The Iowa High School Athletic Association is preparing to begin the 2020 fall sports season as planned. First practices are set to begin in cross country, football, and Class 4A golf on Aug. 10.
The same can be said about neighbors to the northwest. The North Dakota High School Activities Association board of directors voted unanimously last week for all fall sports to start as scheduled.
The state of Michigan is moving forward as well.
Should that give hope to Minnesota high school athletes, who are weeks away from beginning practices, less than a month from first competitions in sports such as tennis and volleyball?
Jon Summer, assistant principal and athletic director at Chaska High School, needed just two words.
"We all want this to happen. We just want to make sure we're doing it safely," Summer added.
Questions with no answers. That is Cullen Bahn’s dilemma.
While waiting for the state to decide on in-person school and prep sports in the fall, the Chanhassen High School athletic director is caught in a lull. "It is a period of unknown," Bahn said.
Meantime, his teams are doing what they can: weightlifting, individual workouts, small group training.
With no definitive decision made, Bahn’s mindset is to prepare as if the season is going to start on time.
"We are planning to come back full swing," he said.
That is assuming all health standards can be met. Bahn doesn’t want to jeopardize anyone’s health in the process of getting back to normalcy.
"We have to do our due diligence to keep everyone safe," Bahn said. "Health and safety are the first and foremost priority."
At Chaska High School, normally registration would be open for fall sports at this time. With an announcement expected either this week, or next, from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on the status of schools for September, that process is on hold.
The Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors is scheduled to meet Aug. 4 to set decisions for fall 2020 based on guidelines set forth by the state of Minnesota as well as the Minnesota Department of Health.
As of right now, the plan is for fall sports practices to begin on schedule Aug. 17.
"If the Minnesota State High School League gives us the go, there's still some work to do based on what the learning model looks like. Some districts won't be alright with a blanket approach. There are challenges that come with a hybrid or distance learning model and extracurricular activities," Summer said. "With transportation, how are we getting kids to competitions if there is a capped limit. How are we getting kids to practices if they're not in school. How many officials are willing to come out. The systems maybe people don't know about, and usually they don't need to think about, need to be addressed before we could say let's do it. There's a lot of pieces that come into play to make things work."
Summer said the starting point for District 112 extracurriculars for fall 2020 will be based on the direction from the state and MSHSL. He believes the mandate won't be statewide, such as the case with boys basketball section and state tournaments as well as all spring sports.
He sees it as a potential district-by-district decision. That's where the states of Iowa, Michigan and North Dakota are at as well.
"I think it will be different this time around. When it happened in the spring, it was new, and not as much was known. I don't think it will be the same blanket decision this time around. What doesn't work in Chaska may work in Marshall," Summer said.
So, who will have the ultimate decision in District 112?
"It's going to be a team of individuals. ADs, superintendents, principals, district health services individuals, building and grounds crew. Anybody who is involved in making an event run. It will be a team effort at a district level to provide all perspectives," Summer said.
For Andy Powell, like Bahn, until there is a decision on fall sports, it is business as usual.
The Chanhassen boys cross country head coach said that his student-athletes are doing individual training this summer, as well as optional captain’s practice five times a week. He also expects to still host an overnight cross country camp at Lake Sylvia before school is slated to start.
"We are operating like we can do things we’ve done in the past," Powell said.
That doesn’t mean reality will follow suit.
While Powell expects practices to be hassle-free, by regulating the size of training groups, keeping a distance from others and limiting direct contact, meets are another animal.
One potential problem Powell envisions is the transportation to the meets. In the past, Chanhassen used two full-sized school buses to transport 100 student-athletes. Now, given the mandates of social distancing, especially in a closed environment, that seems nearly impossible to pull off.
How many buses would be required to haul the team? Is that in the school’s budget?
Another issue is the formatting of the races. Normally, teams congregate under their own tent in either a local park or golf course, where the meets are held. How would teams be placed to adhere to social distancing? Would every municipal location OK an invitational-style meet?
These are some of the many questions swirling through Powell’s mind.
Summer said the opening meet for both Chaska and Chanhassen, held at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul, already has been canceled, as no outside events are allowed on campus.
The prestigious Roy Griak Invitational at the University of Minnesota was also recently canceled.
In his 25 years of coaching, the experienced Powell has never had a challenge like this.
"I’ve never faced anything like (the COVID-19 pandemic),” he said.
As much as Powell wants to believe that fall sports can be pulled off, he admits he can’t be certain.
"It is realistic to assume the season may not start or finish," he said. "My hope is that we can."
In previous health guidance, the Minnesota Department of Health released risk levels for each sport. Sports like football and wrestling were denoted as "high-risk." Others like golf and cross-country were “low-risk.”
Although Powell sees logic in some sports being treated differently due to the risk of viral spread, he feels empathy for his fellow Chanhassen sports teams.
“It won't feel good if (cross country) is competing, but volleyball or football is canceled," Powell said. "We are all experiencing this together."
ADJUSTING ON THE FIELD
Powell is just one of the coaches at Chanhassen and Chaska who have been prepping for some semblance of a season come September.
Cullen Nelson has been leading workouts for his football players throughout the summer.
Nelson, the second-year Chanhassen football head coach, has had to completely change the off-season training programs for the student-athletes for social distancing purposes. Summer workouts have included groups of no more than 25 kids on half of the school’s football field for an hour.
Before every workout, the kids have their temperatures checked, and also fill out questionnaires about any symptoms they might have.
In the last two weeks, they have started migrating inside for weight room workouts, with capacity limited to 25 people and masks required for those not working out. Online meetings and virtual film sessions also are ways the football team tries to stay as contactless as possible.
All of this is to keep the kids in shape if a fall football season is allowed in the coming weeks.
"Everyone wants things to get back to normal," Nelson said. "I hope like crazy we can have a season."
A season is important, yes, but even more important to Nelson is the well-being of his players.
"It is not about the Xs and Os right now, but how we take care of the kids," Nelson said.
Steve Vuolo, head coach of Chaska girls soccer, is around students all the time, as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas. He sees the disappointment they feel knowing there is no certainty for fall sports.
That's why they are treating summer training as carefully as possible in hopes of a season.
"We're outside, that's big. There is contact, but in soccer we're naturally socially distant in the field. We still want to practice, but we're being smart about it. We've taken out high fives, goal celebrations. We're not sharing any equipment. We're doing kick-ins instead of throw-ins. Goaltenders can't spit into their gloves. All things to reduce any chance of spread. If kids are not feeling well, they need to be open and honest and stay home," Vuolo said.
The girls soccer summer camp had a waitlist with the requirements of only 50 people on the field. So Vuolo adjusted.
"Enthusiasm has never been higher. We have 17 returning seniors. So this season is a big, big deal. We've gone 50% online with our training. On Mondays and Thursdays we have an instructor run our girls through online strength and conditioning. We have a tracking system to show their progress. It's been fantastic," Vuolo said.
He said as a coach he has two principles in the current climate. "You have to be comfortable with uncertainty and you have to be really positive and treat everything like we are preparing for a normal season. When things come up, you need to be both a coach and problem solver," he said.
While Nelson is hopeful his Chanhassen football team can play come the fall, others are feeling even more bullish.
Nick Tibesar, athletic director at Holy Family Catholic High School, is highly optimistic that fall sports will take place.
"I’m very confident we are going to have fall sports in some way shape or form," Tibesar said.
However, he expects interruptions to the season.
If a student-athlete or coach were to contract the virus, Tibesar could envision a scenario where that individual or team would have to remove themselves for 14 days from competition, if sports were to commence in the fall.
Chaska's Summer wonders if a mandated 7- of 14-day no competition period in advance of section tournaments would be an option.
For Tibesar, a significant factor in fall sports that would be missed if they were canceled is the social element. He said many student-athletes were discouraged when spring sports were canceled last school year, and because of how connected kids are on sporting teams, playing in the fall is vital.
"It’s been hard on kids not to have spring sports," Tibesar said. "We know it is good for them to be connected with teams and being active."