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Calling an audible for prep sports

Football, volleyball moved to spring; other sports stay in fall with limitations

File photo Canby/Minneota’s Grace Drietz heads toward the finish line at the Marshall Invite on Sept. 10.

MARSHALL — This fall will look different for prep athletes and their sports. Some have a little bit of normalcy, others a completely different viewpoint. But one thing remains clear: there will be a fall sports season in some form.

The Minnesota State High School League board held a virtual meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss the future of the fall sports season. After a lengthy talk, the MSHSL ultimately voted to press resume on the prep calendar with fall sports after pausing sports last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Individual sports such as cross country, girls’ swimming/diving and girls’ tennis were all approved (17-1 vote) to start the season on time, as well as soccer, with practices beginning on Aug. 17. The two other fall sports, football and volleyball, were moved to a “fourth season” in the spring going from March 15-May 15, 2021.

“Certainly the optimistic part is kids will have an opportunity to participate in activities and while it’ll look different, we will have to make some adjustments,” Marshall activities director Bruce Remme said. “For football and volleyball, the positive side is the season wasn’t canceled, but the disappointing side is it is not going to be played right now just as they were ramping up for the fall. But there’s a lot of optimism because they get an opportunity to compete.”

The MSHSL will also use a “four-season” calendar for the 2020-21 year. Fall and winter seasons will go on as scheduled, followed by football and volleyball in an adapted spring season and finally the traditional spring sports in the summer slot from May until early July.

There will be significant modifications to the schedule’s outlook, including a 20% reduction in weeks for the season as well as a 30% drop in number of games, with no scrimmages, and a limit of 1-2 contests per week for each team. A limited number of teams will be allowed to compete in each event, with a max of two teams in tennis and swimming and three teams in cross country. A decision about postseason competition will be determined at a later date.

Marshall girls cross country coach Marie Sample said they were thankful to be able to have a fall season, especially after losing their track season last spring.

“After losing track in the spring, we’re just thankful to have the opportunity to have a fall season,” Sample said. “We’ve had a great summer of running and we’re very excited and I know the girls will be as well. I’m happy with the decision that was made and we’re excited to see how it plays out.”

Soccer was passed with a unanimous vote and will follow the same criteria as its individual sport counterparts.

“To be honest, I felt happy and relieved,” Marshall girls soccer coach Jesus Hernandez said. “We’re excited to have a season, especially since we didn’t have a summer season and we’re eager to get out on the field and play the game we love.”

As they wait to see what the schedule will look like, Sample added she feels they’ll be able to not be impacted as much as some of the other sports and can formulate a strong training plan with the shortened season.

“I think we’ll be OK and I think it will impact us less than other sports such as volleyball. We like to race once a week anyway and I feel like we’ll put our heads together and provide a good training plan,” Sample said. “We’re thankful we were able to meet this summer so that we can go out and have a productive season. We just need to be flexible and go with it day-by-day and make good decisions.”

Hernandez said they’re trying to implement safety protocols such as screening and sanitization of equipment at practices as well as wearing masks when necessary and keep their physical contact on the field as low as possible.

“We are already doing some work in the offseason with a lot of our players, but one of the things we’re implementing is getting a screening before practice and sanitizing our hands and the equipment before and after each use and limit physical contact,” Hernandez said. “Once the season starts, it will be hard to keep our distance all of the time, but we’re going to try our best and not have too much contact. The coaches will wear masks at practice and we’re working on more shooting and passing drills.”

The discussions for both volleyball and football went more in-depth. First up was volleyball, which drew concerns for being an indoor sport as well as running into the scheduling overlap of the club programs, which are typically held in the offseason for high school and are a popular choice for players to develop and sharpen skills and potentially get recruited by college programs.

After the first motion to move volleyball to the spring was voted 9-9 and ultimately failed due to a lack of majority, a second motion to start the season on time also failed in a 10-8 decision. The board then went back to the original motion of the spring, which passed 11-7.

Marshall volleyball coach Dan Westby said they are disappointed they won’t be able to have their season in the fall, but they’ll turn their focus to the spring and hope things will be a little more clear by then.

“Certainly we were holding out hope that the season would start on the 17th but that’s not going to happen,” Westby said. “We’re disappointed for our kids because it means a lot to them and it’s difficult but we’ll get through it and hopefully things will be OK in the spring and we’ll see what happens there.”

Then it was football’s turn. The initial motion to start the season in a couple of weeks failed by a 12-6 vote before the final motion to push the season to the spring quickly passed 13-5. According to MSHSL media specialist John Millea, there will be a 12-week, six-game regular season, with a “postseason plan to be determined.”

Minneota football coach Chad Johnston said he was preparing for a form of a shortened season in the fall and was confused when the announcement came through.

“I think there was a lot of confusion at first; we heard a lot of different rumors that the high school league had four different scenarios and none of them said playing in the spring,” Johnston said. “But then in the Star Tribune, they were saying it was down to two options: either have a regular season or play in the spring. I was prepared for an abbreviated season in the fall, whether it was a late start or fewer games, so we were surprised.”

Westbrook-Walnut Grove football coach Leo Theisen was also shocked and a little disappointed by the announcement, but ultimately understood.

“I’m disappointed that we won’t be playing football in the fall, but I understand,” Theisen said. “Talking with the other activity directors, we were a little shocked because nobody thought we were going to be moving to the spring.”

Theisen, who is also the activities director at WWG, added it’ll be different to not have any varsity sports in the fall when they return to school. The Chargers have a co-op in boys soccer with Tracy-Milroy-Balaton, but play junior varsity.

The MSHSL also approved the motion to have football and volleyball teams practice during the fall, along with spring sports that lost their season due to COVID-19 back in March. Johnston said they’re waiting for details with how much they can practice each week, but added they are exploring the possibility of something similar to college spring ball.

“Right now we’re waiting to see what the exact parameters are with that. I think we might be only able to have a certain number of days that we can practice so it depends on what they’ll decide. We’re ramping up in the weight room and depending on what the state’s decision is, we are possibly looking at doing some sort of style similar to a college spring ball and do it for three weeks,” Johnston said. “The other thing is if the season goes from March until May, that’s only two months of football and things will be moving fast, so we want to use this time to utilize things and know what positions guys will play and get them ready for a quick season.”

With the season for some teams rapidly approaching, they will need to quickly put together a plan that’s both safe and rewarding for their athletes. Marshall boys cross country coach Brian Leibfried said one of the biggest things they need to accomplish is maintaining awareness so that the sports that follow their footsteps can have a season to compete in.

“Probably just keeping awareness out there,” Leibfried said. “We’re going to try and keep this as safe as possible so that other sports can do their seasons as well, so we need to start off on a good foot and keep it rolling into the fall season.”

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