OTTAWA - All the Ottawa volleyball players had was a simple, little checklist that many of them used for summer camp this year.

And they practiced in a simple, little grade school gym in the suburbs of Ottawa.

Somehow the little things managed to keep Ottawa focused in just enough time to save their season.

"We have these summer workout sheets that we have," senior Emily Underhill said. "We called the girls and had them do those. They're like ab workouts and stuff like that. Then we got a gym, too. Wallace grade school let us use their gym in the mornings. We started practicing at like 6:30 in the morning and went to 8:30."

The checklists were the only guidance the Lady Pirates could have in the more than three weeks away from playing high school volleyball. The gym was the only real place Ottawa volleyball could call home in the more than three weeks away from Kingman Gymnasium.

Because of the teachers' strike, Ottawa's volleyball players, like many other OTHS athletes, had to practice on their own with their coaches prohibited from any type of teaching or instructing the game.

And like many other OTHS sports, volleyball could not be played anywhere on the OTHS grounds because of the strike.

Until now.

The strike settled early Monday morning and the sound of sneakers screeching and volleyballs thudding the hardwood floor were back.

It never felt so good for Ottawa head coach Bernadette Savitch.

"I'd like to say that it feels like we never left, and part of me feels that way," Savitch said at her team's first practice in more than three weeks Monday night. "It's just such a great group of girls that we have this year. The smiles when we walked in the gym, that's something that I will never forget."

Most Ottawa athletes would like to forget the fall season because of the strike.

Ottawa offers nine sports in the fall, and seven of them had their seasons prematurely ended because of the strike. Football, boys and girls golf, boys and girls cross country, girls tennis and boys soccer all watched as the postseason came and went without being able to participate.

The only two that remain are volleyball and swimming.

The Lady Pirates are thankful they have one chance left when they host the Class 3A Ottawa Regional, which begins on Thursday night when they face top-seeded La Salle-Peru at 6 p.m. in Kingman Gymnasium.

"It's a special thing that we're some of the only people who have gotten to finish their season," Underhill said. "It's good for us being seniors. Some of us aren't going any farther than this. This is our last chance to really show what we've got, especially having everybody at home, too. I know a lot of fans are coming."

Senior outside hitter Jessica Adams, who led Ottawa with five kills in the Lady Pirates' last meeting, a loss, against L-P on Sept. 17, is excited to take on her rivals Thursday.

She will also no doubt be thinking of her fellow OTHS athletes when she steps out on the floor again clad in Pirate Red and White.

"I feel it's really great that we get to do this, but I feel bad for the other sports, too," Adams said. "It's one match, maybe even more if we win, but it's still exciting that we get to have our Senior Night and everything and it's disappointing that the other sports didn't."

The last time Ottawa played a competitive high school volleyball match came against another rival, Streator, on Sept. 29 in Kingman.

In three thrilling games, the Lady Pirates fell 25-21, 26-28, 25-21 to the Lady Bulldogs. The next day the strike set in. There was no practice, and as each day passed, hope got slimmer and slimmer that a settlement or a season's salvation would ever come.

When it did, it was a surprise.

"We practiced a few times the second week of the strike, and we were like, ‘We don't really want to be doing this for nothing,'" Underhill said. "I don't want to say that we gave up hope with it, but it's hard to come back from that, thinking we were done already. Then they were like, ‘Hey, you've got to play.'"

Playing is the hardest part.

"You lose most of your muscle tone," Adams said. "Right now, we're just trying to get that back. Hopefully, we'll be able to get it back before the match."

If they don't, Thursday night's match with L-P will be fueled by 100-percent emotion.

At least no one can take that away from them.

"The fact of the matter is we're here," Savitch said. "And we have to move forward. The girls are up for it."

Jim Cogdal can be reached at 223-3200, ext. 139, or at sports@newstrib.com.

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