MOORHEAD — Spring sports are finally back in Minnesota after two long years.
The sound of balls dinging off of bats, tennis balls thudding off rackets, starting guns firing, and lacrosse balls whizzing into nets finally fills the air again after last season was taken away by the COVID-19 pandemic. Athletes and coaches are excited to finally be back in action.
Seniors who haven’t competed in the spring since they were sophomores finally get their chance to be the leaders on the varsity team. Friends who don’t get to see each other at school every day while distance or hybrid learning get to renew their relationships. And coaches who missed leading their athletes are back to coaching and teaching.
“It’s been really nice just to get back to talking to people, being able to see your friends everyday,” Moorhead senior baseball player Jacob Hendrickson said. “And seeing people you’ve known all the way through growing up that you haven’t gotten to see all this year when we weren’t in school or last year when we had to be by ourselves. It’s nice to be back in the groove of things and start getting back to normal.”
In some ways it’s been even better than normal. The warm and dry spring, prior to this week’s showers, has allowed teams to practice outside for most of the preseason practice period. The spring weather is notorious for canceling events and forcing practices indoors due to rain, cold, and even blizzards. But so far this spring, Mother Nature has cooperated, for the most part.
“We were outside for our first day of practice, which is the first time that’s happened in quite awhile,” Hawley softball coach Jackson Lyngaas said. “There was a lot of excitement — kids being able to compete in sports. They’re just enjoying being outside when they can be and being around the classmates. With the model of the school right now, they don’t get to see all of their classmates everyday — they only get to see about half of them. So it’s fun to see everybody at practice.”
The faces coaches are seeing at practice are, in many cases, completely different from the ones they knew two years ago. This year’s seniors were just sophomores the last time they had a season. Lyngaas said the Nuggets softball team is lucky enough to have a number of returning players. The Spuds baseball team, on the other hand, has one career varsity at-bat across the whole team. Senior Will Kunka went 1-for-1 as a sophomore.
Moorhead had 16 seniors that didn’t get to play their last high school season last year.
“I’m the only returner from that varsity team two years ago,” Kunka said. “So I’ve got to step up and try to show everybody the ropes, how we do things. Everyone is stepping up and doing their part and being a leader.”
That experience void coming into this season is being felt especially in track and field. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton boys track coach Mike Anderson has relied, in the past, on his experienced upperclassman leaders to help coach up his younger athletes and get them ready. But that experience just isn’t there anymore.
The Rebels lost 18 seniors to graduation after last year and Anderson said he has just a handful of athletes returning.
“Not only did I lose a season, but I lost a lot of role models,” Anderson said. “When we lost them, we lost a lot of experience. This year’s 10th-graders have no varsity experience. They usually learn the ropes from the seniors.
“Baseball had Legion last summer. Golfers can get out and golf as much as they need to. Basketball and wrestling had their seasons last year. But track didn’t have any of that. We don’t have the same summer programs that they have.”
In his 41st season coaching track and field, Anderson could probably coach a normal track season with his eyes closed. This is no normal season. COVID protocols have shaken things up.
The season started a couple weeks later than normal, giving them less time to prepare for their first meet. Anderson said he has to forego any large-group training, instead keeping the track team separated into small pods. He said he maybe needed an hour of prep to plan a practice, but now it takes at least twice as much time.
“If I’ve got a kid who was high jumping, last Monday was the only time I’ve been able to show them how to do an approach run,” Anderson said. “We had two days where I could teach a kid to plant a pole. There just aren’t enough people to go around. If I’ve had a kid who’s hurdled before, I know he can accomplish that and can help to teach the other hurdlers.”
The preseason time crunch is being felt by the athletes in all spring sports as well. Spring sports had their first competition day this Thursday, April 8. The winter season doesn’t officially wrap up until Saturday, April 10.
Kunka, Moorhead baseball’s only returning player, wasn’t even there for the start of baseball practice. He is also the goalie on the hockey team and was focused on hockey right up until their state quarterfinal loss on Wednesday, March 31. He was on the baseball diamond the next day.
“My first practice was the day after the state tournament (hockey) game,” Kunka said. “We played Wednesday and I was back at (baseball) practice Thursday. We were at Matson (Memorial Field) and it was just like it was sophomore year.”
That sense of normalcy is something spring sports athletes across the state are excited to feel again. All of the familiar sights and sounds of spring-time athletics are back.
“It’s a relief to have all of these kids back on the field, back in school, doing their activities and getting some kind of normalcy,” Moorhead baseball coach Greg Salvevold said. “It’s awesome — to be able to be out on the field that first day when the weather was nice. It was a breath of fresh air.”