DOBSON — When he was hired as Surry Community College’s volleyball coach in November 2019, Caleb Gilley understandably expected his first year with the Lady Knights to be very different than it actually was.
For one thing, he had no reason to think the 2020 season would take place at any time other than fall. But, just as it did worldwide, COVID-19 would change the course of Gilley’s first 11 months with the program.
Instead of wrapping up the season like the Knights did about this time last year, Gilley’s team just finished the fall portion of its off-season schedule with a pair of scrimmages.
Surry Community completed its third of three allotted scrimmage dates by hosting Sandhills Community College and Davidson County Community College on Friday.
Playing at home was a treat for the Lady Knights. Until September, the team hadn’t even been allowed to compete against other schools.
Coronavirus regulations limited all athletic activities beginning in March and running through the summer.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, I’m not going to lie,” Gilley said. “I know it’s not just with me. It’s been a challenge for every coach in the country at every age group.”
Surry athletics were suspended in early March before ultimately being cancelled on March 16. The college was on spring break the week prior and just never came back to in-person learning during the 2019-20 school year.
Outside of recruiting, Gilley’s time with his future team was limited from then on.
“The group that returned, I spent very little time with, and the group coming in I’d essentially spent no time with them,” he said.
Gilley already knew his players were talented. He’d seen many of them play in high school, except then he was coaching against them as the head of East Surry’s program.
However, not being able to spend time with his players postponed the process of getting to know each of his players, both as individual student-athletes and a whole team.
“Out of this entire group, the only one I’d ever coached before was Jordyn Coe, which I think was eighth grade.”
The team didn’t have all summer to run workouts and build chemistry, so they’re doing it now.
The Knights are making the most of their three dates allotted by the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Shortly after beginning workouts, SCC traveled to Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina. The Knights battled the host team as well as Virginia’s Bryant and Stratton College.
Surry’s second set of scrimmages took place at Winston-Salem’s Carolina University, where Gilley’s squad played against the host Bruins as well as South Carolina’s Bob Jones University.
The Friday scrimmages marked the first time Surry competed at home in nearly a year. It was also the home debut for nine of the 13 players. This debut was much different from years past with no fans being allowed.
“It was definitely a challenge for us to just to find that energy,” Gilley said. “There were some fans at Spartanburg; and Carolina University was packed, so it was easy to feed off the crowd then.”
The lack of energy from the Knights resulted in an early deficit in the 2 p.m. match against Sandhills Community College. The visiting Flyers maintained roughly a four-point advantage throughout the opening set. Surry tied the score at 14-14, but failed to take the lead.
Gilley called a timeout down 16-20 that would be a turning point in the match.
“We talk every day about bringing our own energy,” he said. “Basically, our entire conversation during the timeout was about how we played that first set with essentially no energy and were only down a little.”
Surry came out of the timeout and scored the next seven points to lead 23-20, ultimately winning the set 25-22.
Once energy was brought back into the equation, Gilley could focus on trying new strategies and formations to test each player’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s experimented with positions quite a bit in an attempt to find the optimal lineups for the season, which is something he planned on doing when he recruited certain players.
“You look at someone like Jenna Simpson,” Gilley said. “She’s been a middle hitter her entire life, but she hasn’t played a minute of that this year. It’s all about finding what works best for the team. Everyone is doing a really good job.”
The Knights went on to win the Sandhills match 3-1, with set scores of 25-22, 25-18, 14-25 and 26-24.
Later in the day Surry faced Davidson County Community College. Surry won the first two sets 25-21 and 25-12, but the Storm took the final three by scores of 25-21, 25-22 and 15-12.
“We are by no means where I want us to be, but we still have a few months to go,” Gilley said of the upcoming season scheduled to begin in January. “We’ve only been going at it about six or seven weeks now, and we’re a whole lot better now than two weeks ago, and significantly better than we were in September.”
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith