Carlson: Why tears turned from disappointment to joy for some Oklahoma high school athletes
Cici Fraticelli happened to glance at her phone and see a text from her coach during her seventh-hour class last Friday afternoon.
Practice, only an hour or so away, was canceled. So was a weekend tournament. Worse, the team's season might be over after Oklahoma City Public Schools suspended athletics indefinitely amid rising coronavirus numbers.
“I cried a few tears,” Fraticelli said.
Wednesday afternoon, she got another text that caused tears — Oklahoma City Public decided to resume sports on Monday.
“It was happy tears,” she said.
During a week of high emotions for high school athletes across the metro area, football got most of the attention when the Oklahoma City, Putnam City and Millwood districts hit the pause button last week. But cross country, softball and volleyball were also stopped in their tracks — and for softball and volleyball, the stoppage came at the worst time.
Regionals and districts start this week, state tournaments next week.
No sidelined team had higher postseason hopes than the volleyball team at Southeast High.
Ranking: No. 13 in Class 5A.
The Spartans were playing some splendid ball. After losing their season opener, they hadn’t lost a set, much less a match. They felt good about their chances in the All-City Conference Tournament after winning the Chickasha Invitational a couple weekends ago, the first time they won that tournament in more than a decade.
“We were on a high,” Southeast coach Valerie Bryant said. “I mean, we were excited.”
For good reason.
Volleyball has languished in Oklahoma City Public Schools for years. Southeast, just 10 minutes south of downtown on Shields Boulevard, hasn’t been immune to the struggles. Bryant, who has been at Southeast for more than a decade, has taken a couple of her teams to state, but most years, it’s been hard for the Spartans to win more than they lose.
Then several years ago, the Oklahoma City Police Athletic League added volleyball for girls in elementary and middle school. One of the hopes was that it would give high school teams a feeder system, a pipeline of experienced players.
“Well, we are finally seeing these girls at the high school,” Bryant said. “What they started sowing, we’re reaping.”
Southeast’s players have developed a passion for the sport. Many of them play year round, some even joining sand volleyball leagues. Even these past few days, they did what they could to practice on their own at home, hitting off garage walls or backyard fences.
And it’s not just that the players at Southeast have higher individual skills; they have a higher level of teamwork, too, because they have played together a lot over the years.
“We already knew each other,” freshman middle blocker Luisa Talavera said. “We had that relationship. We knew how we played. We just knew how we roll.”
Sophomore setter and outside hitter Kim Alvarez said. “We’re not just a team. We’re a family.”
That made last week’s news all the more difficult.
Even though Southeast had a mantra from the first day of practice in July — “Play the game like it’s your last one because we never know what’s gonna happen” — the Spartans had allowed themselves to start believing the pandemic wasn't going to stop them. Days became weeks, and weeks became months, and they thought they would get through their whole season without a stoppage or a cancellation.
Then, OKC Public hit the pause button last Friday.
Indoor sports stopped immediately, which meant the Spartans weren’t even sure they’d have a chance to say a proper goodbye to each other. What if the pandemic pause snuffed out the rest of their season? What if they didn’t have a chance to be together on the court again?
Five days later, they got answers, good ones.
They’ll be back on the court Monday for practice.
That news caused Cici Fraticelli to get more texts. The junior libero is Southeast’s team captain, and when word got out about the district’s change of course, her teammates started flooding her cell with messages.
They were as emotional as she was.
“It definitely, definitely feels good,” she said, laughing. “We have a whole week to fix things, get better and work on what we need to work on for regionals.”
Southeast volleyball always had great expectations for the postseason.
Now, the Spartans have great appreciation for it, too.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.