Many people with a vested interest in high school sports in Minnesota sat glued to their social-media accounts on Aug. 4 for information coming out of the Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors meeting.

Part of the agenda that day was to decide what the fall sports format would look like. Changes were made to every sport for the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the biggest impact was felt for volleyball and football teams. Their seasons were moved to an early spring season taking place from mid-March to mid-May as Minnesota went from three sports seasons to four.

“Initially, my first thought was with everything going on, we’re just excited that the season is still alive and that there’s a chance that these seniors and this team might have a season,” Osakis football coach Bill Infanger said. “Obviously, there’s some concerns about what the spring season is going to look like with weather in mid-March and what field conditions could look like in mid-March. Are we going to be playing some games at neutral sites on some of the area turf fields? What will practices look like? Will some schools with turf fields be at an advantage over other teams who have to practice inside? There’s a lot of concerns, but those concerns are overshadowed by the fact that hopefully these kids will still get to play a sport they love.”

Sports that were previously held in the spring through the state high school league will be shifted to a later spring-summer season from mid-May until mid-July.

Cross country, girls tennis, girls swimming and diving, and soccer will return for the fall in a reduced season under guidelines put in place due to COVID-19. The status of postseason tournaments is still to be determined.

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“We’ll make it work, and we’re just glad we get a season and that we’re in line to be able to play,” Brandon-Evansville football coach Tim Pattrin said of moving football to the spring. “We’ll get some things done this fall (through practices). It looks like we’re going to do something kind of like a spring football where you have some practices where we can get guys ready and caught up. We’ll be ready to go in March.”

Making the best of the situation

All of the coaches from the area who were contacted on this topic shared some level of disappointment.

They want to coach their teams, and they know players want to play. But Infanger, Pattrin and Alexandria volleyball coach Mary Byrne were also still optimistic that their seasons were not canceled outright for the entire school year.

“Of course it was disappointing, like probably most coaches are feeling, but as we teach our players, we got to look at the positives,” Byrne said. “The silver lining is they didn’t cancel it all together. Along with that, maybe it’s going to be as close to a normal season in the spring as we could hope. In the fall, we definitely know it would not have been.”

The MSHSL offered more clarity on Aug. 11 about what fall training sessions will look like in the coming months. Volleyball and football coaches can hold a maximum of 12 practices with their athletes from Sept. 14 through Oct. 3. Spring sports athletes that lost out on their 2020 seasons can also train with their coaches through as many as 12 sessions from Oct. 5-24.

Osakis football coach Bill Infanger sends the play in to his son and senior quarterback Hunter Infanger during a game against Montevideo on Sept. 6, 2019. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Osakis football coach Bill Infanger sends the play in to his son and senior quarterback Hunter Infanger during a game against Montevideo on Sept. 6, 2019. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“Our message when we’re in the weight room and when we’re working with them is take advantage of this opportunity,” Infanger said. “We’re emphasizing the things that we can actually control. You can’t control when or if the football season is going to happen, but you can control how prepared for that potential season we will be seven months from now. All these kids that are on our team love football and love being a part of a team. They’re hopeful that a season is going to happen, so our message to them is let’s prepare for that season.”

How kids are handling the move

Infanger and Pattrin were both hosting a team camp with their players when news of the season being moved to March broke. That gave them a chance to talk to their kids. Each individual is different, but Infanger was amazed at how his guys seemed to handle the news.

“It’s amazing to me the positive attitude the kids have,” Infanger said. “Every time we’ve been together with them this summer, they’ve just been excited to be together. Smiles and laughing. I think underneath they’re upset and frustrated by the situation, but more than anything kids are so adaptable.”

Byrne said her players were disappointed about the news, but resilient. She used it as an opportunity to try to set a positive mindset, even with coaches and players knowing there is no guarantee a spring season will go on as scheduled.

“My message is we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to appreciate the practice opportunities we have for the fall,” Byrne said. “They know with COVID, things change. So what is current for that day may not be for the next day. Be resilient for that and appreciate what we have for the moment.”

Alexandria volleyball coach Mary Byrne is all smiles after the Cardinals won a game during the 2018 fall season. (Echo Press file photo)
Alexandria volleyball coach Mary Byrne is all smiles after the Cardinals won a game during the 2018 fall season. (Echo Press file photo)

Pattrin wants his players to have a similar approach. The Chargers lost a lot of seniors from a 9-2 team last year, and his message was to use the extra months they have to get ready.

“We’re going to do our best with what we’re dealt,” Pattrin said. “The guys have really grasped that over the years. Staying positive and embracing the challenges is a big thing that I think will help the kids the rest of their life in everything they do.”

Pattrin encouraged his kids to go out for cross country. No, it’s not an ideal situation playing the sport they have grown used to in the fall, but it’s an opportunity to compete.

“You have a rare chance to be a four-sport athlete in our school, which this is the first time that’s really been able to happen where you can play four seasons,” Pattrin said. “I know we’re going to have more guys and girls out for cross country who want that competition, they want to be in shape. If they’re not at football practice between September to October because they’re running cross country, that’s fine. It’s an experience you can do. We’re all disappointed, but it is what it is and you have to deal with it.”