MOORHEAD — Every day when he drives to his home in West Fargo, Moorhead Park Christian head football coach Lawton Burgstahler sees teams across Fargo and West Fargo preparing for their fall football seasons.
But Burgstahler and his Falcons won’t get to have their football season for more than six months — and for Park Christian and many other small schools in Minnesota, there won’t be any fall sports at all.
“You’re disappointed because four miles away, North Dakota is going,” Burgstahler said. “I live in West Fargo and it’s tough to go home and see a bunch of the teams practicing.”
After the Minnesota State High School League’s decision to move football and volleyball to the spring, Park Christian and other small high schools that don’t sponsor cross country, soccer, swimming or tennis are left with no sports at all. They’re facing a second consecutive preps season with no sports after last spring's seasons were wiped out due to coronavirus pandemic.
Park Christian students have the choice to participate in some select sports as part of a co-op with Fargo Shanley and Oak Grove, but that’s not a luxury all schools have.
“It’s trickier for smaller schools that only have volleyball and football as fall options,” Norman County East-Ulen-Hitterdal football coach Dustin Flaten said. “For those with fall sports that are still able to compete, that is great for them. But in this community we don’t have that option. I’m thankful that we still get to have some practice here in the fall and that our spring sports — baseball, softball and track — are able to practice.”
In other communities across the state, schools are encouraging their football and volleyball players to try out a new sport like cross country or soccer. Searching for a bright spot in a dark time for high school sports and the world at large, MSHSL media specialist John Millea has made it a point of emphasis to showcase programs and athletes giving a new sport a try. But not everybody has that opportunity on the field.
“I’ve heard about kids at other schools that have cross country trying to be four-sport athletes,” Flaten said. “But we don’t have that opportunity. Kids are resilient and they may be looking forward to trying some things they haven’t done before. I hope the fact that we’re still able to hold some of the other activities — one act plays and any of the fine arts stuff — that kids are hoping to take part in that.”
The current schedule from the MSHSL has the state girls basketball tournament ending March 13 and state boys basketball tournament finishing on March 20, with the spring football and volleyball seasons set to begin March 15. And the traditional spring sports like track and field, baseball, softball, and golf starting up immediately after football and volleyball.
Things are almost certain to change between now and March, but that time crunch to fit everything in is sure to be tough on multi-sport athletes going from one sport straight into another. And that is going to be tough on small schools that rely on those multi-sport athletes to fill up teams.
“It’s going to be hard,” Burgstahler said. “I would say probably 90% — don’t know an exact number, but we’re really high on three-sport athletes. They play them all. So to have to jam them all in, and go from basketball into football right into baseball or track is going to be tough on them.”
Flaten says there were some opportunities for older athletes in his community to compete on 18U and 14U softball teams and on Senior Babe Ruth baseball teams, but there was nothing for the junior high and freshman athletes.
He said he's thankful that football and volleyball will get a three-week window to hold up to 12 practice sessions, followed by a similar three-week window for practices in their spring sports.
“Just to get those kids together and be a part of that athletic family is huge,” Flaten said. “Whether other coaches want to work on installation of things or work on weight room and conditioning. I think it’s going to be beneficial for all of the kids and coaches that take advantage of it and get a little sense of normalcy with the athletics.”
Burgstahler is also looking forward to the fall practice sessions with his players, but is still trying to figure out the best possible plan to get those practices in without wearing them down too much before the crunch he knows is coming for them later in the year.
“I have 23 guys so each one can get a lot of reps in an hour or two,” Burgstahler said. “When you’re talking about a school my size, you can get a lot of reps done, but that’s a lot of hits too. I’m reaching out to others in the conference trying to figure out what they’re doing. This is my fifth year, so I’m still new at this and we’re all new at pandemics, so we’re just trying to figure this out and we’re all trying to stay safe.”