OCEAN — The scoreboard, the gym floor, the volleyball and the net were about the only normal things in Croatan’s 3-0 sweep of Lejeune.

Well, that and the score. The Cougars starting a 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference-only schedule with a one-sided 25-7, 25-5, 25-12 victory was unsurprising for a program riding a 26-game league win streak.

Plus, the overall points differential, 75-24, indicates little time spent dialing up the victory, which has been the norm between the two teams historically, with Croatan holding a 6-0 edge, all by straight sets, according to MaxPreps.

Everything else was new and different, though, from the 25-fan capacity, the spaced-out chairs for players to sit in and the tape on the bleachers indicating where fans could sit to the teams waving “good game” at the end of the match instead of shaking hands or dapping fists.

The biggest difference due to the COVID-19 pandemic was on the players’ faces – two-ply cotton masks with the school logo imprinted on the front. Players were prepared for the mandate instituted by the N.C. High School Athletic Association a few weeks ago thanks for some foresight from Croatan head coach Lindsey Gurley.

“Ever since before tryouts, we’ve been working out in masks,” Gurley said. “I knew that was coming, because colleges have been playing in masks. I wanted them to be ready so it wasn’t another shock. Like anything else, you just have to make the adjustment and roll with it.”

Annmarie Benson played most of the three-set match and said the mask didn’t really bother her.

“It’s not much different,” she said. “It’s a little more difficult to breathe, but it doesn’t get in our way. We wear it at every single practice, so we’ve gotten used to breathing in it and sweating in it and getting all gross. It’s not a big deal.”

Wearing a mask is even easier when at match lasts less than an hour. The Cougars cruised past the Devil Pups with long serving runs, like in the second set when Cammie Davis led an 8-point run, Devon Statham a 7-point run and Benson a 5-point run.

Points came quickly and easily but without much relish. Verbal celebrations were muffled and the whole-team high-fives for players entering and exiting the game were replaced by air-fives.

“We’ll have to figure out what we can do to add that spark when someone comes in or out,” Gurley noted.

Fans in games this year will be limited to parents of players on the team. There are 11 girls on the jayvee team and 13 on the varsity squad. The state has implemented a limit of 25 non-essential personnel allowed to spectate indoor athletic events. The cost of the tickets remains $6, leaving little wiggle room to cover costs of the season.

Additionally, boosters accustomed to receiving season passes to athletic events are not able to attend this year.

“I had to send an email to our sponsors this year and say, ‘This year is for the kids,’” Croatan athletic director Dave Boal said. “The passes we normally give just can’t happen. No one had a problem with that. They were all understanding. We sent the same email to past sponsors, and people actually sent money.”

The school has also opened up athletic events to a digital audience with the purchase of two Pixellot cameras, automating end-to-end broadcasting for games and matches.

“I bought it simply because we’re between two bases, not because we’re in a pandemic,” Boal said. “We have a lot of fans who live away from the school who would love a chance to watch the games.”

One of the fans fortunate enough to be in the stands was Croatan boys lacrosse coach George Benson, father of volleyball spiker AnnMarie. With a foot in both camps, Benson was just excited that athletics were happening amid the pandemic.

“It would have been so easy to say no season,” he said. “The NCHSAA did a good job of figuring something out, especially for those seniors. It’s nice that there’s something. It’s easy to get caught up in the pain in the neck of all this, but the truth is, at least we’ve got it. If this is what it takes to play, I’m for it.”

The seven-match season will hopefully go on as planned for Croatan, and the rest of the state’s volleyball, cross country, and swimming and diving teams as part of the first wave of 2021 prep sports. Uncertainty, however, will be a present feeling following an elongated set of cancellations in the spring.

“I was nervous then, and I’m still nervous,” Gurley said. “I still remember feeling like we’d be back in two weeks when the softball season got called off in March, and then every week, it got worse and worse. I dread that phone call or email from the state shutting us down again. We just have to hope it doesn’t happen.”

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