The Minnesota State High School League, in a reversal of its decisions made on Aug. 4, voted on Monday morning to allow football and volleyball to happen during the fall season despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MSHSL had earlier deemed the close contact inherent in those two sports to be too risky to allow them to be played during a pandemic. So they'd moved them to spring, while allowing lesser-contact sports swimming/diving, cross country, girls tennis and boys and girls soccer to proceed.
But after Monday's revisit of the topic, Minnesota high school fall sports now have a full hand. All have been given the go-ahead to have fall seasons.
Football practices will be allowed to begin in full on Sept. 28, with a six-week regular-season game schedule to follow. Opening dates are Oct. 9-10 for the first week of games. Volleyball practices have a beginning date of Sept. 28, with 14 competition dates to follow after 10 practices starting on Oct. 8.
Section tournaments are being designed for both sports as culminating events, though there remains the possibility for state tournaments in all fall sports.
Under current COVID-19 guidelines from Minnesota Department of Health, no spectators are allowed to attend indoor events in school facilities and outdoor events are limited to 250 total spectators.
Many Minnesota football and volleyball coaches' reaction bordered on elation over the news, even while questions loom about protocol during the pandemic, as well as disappointment being felt over shortened seasons and the possibility of no state tournaments this fall.
"I think everybody was watching the Twitter feed this morning just kind of hoping," Brandon-Evansville volleyball head coach Kelly Olson said. "We didn't want it to fail where it would seem like a yo-yo effect like it was this summer. I think everybody would've been disappointed, myself included, if it didn't go the way it went today."
There had been a serious push recently for both football and volleyball to be reinstated this fall, including parents assembling outside of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's residence in St. Paul with the rallying cry, "Give us the ball. Let's play this fall."
"I don't think the 'Let us play' movement was the sole factor for volleyball and football coming back, but I do think it helped gain a little movement," Olson said. "I think it gave a lot of people things that they could say and things that they could do. I think reaching out to the board of directors with emails, the Facebook page and Twitter feeds let everybody know that we had been operating safely since they went to the 25-kid pods in July. We are all adults, and we can keep kids safe as best as possible during these times, so let them play."
Minnesota high school football fans had pointed to all four of the states sharing a border with Minnesota — Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota — being allowed to play football this fall, and were asking why Minnesota wasn't being given the same permission.
Another rallying point was the Big Ten Conference last week electing to reverse its prior decision banning football this fall due to the pandemic. Now, the Big Ten, which includes the University of Minnesota, has rolled out an eight-game schedule that begins on Oct. 24.
When the MSHSL announced its vote on Monday to admit high school football this fall, Alexandria football coach Mike Empting already sensed his players' excitement.
"The ones that I have had a chance to talk to are pretty excited," Empting said. "They were looking forward to today and keeping tabs on Twitter like everybody else. They were pretty anxious about the outcome."
While the postseason is still in limbo, both Empting and Olson are excited to have a fall season for their senior athletes. As a head coach in track and field, Empting saw firsthand how hard it is to tell a senior who didn't get one more play last spring.
"It was a long road to get to this point, and I think our seniors were really disappointed when they heard there wasn't going to be a fall," Empting said. "I think we all know, living in Minnesota, the challenges of trying to have a football season starting in March. I was part of that group this spring that didn't have a track season, and it was really hard to watch our seniors go through that. A lot of our seniors now were on that track team, so they were going to have back-to-back seasons taken away."
While many athletes continued to work out in preparation for a spring season, some decided to try new sports. In Brandon-Evansville, the coaches and activities department is coming up with a plan for students to continue to play multiple fall sports if they wish.
"We will have a meeting (Monday night) about protocols and to make sure everybody is on the same page," Olson said. "As far as the crossover athletes, we will talk about it tonight and see what we can do with them, but everybody is pretty pumped. From the seventh and eighth graders up to the varsity levels, I think it's a good thing, and we'll see where it goes from here."
(Additional information contributed by Patt Ruff / Forum News Service)