer, informal summer camps for his club hockey team were held in Vacaville due to the more lenient restrictions in that county compared to other counties. Even though they were able to practice, spots were limited. Oba’s coach would send out an email to around 30 players, and the first 20-25 players to respond were allowed to practice.

“The coach has favorites and he only invites favorites,” Oba said.

With limited ice time, the stakes were extremely high and players that did not respond or said that they could not make a practice were not invited again.

To ensure athletes’ safety during practices, each athlete was required to fill out a questionnaire about their current health before practice and during practice, be socially distant with masks.

“For hockey, we have to change outside and then go into the rink fully dressed. We put on everything except for our skates outside,” Oba said. “[While] previously we had locker rooms.”

Vienna Liu (‘22), a soccer and field hockey player, has battled with injury throughout the pandemic period, which has made it simultaneously easier to cope with missed time and frustrating to not be able to take advantage of limited field time.

Liu’s injury occurred during one of the first Paly soccer practices last December. Just ten minutes into practice, Liu tore her achilles: a rare occurrence for someone her age.

This forced Lui to take a break from sports for the rest of the winter season and into the spring season as she underwent surgery and recovered.

Liu approached the break from sports during COVID no different from her initial routines in recovery.

“I think one way to look at it was it gave me a chance to really focus on going back and getting back into sports because I was able to focus on my rehab and everything,” Liu said. “So I think in some ways, the break was beneficial for me but definitely not for anyone that was actually participating in sports.”

Towards the end of April, with many sports resuming virtual practices online, Liu was cleared to participate in fitness-oriented activities as long as they were not too rigorous.

Sports practices are the highlight of my day just because [of the] socialization factor.”

— Liu '22

Over the summer, she focused heavily on running progressions and endurance. When Palo Alto Soccer Club, the club soccer team Liu plays for, began resuming in-person practices towards the end of July, Liu’s doctor had just cleared her for sprinting and running exercises.

As Liu has slowly emerged from a debilitating injury, she has begun to feel the limitations that the pandemic has brought. In September, Liu’s doctor cleared her for contact and physical play, however it hasn’t allowed her to do any more than what she has been doing at practices since contact drills are not allowed.

Nevertheless, Liu is grateful that she was able to make a healthy recovery and that the timeline of her recovery somewhat matched that of returning to sports practice during the pandemic.

She now plays both club soccer outside of school and field hockey at Paly, which have given her an opportunity to escape from online classes.

“Well, right now, just because we’re on our screen for eight hours a day…sports practices are the highlight of my day just because [of the] socialization factor. I love just being able to sweat,” Liu said. “[Y]ou really take sports for granted…in this time I think you really appreciate the opportunities you have just to go out and play soccer with friends, a couple times a week.”

Looking around at the Paly football field, it’s hard to tell that there is a pandemic. The football team stretches and laughs together, but they speak a little louder than usual to bridge the six foot gap that separates them.

Despite the regulations in place and the uncertain status of sports this year, Ontiveros believes that head coach Nelson Gifford has the team on track for a successful season.

“[The coaches] are hopeful for the season but they know how serious the situation is and they make sure that everyone is handling the situation correctly,” Ontiveros said. “Right now we’ve been going over the playbooks on offense and defense a lot, we’re going over everything we need to know and we feel prepared.”

Playbook study and conditioning has made up the bulk of football practices so far, but that is set to change on December 14th, the day the team will be cleared to wear pads during practice. The 14th also marks a year and 22 days since the Vikings heartbreaking 40-36 loss to Oak Grove in the playoffs last year, which continues to motivate the players this season.

“We lived and learned from the loss, but it for sure fuels us to make the push further [through the playoffs] this year,” Ontiveros said.

When Ontiveros first stepped onto Paly campus four years ago, he never thought his last year at Paly would primarily be spent in the confines of his home. With the school year uncertain, Ontiveros recognizes that his team may be one of the last physical connections with the Paly community as a senior.

“I’m surprised because time flies like everyone says. I can remember my freshman year clearly, and now it’s my last few months of Paly, but I’m ready to give it one more go,” Ontiveros said.

The vibrant climate that many of Paly’s most quintessential traditions bring to the school has been extinguished by online learning. With practices back in action, students have received a long awaited reconnection with this beloved student life. It has not been easy; limited practice times, restrictions, and an uncertain future have put a damper on the Viking spirit that typically thrives. Nevertheless, for a few hours as each day wanes, Paly sports have created a semblance of the classic buzz of autumn life back on the campus.