After not completing the 2019-2020 season due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bahamian professional volleyball players Shonari Hepburn and Eugene Stuart were able to play out entire 2020-2021 seasons in Switzerland and Romania respectively.
In Romania, Stuart helped CSM Arcada Galati lift Romania’s Divizia A1 League trophy in his first season with the club. They defeated CSA Steaua Bucharest three sets to one on Sunday, winning the first two sets, dropping the third and then winning the fourth to close out the match. They prevailed, 25-19, 25-18, 21-25 and 25-23. The match was played at the Danube Sports Hall in Galati, Romania.
It was Arcada’s second straight league title after winning in 2019. The 2020 season was canceled.
In the Nationalliga A (NLA) in Switzerland, Hepburn and his team, TV Schönenwerd (8-6), came away with a bronze medal in the league playoffs and silver medal in the Mobiliar Volley Cup.
On Wednesday, Hepburn was able to contribute 14 points in a three sets to one victory over Lausanne University Club (8-6) in the bronze medal matchup at the Betencoupe Arena in Schönenwerd, Switzerland. They won that match, 25-23, 25-21, 27-29 and 25-20. Hepburn had nine kills on 15 attempts and five blocks.
“At first when we lost in the semifinal I was livid,” Hepburn stated. “My goal coming into the season was to make and win both finals – Swiss cup and the league, but looking back at everything we went through during the year, untimely injuries, multiple times in quarantine, having to quarantine before semifinals started, ending the year with a silver and a bronze medal is still something I can be proud of.”
They lost a tough match three sets to two against TSV Jona Volleyball (7-7) at the end of March in the Mobiliar Volley Cup to finish with a silver medal. They won the first two sets and looked like they were on the way to winning the cup, but TSV Jona won the final three sets, prevailing 12-25, 22-25, 26-24, 25-23 and 15-12.
According to the fifth-year player, it was a more competitive season in the NLA last year than this year. Personally, he feels that he is still improving and has more to learn.
“My play this season was solid overall, despite the circumstances we faced,” Hepburn said. “I’ve honestly been improving year to year. I still have a lot to learn although I’ve been playing professionally for five seasons I still don’t know where my ceiling is. I started playing volleyball in 2011 so I’m still young volleyball-wise. The main thing that I would say is that I got better at this season was my situation awareness, picking up things earlier, reading the game and seeing things before it happens, knowing when to risk and when not to – just on multiple ways to impact the game.”
Playing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on the middle blocker, he said. The Bahamian pro player said that there were constant concerns and doubts about if the season was going to be canceled. He said it feels good to have a full season under his belt in the midst of COVID-19.
“At the beginning of the season we had fans, there were light measures in place for COVID-19; but at the end of October the numbers started to rise again, so by November we were playing without spectators. It was definitely something you couldn’t get used to. We played in the (Swiss) cup final, in a hockey arena that can hold close to 5,000 people but no spectators were allowed in the gym. It was a different feeling for sure,” Hepburn stated.
For him, playing volleyball was a great escape from the reality of dealing with the issues of the COVID-19 pandemic. He practiced or lifted weights in the mornings, got lunch, went home and practiced in the evenings while avoiding unnecessary contact and hanging out.
As for next season, Hepburn said: “My plans are still up in the air right now. My agent is talking to a few clubs in France and Germany that are interested in me, but I will sit down with the club (TV Schönenwerd) – hopefully next week before I leave Switzerland.”
He said he will be looking to come home to The Bahamas for a much needed break after being in Switzerland from August 2020. However, coming home for Hepburn will be a tedious journey as the location of his connecting destinations have travel restrictions and protocols in place.
“Right now, it’s seemingly impossible to get home,” Hepburn stated. “All the flights that go to Nassau go through the United States of America, and they currently have a ban on some European countries coming in. So, coming from Switzerland I’m not allowed to transit through the US to get home. My club and I are trying to figure out the best option right now.”
Both players are looking to build on their play from this past season and elevate their game for next season.