A lot depends on the governor’s office, but the Minnesota State High School League’s board of directors approved plans Thursday that could allow winter sports to start practice as early as Dec. 21.
That decision was music to Eric Setrum’s ears.
“It’s good news that they’re definitely going to have a season. Well, not definitely. While it’s not certain we’ll have a winter sports season, they definitely are planning to have one,” said Setrum, Willmar’s head girls hockey coach. “We hope that it happens sooner rather than later.”
Because of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order 20-99, all youth sports activities are on pause through Dec. 18 because of a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
If that four-week pause ends then, the high school’s board voted 20-0 to get the winter sports season underway with practices starting Dec. 21 and competitions able to start Jan. 4.
Because of the uncertainty of those dates, the board also agreed to possible practice starts on Jan. 4 and Jan. 18 depending on what happens at the state level.
“We’re crossing our fingers,” said Willmar head girls basketball coach Dustin Carlson. “We’re hoping the Master Governor doesn’t overstep us.
“It seems like they (the high school league) have consulted behind the scenes with the state to have an idea. At least, you hope that’s what is happening. I really feel for the student-athletes, especially these seniors. They’ve gotten their hopes up and then down so many times this year.”
Under the approved proposal, the number of contests would be reduced 30 percent. For basketball and hockey, that would mean 18 regular-season games instead of the normal, 26 and 25, respectively.
For wrestling, the number of possible matches would go down from 45 for individuals to 32.
Call Willmar head wrestling coach Ed Oehlers cautiously optimistic.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” Oehlers admitted. “On the one hand, I’m extremely excited about the opportunity to be working with the guys and getting going again.
“That’s a huge deal. … But I do have concerns.”
Oehlers said he is worried about the viability of that many matches and how they would all take place under current protocols, which limit the number of participants in the wrestling room at any one time and the logistics of full team events.
“No sport is better prepared when it comes to hygiene and how to take care of athletes when it comes to disease,” he said. “But I do wonder about our compassion for the rest of our community and what this could mean.
“I don’t want to spread disease. But I know our kids are losing so much. My thing has been to focus on what we can control.”
Much is uncertain. A board committee that looked into winter and spring competitions did recommend that state tournaments resume, though they are unlikely to resemble the typical state tournaments with large crowds at venues like Williams Arena, Target Center and the Xcel Energy Center in the Twin Cities.
The winter sports season would end March 29, which is a week later than most years. That also would be roughly the start date for spring activities, which were canceled entirely in April, 2020.
A spring season would end with state tournaments concluding by June 19.
Eric Martens, executive director of the MSHSL, cautioned that all proposals approved could change.
“With the dynamic nature of COVID-19, flexibility is going to be critical for our programs,” Martens said. “We need to remain flexible in the start of seasons and in carrying them to conclusion.”
Fall sports were a mixed bag. Girls tennis, cross-country and boys and girls soccer all began in August and concluded with section championships in October. Large invitationals were banned and scheduled competitions were reduced in number and generally limited to two teams.
Football and volleyball, initially moved to the spring, were pushed back to the fall in September, with competition starting in October. Competitions were limited to six games for football and 14 for volleyball. Section playoffs were cut short for football and canceled in volleyball because of the governor’s executive order.
The high school league’s Return to Participation Task Force recommended that some sort of state tournament be included in any proposal after listening to member schools’ concerns about the fall.
“We want the season to begin as soon as possible when allowed by the state,” said Waconia activities director Jill Johnson, who headed the Return to Participation Task Force. “That’s why we have a model ready to go to be implemented as soon as possible.”
A look at each sport and its normal number of contests to what is likely to happen in a shortened 2020-21 season:
Dance team — 15 contests, 11 contests
Boys swimming and diving — 16 contests, 11 contests
Nordic skiing — 16 contests, 11 contests
Wrestling — 16 contests, 45 matches, 16 contests, 32 matches
Gymnastics — 16 contests, 11 contests
Hockey — 25 contests, 18 contests
Basketball — 26 contests, 18 contests
For related stories, see Minnesota State High School League.