Morken: Sports aren’t everything, but 2020 was a reminder of their importance

Our fascination with sports as a society isn't perfect, but often times the same work ethic that drives a high-school athlete to excel in their sport is the same one that drives them to excel in the classroom and beyond.

Last season’s West Central Area boys basketball seniors Gage Staples (left), Jacob Bright (right) and Jack Van Kempen (back) hold up the Section 6A runner-up trophy on March 12. The photo shows the wide range of emotions that sports elicit in players at the high school level with Staples able to smile as he looks at the trophy as Van Kempen wipes away a tear. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

It was a strange feeling as I set up my laptop near center court on the scorer’s table at Concordia College in Moorhead on March 12.

The writing was on the wall that a shutdown was coming in winter sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of the biggest boys basketball games of the season were still scheduled to be played that night. I settled in to cover the Section 6A championship between West Central Area and defending Class A state champion Henning wondering what kind of crowd there would be. It ended up feeling as raucous as any game of that magnitude.

I thought back to that a few times as I covered events through this past fall season with limited or no fans in attendance. Obviously, those restrictions need to be in place to slow the spread of this virus, but I underestimated how important fans are in what makes sports great for so many.

At the high school level, a team can galvanize an entire community. That West Central Area boys basketball team is a good example. The Knights had never been in a section championship game until last season, and that’s what makes a group like this so special.

Last year’s WCA team went 27-3 and likely would have won a section title if not for being in the same bracket as probably the best Class A team in the state.


The Knights played beautiful basketball. They were incredibly unselfish, constantly passing up good shots for great ones. It led to shooting 41% from three as a team, while defensively they held the opposition to just 37% shooting overall.

The Knights had standout players. Jack Van Kempen and Gage Staples were named co-MVPs for the team, and Van Kempen was the Pheasant Conference MVP. They were likely the leaders of this group, but what made the Knights so fun to watch is just how balanced they were and how they genuinely seemed to care about getting everyone involved.

The communities in the West Central Area school district rallied around that. As I covered some of their biggest games last year, you could feel that energy, whether it was a packed-to-capacity gym in Evansville against the 18-9 Chargers on Feb. 27 or that section title game on March 12.

No, sports are not the most important thing in the world. But those who say they are somehow unimportant simply don’t want to understand the benefits.

I have had conversations with a few people over the years who see the worst that athletics bring out in people. They see fan anger spewed at an official or coach. They view the glorification of kids through sports as creating inflated egos that won’t benefit them in life after high school.

Our fascination with sports as a society isn’t perfect, but I’ve seen many cases where the same work ethic that drives a young athlete to excel in his or her sport also helps them excel in the classroom. Van Kempen -- the MVP of the Pheasant Conference -- was also all state academically last year. That’s not uncommon at all to see from the best athletes on a team.

There are teamwork and leadership qualities that sports bring out in young people. We hear that all the time, and it’s true, but one thing that is not always mentioned enough is that these sports are often these kids’ passions at this point in their life.

I am a firm believer in the power of having passions as a benefit to mental health -- something that really energizes a person on an almost daily basis. For me, that passion exists in archery and the outdoors, and it’s helped me immensely in remaining positive in 2020.


You see the emotional energy that people put into sports at their best when watching an event like that Section 6A boys basketball championship last March.

On one side, you have Henning players and fans laughing and taking pictures long after the final buzzer. Across the court, there are tears and hugs intermixed with the occasional smile from the WCA community as they look back on an historic season.

Some see that as a misplaced emphasis on sports. I see it as giving kids and their families some of the best memories of their lives to that point.

These players will go on to bigger things than basketball. Many will develop new passions that drive them, but at that moment basketball was it. That’s why these games are important.

I don’t envy any decision makers right now at the state or MSHSL level as we try to get through this pandemic while balancing both people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

These upcoming seasons certainly can’t be played under normal circumstances, but it feels like we’re getting closer. Vaccines are slowly starting to get distributed. The MSHSL board members have indicated that they want state tournaments to happen again this winter.

After a long and hard 2020, those are reasons for optimism as we turn the page to 2021.


Eric Morken

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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