WEST FARGO — West Fargo Sheyenne assistant boys soccer coach Jacob Anderson was taking the temperature of every player as they walked into the first practice of the season Monday. Head coach Jon Melendez-Soloaga was finishing sanitizing the equipment and making sure each person completed the screening questions and sanitized their hands.
“Where’s your mask?” Melendez-Soloaga asked one of his players who wasn’t wearing a face covering when he walked in. “When you walk in, that’s part of the rules.”
The Mustangs, along with boys soccer teams statewide who started practice Monday, Aug. 3, were navigating their new normal ahead of the fall season.
“It’s a lot of emotions coming through because not only are we privileged to play and get our boys outside and see them play, I know the other parts of the country are not able to do what we're doing right now, so I mean, that's big,” Melendez-Soloaga said.
Boys soccer was the first high school sport in North Dakota to return to any kind of action — game or practice — in 143 days since sports came to a screeching halt March 13 in the early days of the pandemic.
Finalizing and implementing protocol — down to the smallest detail — was important for Melendez-Soloaga ahead of the first practice Monday.
“We can’t come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this, and everybody walk in just like normal,’” he said. “We have to understand this pandemic going on right now and we have to flatten the curve a little bit more. Then we have to do our part and teach our players, you do your part and we’ll be able to play. If we do it right, we’ll be able to play longer and more.”
Pre-practice was far from normal, and will be for the forseeable future. When players arrive, they have to wait outside the gate until one of Sheyenne’s coaches OKs them to come in, and when they do so, they have to be socially distanced and wearing a mask while they’re in line. Masks can be taken off when the players are on the field, but the Mustangs are required to wear them coming into the facility and when they’re right next to each other, including while they’re stretching.
Walking out to the field, there’s cones set up so players spread their bags out. There’s also no sharing of water bottles or pinnies, and soccer balls are sanitized after they’re used.
“We did all of that during summer camp, too. We’re just erring on the safe side as we start up, because we know that if something goes wrong our season can be taken away from us, and we don’t want that to happen,” Anderson said. “So trying to make sure we were able to play this fall.”
A town over, the Fargo Davies boys soccer team was also trying to gauge how to hold their first practice during a pandemic.
Eagles head coach Ian Costello sat inside the gate at the school’s soccer field pumping up balls and preparing for practice Monday as cars pulled up to the facility right on time.
His players didn’t pour out of their cars and onto the field like they would have for any normal soccer practice, though. They sat there in their cars and stood around keeping their distance outside the gate.
Nobody quite knew what to do.
“Kids are still trying to get used to the idea of school and sports and something sort of normal,” Costello said. “After the initial sort of feeling out process of what was going to happen, it started to just be soccer and we got right back to it.
Costello felt it, too. During practice, he told his team his interactions as of late have been with his two daughters and his wife.
"I teach English, so normally leading a large group comes naturally to me, but I was sort of fumbling with how to communicate," Costello said.
When sports were initially suspended during the Class A girls and boys basketball state tournaments in March, Monday marked almost five months since high school teams in the state were able to hold practice.
Fargo Shanley senior soccer player Kyle Stich missed out on his golf season last spring — though his hockey season wrapped up before high school sports got shut down — and he is happy to be back in action.
“There was a lot of anticipation when we were waiting for the decision to be made,” Stich said. “It was a big relief to find out that we would and we were excited to be playing again.”
While they weren’t allowed to have any official practices, Stich says he and his Deacons teammates got together this summer to play as often as they could, so it was fairly natural for them to transition back into a normal practice routine. But off the field was a little different story.
"You’ve got to grab water separately. Only one athlete is allowed in the trainer’s room," Stich said. "We’re still getting close and doing 1-v-1s and everything like that during practice. The off-the-field stuff is definitely different, but other than that it’s pretty much the same.”
The North Dakota High School Activities Association laid out some soccer-specific rules in its Return to Competition Guidelines prior to the season starting, including allowing for physical distancing whenever possible and banning pregame and postgame handshakes. Player introductions will also take place while standing in their positions on the field instead of in a line near the sidelines.
But how to handle games and practices while minimizing the potential spread of the coronavirus is mostly coming down to each school’s coaches and administrators.
“We clean up the equipment after practice,” Shanley coach Ryan Christianson said. “We’ve got to sanitize the balls, cones, wash practice jerseys we use. And we keep track of who is playing with who — we do smaller-sided games in groups and keep track of who is with who in case we have somebody who tests positive, we can contact trace who they may have exposed.”
With boys soccer the first test for high school sports, Costello said "it’s sort of the feeling of being guinea piggish.
"You are the first sport, so here are some guidelines," Costello said. "When football and cross country and other sports start up, hopefully we’ve made no mistakes, but if we have then hopefully other sports can learn from what we do good or bad, I guess.”
Anderson said Sheyenne's program has been following guidance from the school district and public health officials.
“It takes extra time but following the guidelines and making sure we can do what we can is important,” Anderson said. “... We’ll do what it takes to stay out here.”
While masks aren’t currently a requirement for the Mustangs while playing, Sheyenne senior defender and captain Jackson Kuznia said if the team had to wear one, they would.
“We love the game. We all love to play soccer so much, so if it came down to where we had to wear a mask to practice I think we all would,” Kuznia said. “We wouldn't enjoy it but we would do it just to play the game that we all love," Kuznia said.