ST. PAUL — Barnesville football coach Bryan Strand had mixed feelings following Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’ announcement that youth sports in the state will be shut down for four weeks from this Friday, Nov. 20, through Friday, Dec. 18.
The coach had a front-row-seat to witness the effects of COVID-19 as his longtime friend and assistant coach Phil Trowbridge spent 10 days in the hospital with the illness. But as a high school principal and coach, he also sees how vital sports are to student athletes.
“I get the numbers. (COVID) is the real deal,” Strand said. “I can tell you that watching Phil go through what he went through — it’s serious. We’ve coached together for 16 years. To hear about him going through that is tough. But for these kids — the kids don’t necessarily see that. They see their friends get it and it’s the sniffles and it’s their taste and it comes and goes. But they lose so much over it. You’re only young once, you can only play high school sports once in your life.
“The mental state of so many of these kids is something people don’t look at enough. For so many kids they stay eligible with grades so they can play sports. When that piece of their life is gone, they fall out of what they should be doing. They stop caring and their grades start slipping.”
The four-week pause will end the high school football season this Friday in the midst of the section tournaments. Many sections are rescheduling tournament games originally planned for Saturday up a day, and changing what would have been semifinal games into de facto championship games.
By the end of Wednesday’s practice, Strand and his team didn’t know which team they would line up to play two days later. The top-seeded Trojans could play their originally scheduled opponent, Warroad, or they could play second-seeded Pelican Rapids.
It’s just more uncertainty in a season full of it for athletes across the state. The football and volleyball seasons were originally moved back to a spring “flex season,” then later moved back to a fall season.
“These kids have been toyed with all season,” Strand said. “First they got their season pushed back to spring and didn’t get to start in the fall. Then they get told they’re going to start in the fall and they have two days to get ready.
“The hardest part right now is you just don’t know. I couldn’t imagine being a 15-, 16-, 18-year-old kid trying to navigate through all this.”
Walz, who was a teacher and high school football coach himself, spoke directly to those involved in youth sports as he addressed the state on Wednesday. He said that he understands pausing high school sports will not be easy and that it isn’t fair. But, he said, it is necessary to help get the spread of COVID-19 in the state under control. Because if it can’t be controlled, it will put hospital workers and healthcare providers at risk.
“My life is about coaching and being around it for decades,” Walz said. “I’ve got a 14-year-old whose greatest excitement of 2020 was that he made a team. And he’s going to be on his team with some others to be able to play here during winter sports. Now he’s not going to be able to do that for a few weeks.”
Moorhead athletic director Dean Haugo described the decision to pause high school athletics “bitter sweet.” He is thankful that the fall sports athletes have an opportunity to get some more games in — the football team will play Alexandria on Friday and the volleyball team will get a couple more chances to play. But, he said, he feels horrible for the winter athletes who are having the start of their seasons pushed back.
“When we started hearing rumblings that this was going to happen, I was petrified at an immediate shut down effective Wednesday,” Haugo said. “Then for those fall teams it cuts you off at the knees. Even allowing us to play until Friday is something. It’s not perfect or ideal, but this year isn’t perfect or ideal. It allows you to play that final game.”
Perham basketball coach Dave Cresap sees the pause as a ray of hope. He is hopeful that his team will be able to begin practices on Dec. 18 and will get to have a season with a conclusion and some closure this year — something it wasn’t afforded last year.
The Yellowjackets saw an undefeated season halted during the section tournament with no resolution last March during the early stages of the pandemic.
“These kids already are pretty fresh from what happened last spring and it comes at us again in a different way,” Cresap said. “They have some doubt in their mind that things are going to happen. They’re digging deep to stay positive. I’m trying to relay that message to them to stay positive. Nothing is canceled yet. There’s still hope.”
Perham’s first game was scheduled for Dec. 8, but with the late start to opening practices, it will likely not be able to have its first game until the last week of Dec. or the first week of Jan. Unless the season is extended to finish later, the Yellowjackets could miss out on five of their originally scheduled 18 regular-season games.
“I’ve already got some kids reaching out and sending me messages saying we’ve got a chance,” Cresap said. “We’ll be ready. We’ve got some kids that can go and shoot in their basements or their garages. They’ve got that mindset to stay ready. It’s just that hope that Gov. Walz gave us with a four-week pause. That’s a big thing in the kids' mind. That we’ll be back on the court and hopefully get a full season that was promised.”
Haugo believes that the high school league will accommodate the late start and alter the calendar to allow for full seasons. When they agreed on the guidelines for the winter seasons, they decreased the number of games allowed by 30% and capped the number of contests per week to two in most sports. A possible solution, he said, could be to allow up to three contests per week and push the ends of the seasons back a little closer to spring.
“As we move forward we won’t have the luxury to space those games out,” Haugo said. “We have to look into moving things closer to spring. I don’t see us shortening the spring season at all, but we have to look at making them a little closer.”