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Hitting and hoping

Lanna Dellick of Ursuline High School returns a shot during a workout last week at the Volney Rogers tennis courts in Youngstown. (Staff photo / John Vargo)

YOUNGSTOWN — Nagging doubts are in the minds of high school fall sports coaches and athletes. It’s hard to shake those depressing feelings. Even the masks, social distancing and precautions can’t hide the trepidation.

Will there be fall sports?

Lanna Dellick took the yellow tennis ball from the grip of her fingers, threw it in the air, swung her racquet and lobbed a shot over the netted barrier midway between the two players.

It was the escape she needed from the inundation of the COVID-19 pandemic surrounding herself with family, teammates and coaches.

The Ursuline High School girls tennis player takes the hour or two of open hitting recently at Volney Rogers tennis courts inside Mill Creek Park as her escape.

Staff photo / John Vargo The Irish’s Anna Morgione keeps her eye on the ball during a return.

“It is kind of a good escape from the state of the world right now and everything,” Dellick said. “Being around supportive people is nice. It really feels like a family.

“Even with these regulations, we’re strong. It’s not going to break us. We’re going to have a good season, if we have a season.”

Temperature checks and about a half-dozen coronavirus-related questions occur before stepping through the gate to enter the green-colored, paved courts, with tennis racket, individual water bottles and hand sanitizer in their possession.

The United States Tennis Association has given individuals and teams guidelines to follow to be as safe as possible during the pandemic.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association and the state of Ohio deemed tennis, golf and volleyball as low- to non-contact sports.

Ursuline coach Kent Blacksher has the same questions as his athletes. Will they have a season this fall? The situation remains fluid with the narrative and guidance changing more than a lengthy rally between tennis competitors. However, the OHSAA emphasized practices for all fall sports begin Aug. 1.

Players are asked to use common sense, don’t take water breaks next to one another, wear your masks when you arrive and leave, keep wearing it during play if it makes you feel comfortable. Gov. Mike DeWine, in his mask mandate, said masks do not have to be worn when people actively exercise.

“Let’s make sure we’re taking care of each other,” Blacksher said. “Let’s keep it fun. Hit some balls and get ready for a season that hopefully happens. Just do the little things right.”

High-fives and shaking hands as starting lineups are introduced prior to a match are all gone in the era of COVID-19.

More new tennis balls are used. Any loose tennis ball trickling to another court should be picked up by a racket or from the player’s foot, as hand touching is kept to a minimum.

The new rules and regulations won’t shake Ursuline’s resolve.

“I think the team is doing good, even with these guidelines,” Dellick said. “We’re a strong team, so I don’t think that has put a dent into that.”

Blacksher saw the warm sunshine beam down on the courts on the outskirts of downtown Youngstown. The Irish coach saw some of his girls hit back and forth to one another. Members of his boys tennis team partook earlier on this particular day, socially distancing as the sport promotes.

“We’ve got kids out on the courts, distant but hitting balls — enjoying the sport,” Blacksher said. “That’s all we hope for. We lost spring sports. We’re coming off a boys season that would’ve been one for the books. That’s gone. I want to make sure this season happens, whether it happens in the fall or it happens in the spring. I don’t want to see any more athletes lose their seasons.

“A couple hours a day, it’s nice to get away and get back to putting the ball into the strings.”

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