With the Big Ten’s decision to nix the fall sports season, and potentially move these sports to a spring season, the conversation has been dominated by football. That is not surprising given the sport’s popularity and the massive amounts of revenue it generates, but what has seemingly been lost in all of this is the fact that other athletic programs around the conference are also dealing with the consequences of the Big Ten’s choice — men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. The lives of these student-athletes have been affected in many ways.
With the fall season being “postponed,” and really no clear plan yet for what a spring season may look like, there are many questions and challenges these student-athletes are facing. One of whom is Michigan State volleyball player, Elena Shklyar. The junior setter gave The Only Colors some in-depth insights into what it’s been like for the volleyball program leading up to and since the announcement.
“My initial reaction to fall sports being postponed to this spring was that I kind of saw it coming, but once it was finally official, it sucked because we were all looking forward to actually having a season this fall,” Shklyar said. “Most of the team was pretty upset at first because it affects everyone in different ways, like seniors are now deciding if they’re going to come back (or not). Everyone on the team is figuring out how that affects us personally.
“After we all talked about it as a team we all kind of came to the conclusion that this doesn’t change anything from our goal. We still have the same goal of winning a national championship, and whether it happens in December or June or whenever we actually might get to play a national championship, we just need to keep working hard. We are determined to use this extra time to train and get ahead since we lost this time in the spring.”
Shklyar is extremely accomplished in her young career. Playing at Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, she helped the Saxons win a state championship as a senior. Her list of accolades is long, as she was named both the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year and Virginia 6A State Player of the Year in 2017. She was also a first-team all-state selection in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and received honorable mention for Under Armor High School All-America and PrepVolleyball High School All-America honors, among many other recognitions. She also played with the Virginia Elite Volleyball club for several seasons.
So far in her first two seasons at Michigan State playing under head coach Cathy George, Shklyar has appeared in 61 matches and 185 sets. She likens playing the setter position in volleyball to that of a quarterback in football or a point guard in basketball.
As a sophomore in 2019, she averaged 4.65 assists per set and 1.23 digs per frame, with 13 aces. In her first year, Shklyar found her way into MSU’s freshman record book, as her 852 assists and 7.96 assists per frame both ranked seventh for the Spartans in a debut season. In the 2019-2020 academic year, Shklyar earned Academic All-Big Ten honors and was named as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar (2019-20).
While the Big Ten’s decision was disappointing for Shklyar and her teammates, it wasn’t surprising, and she ultimately felt the right choice was made.
“Overall I think that postponing the fall season was the right call just because I don’t know how we could have had the season and completed the season while keeping everyone safe,” Shklyar said. “It would have been really hard because if one person gets sick everyone has to quarantine for two weeks and then you would lose those two weeks of practice and potential games and the season was already cut so short to (a) conference-only (schedule) that it just would have made the season way shorter. Who knows if they would have actually been able to have a national championship in the fall, which is the main goal of having a season. I think it was the right choice to postpone the season to the spring in order to keep us all safe and hopefully have more of a real season in the spring.”
Obviously, there are going to be big changes to the way the volleyball team operates this fall. Instead of practicing for long hours and competing against both non-conference and conference foes from the months of August through November, the program now has to treat the fall essentially like the offseason.
The team will still train as much as the NCAA allows, but it’s going to look and feel a lot different.
“Our training schedule for the fall is going run more like (how) our spring offseason would be run, traditionally,” Shklyar said. “So we’re going to have individual practices with your position as well as some team practices, but it’s going to be less hours than we would originally have during the fall season. So we’ll (probably) get 20-hour-weeks with our coaches and continue to have lifts and practices and runs and all of that, but we won’t be traveling to play games like we typically would in the fall.”
This is of course a big difference compared to what a normal fall would look like in literally any other year. Shklyar and her teammates were ramping up for the season prior to the Big Ten’s announcement.
“Before the announcement of the fall season getting postponed we were training with our coaches and we had just started double days of preseason with practicing twice a day and a lift or run,” Shklyar said. “I’m not exactly sure what the hours limit is right now, but I know our training schedule is going to be changing based off of when the NCAA or Big Ten comes out with and what our spring season would look like because we’re going to start amping up the training once we get closer to actually having a season.”
The volleyball team recently hit another bump in the road as a player tested positive for COVID-19. The squad has been working out in smaller groups of less than 10 people (the gym is currently limited to 10 individuals in total), and the player who tested positive happened to be in Shklyar’s group. This forced Shklyar and the other players in the workout group, as well as any others who were exposed to the player who tested positive, to be quarantined for a two-week period.
The volleyball team was initially being tested twice a week upon their return to campus this summer, and had to test negative twice before being allowed to train, but testing has since been limited to individuals who were exposed or feeling symptoms. The athletes are still getting screened and getting their temperatures checked every time they enter the gym, though.
For many of the players, they’ve been training in this sport throughout their entire youth. While there are obvious changes to their schedules and physical training regimens, with added COVID-19 precautions to deal with, there are also mental health aspects to consider for these young student-athletes who had their season taken away. Still, though, the team won’t let this unprecedented situation interrupt what the program is building.
“In general, we’ve talked a lot about how we can’t let COVID get in the way of us being a team,” Shklyar said. “Our coach has said it’s like the biggest game we’ve ever had. COVID is taking away our time in the gym together and our season, and now we really just need to stay together.”
Speaking of scholarships, the coronavirus pandemic also has certain financial implications, and without a football season in the fall, Michigan State athletics could potentially lose $80-$85 million in the fiscal year. The revenue football generates helps support smaller athletic programs, which could put certain sports at risk. However, while there may be small changes from the past — such as taking long bus rises instead of plane rides to certain events — Shklyar said the coaches and athletic department have given them plenty of confidence that scholarships will be honored and volleyball is generally safe as one of the five main sports at MSU (along with football, men’s and women’s basketball and hockey).
In fact, Shklyar was really complimentary of the athletic staff. She noted that she feels completely safe on campus during these scary times and that Michigan State has really gone above and beyond to make sure its students are supported physically, mentally and emotionally. She was also thankful for the support the East Lansing community has shown the team.
The spring is used mostly for training for the volleyball team, however there are a few tournaments against other schools in March and April (these events were of course canceled last spring). A potential spring season in 2021 could look more like a condensed version of the fall regular season, possibly with a conference-only schedule, no conference tournaments and a national championship tournament.
Shklyar, a journalism major, will be graduating this spring — a feat she’ll accomplish in just three years. She will be returning to the volleyball team for her fourth year of eligibility while pursuing her master’s degree.
While Shklyar and her teammates can’t wait to get back onto the court and have to wait a little bit longer to do so, the goal remains the same.
“It’s not an easy time whatsoever, but our whole staff and our whole team has really been focused on making sure we keep our goal in mind, which is to win a national championship. So, again, whether that is happening in December or April, that is still the goal. It’s difficult, it’s a set back, thinking about having to wait four months or six months or however long it will be, but we just have to keep training like we would be otherwise. There’s not much else in our control, and that’s how we prepare ourselves.”