The Minnesota State High School Tournament is up in the air as the high school season has been pushed back until at least Dec. 18. The MSHSL will meet in early December to discuss the winter sports season for all sports.
With the high school season already pushed back and shortened due to COVID-19, high school coaches were eager to get started in November, pick their teams, and look forward to competition.
But the opponent they feared most has once again reared its ugly head and caused a “pause” instituted by the state government for four weeks until Dec. 18. And as much as they hate to have to pause for four weeks, they can’t say they didn’t see it coming.
“I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t,” said Patrick Andrews, head boys’ coach at Hermantown. “That doesn’t mean I am for or against what we are doing. Everybody is frustrated and everybody wants to be mad at somebody but I don’t think there is anyone to be mad at.”
Eric Nelson is the head boys’ coach at Monticello and said he sees both sides of the issue – kids and coaches and parents wanting to play, but also knowing that public health and overrun hospitals are cause for concern. He understands the effects of COVID, having contracted it recently and just now starting to come out of it.
“I understand the frustration,” he said. “I understand people want to keep their kids on the ice, but you have to make sure it is in a safe environment. I don’t know where the right answer lies.”
Ken Pauly, Benilde-St. Margaret’s head boys’ coach, said he understands the move made by the state and hopes the next four weeks are utilized well so there can be a full season. By full season he means a regular season, however many games that would entail, a section tournament and a state tournament.
“As long as it’s a pause, I support it,” he said. “If the pause just means we can regroup so we can get a full high school season in, terrific. My fear, of course, is they will take the pause and turn it into a shutdown.”
The hardest part was telling their players. Randy Koeppl, head girls’ coach at Holy Family School, said he and his players too saw the pause coming, but it is still difficult.
“They took it okay. We prepared them, but it’s tough,” he said. “It’s tough on these kids. They are ready to roll. They just want to play.”
“They were disappointed,” said Pauly. “I told them it was probably coming. We had heard rumors so they weren’t completely shocked by it.”
Andrews said his players were also disappointed.
“They were upset and sad,” he said. “But they are resilient. They have been through so much the past nine months. They are taking it in stride knowing that’s all they can do.”
“It sucks for these kids,” said Nelson. “They’ve been punched in the gut. Fortunately, we were able to finish our season last year.”
When the start of the season was initially pushed back, High School programs adopted a “bridge season” that allowed kids to get on the ice with their teammates and play other schools. Coaches were not allowed to be a part of the bridge season due to Minnesota State High School League rules. Both girls and boys programs participated with volunteer coaches and played about a half dozen games.
“The bridge season was great for us, said Andrews, who has a senior-laden squad.
But because of a late official start, programs are now forced to wait until Dec. 18, which would still require two weeks of practice and tryouts before an official game could begin. That would push the start of the season into January. And that’s if the state doesn’t extend the current pause.
The MSHSL is scheduled to meet in early December to discuss winter sports. With what looks like a January start at the earliest for games, the MSHSL could push the state tournament back to late March to allow for more regular season games, keep the state tournament for early March and limit the number of regular season games, limit the number of teams in the section tournament or condense the time frame of a section tournament from two weeks to one. Or they could do what was done in the fall and cancel state tournament competition. Of course, hockey isn’t the only sport on the minds of MSHSL decision-makers. The MSHSL will likely base their decision by taking into account all winter sports and the spring sports that could potentially be affected by extending winter activities.
Pauly said he hopes the high school league uses the time wisely to develop a strong plan moving forward.
“Let’s use these next few weeks to take a step back,” he said. “How can we make things work? Let’s get everyone on the same page with mitigation strategies, etc. I hope they use these next few weeks to develop a full plan. I think there is a path forward.”
In the meantime, players are not allowed to practice, even outdoors, with teammates or friends.
“The hardest part is they can’t get together at all,” said Andrews. “It is very restrictive and that’s really hard.”
Players will be required to work out on their own to stay in shape. Most programs will have individual workout plans for players to follow during the pause so the players are in shape and ready to go once the season begins.
“A lot of our kids made great gains this fall and we want to maintain what they have going,” said Andrews.
Koeppl said his team generally works out in a large warehouse with 20-foot high ceilings and open garage doors, but can’t because of the current shutdown of workout facilities and gyms. He said players and teams around the state have been using mitigation strategies to help keep them on the ice, which adds to the frustration of the pause.
“It’s not a matter of if we think we can do it,” he said of following strict safety guidelines. “We know we can do it. We’ve been successful. These kids just want to play.”
Andrews said there is also the social challenge the pause brings.
“They are craving their friends,” he said. “I told my players you can’t get together as a team. You can’t even skate together. You just can’t. But this is their extended family. That part of it is very hard. It’s hard on both coaches and the kids. We want to be at the rink.”
Koeppl said his program spends ample time on the mental health of its players, and the recent pause, in addition to the past nine months of what kids have had to endure, will be something he focuses on moving forward.
“In today’s world if you’re not confronting mental health, you’re not doing your job,” he said. “You hear very little about the mental health aspect from this. It’s the elephant in the room.”
Nelson said while the pause causes some hardships, the kids will be okay in the end.
“We try to prepare our kids for the unknowns,” he said. “We can control our attitudes. You’re going to see some tough kids come out of this. At the end of the day they’ll be more prepared for life. It’s just another obstacle they have to overcome.”