With prep sports set to pause for four weeks, football and volleyball are in a mad dash to conclude their seasons.

Gov. Tim Walz issued Emergency Executive Order 20-99 on Wednesday in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order runs from 11:59 p.m. Friday through Dec. 18 and puts a pause on high school sports, including practices, group workouts, games and tournaments.

“I have to redo the schedule for the third time this season,” Willmar activities director Ryan Blahosky said with a laugh.

In a public address televised state-wide Wednesday, Walz said while discussing youth sports, “It’s not easy and it’s not fair, but it’s a sacrifice that we need to make. If we don’t do that and we continue to spread, we will with absolute certainty put our hospitals at risk and those that need the care as well as the care providers.”

Along with the football and volleyball seasons ending Friday, the start to winter sports will be pushed back again. Practices were previously scheduled to begin on Nov. 23 (boys basketball, boys hockey), Nov. 30 (boys swimming, wrestling, girls hockey) and Dec. 7 (gymnastics, girls basketball). The order also extends to club and youth sports.

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“I certainly understand (the executive order) with the numbers we’re seeing,” Blahosky said. “I’m happy it’s across the board and appreciate that consistency since that wasn’t the case last time.”

Willmar football players wear masks and line up six feet apart while facing the American flag during the National Anthem before a game against Little Falls Tuesday evening at Hodapp Field in Willmar.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
Willmar football players wear masks and line up six feet apart while facing the American flag during the National Anthem before a game against Little Falls Tuesday evening at Hodapp Field in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

A sudden end

A promising year for the Willmar volleyball team will come to a screeching halt on Friday. To make up for its game against Bemidji on Tuesday being canceled, the Cardinals scheduled a match at top-ranked (in Class A) Minneota on Thursday. Willmar is looking for a final opponent on Friday to make up for a match against St. Cloud Apollo being canceled.

“It’s just disappointing,” Cardinals head volleyball coach Traci Grussing said. “A week ago, we were hearing that athletics aren’t the problem. I don’t know why we’re not targeting what the problem is.”

Through Wednesday, Willmar sits just outside the top 10 state rankings with an 11-0 record, including a 9-0 mark in the Central Lakes Conference.

“This year we have seven seniors and I thought we had a chance to compete in a section with four teams in the top 10,” Grussing said.

Those four teams are Shakopee (third), Minnetonka (seventh), Chaska (ninth) and Eden Prairie (10th).

“I would have liked for volleyball to have an end of the season at sections,” Blahosky said. “It’s certainly disappointing but they got to have a season.”

Willmar Senior High School junior Harris Duininck, left, watches the Willmar football game against Little Falls with his father Jamie Duininck in their truck. The pair were not allowed in the stadium due to COVID-19 precautions, but "Harris still wanted to see some of his buddies play," his father said.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
Willmar Senior High School junior Harris Duininck, left, watches the Willmar football game against Little Falls with his father Jamie Duininck in their truck. The pair were not allowed in the stadium due to COVID-19 precautions, but "Harris still wanted to see some of his buddies play," his father said. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Football sections on the line

Renville County West football was out at practice when word of a section shuffle came down.

Originally scheduled to play fifth-seeded Cedar Mountain on Saturday, the decision was made to play the section championship Friday with the two highest-seeded teams remaining. The top-seeded Jaguars will take on third-seeded Red Rock Central at 7 p.m. in Danube.

“It would have been nice to have that extra game, but we’re excited for Friday,” RCW head coach Ryan Hebrink said. RCW will look to win the section for a second straight year.

“It’s good that we get to finish our season with a game instead of a practice.”

Sections with area teams reached similar conclusions to close out the season Friday:

  • In Section 2AAA, top-seeded Litchfield will host second-seeded Rockford for the section title at 5 p.m. Friday.

  • The No. 2 seed in Section 5AA, Paynesville will travel to Big Cat Stadium to take on top seed Morris/Chokio-Alberta at 5 p.m. Friday. The Tigers won the regular-season meeting between the two teams on Oct. 30, 34-30.

  • Top-seeded Minneota and second-seeded BOLD will face off for the Section 5A championship at 6 p.m. Friday in Minneota. The Warriors and Vikings have accounted for the last three 5A champions, with Minneota winning in 2017 and BOLD taking top honors in 2018 and 2019.

‘One last road trip’

Like Hebrink at RCW, Willmar football coach Jon Konold found out in the middle of practice when Blahosky came out and addressed the coaches and players.

Instead of facing top-seeded Rocori Saturday in Cold Spring, the Cardinals will travel to third-seeded Detroit Lakes in the season finale. Game time is set for 6 p.m. Friday.

“I have mixed feelings,” Konold said. “The kids were preparing for Rocori, one of our biggest rivals, so it’s disappointing on that end. But now the kids know where the end is.”

While the announcement gives the teams a day-and-a-half to prepare, Willmar and Detroit Lakes are no strangers to each other. The two teams have met in the playoffs three years in a row, with the Lakers winning in 2019 (48-27) and 2017 (41-40) and the Cardinals winning in 2018 (50-28).

“We’ll have a great time and have one last road trip,” Konold said. “We’re excited we’ll get to play Friday.”

Like Willmar, area teams in Section 6AAA and 5A will have culminating games to the 2020 season:

  • At 6 p.m. Friday in Glenwood, fourth-seeded New London-Spicer will face third-seeded Minnewaska. Top-seeded Albany and second-seeded Pierz will play for the 6AAA championship at 6 p.m. Friday in Sauk Centre.

  • With both teams coming off first-round upsets in 5A, fifth-seeded Lac qui Parle Valley will face off with sixth-seeded Canby at 6 p.m. Friday in Madison.