Jennifer Dalseth found her way last Thursday into the woods on the perimeter of Valleywood Golf Course near her home in Apple Valley. Her mission: To see her daughter run by in the last cross-country race of her high school career, the Class 2A, Section 3 championship meet.
And not be seen by others.
A sign along the road next to the 18-hole city course delivered the reason: “NO spectators allowed.”
Dalseth drove by the course entrance and saw an Apple Valley police officer. When she asked what he would do if she tried to get on the course, he told her he would “have to do my job,” Dalseth said.
Across the state last week, 15 other section meets were held, the last of a season without a state meet, owing to concerns about COVID-19. The Minnesota State High School League, following Minnesota Department of Health recommendations, allowed up to 250 fans to watch those final races.
Most, if not all, of the meets allowed fans. But not Section 3 in the south metro area.
Section officials decided in late August that no spectators would be allowed on the golf course where the 5K races have traditionally been run.
When that message reached parents in the days before the meet, many pleaded with them to reconsider. Dalseth enlisted her legislators — one a sports official, the other a frequent attendee at the meet — seeking to overturn the decision.
“It’s just so nonsensical,” she said, noting that surrounding states permit cross-country fans at races and that high school league guidelines allow up to 250 people at football and soccer games in venues far smaller than golf courses.
Section officials not only held firm, they added the off-duty officer as “a visible deterrent,” said Scott Larson, executive secretary of the high school league’s Region 3AA, which oversaw the meet. At least one school advised that teams could face disqualification if fans showed up.
“I don’t believe that was the most positive way to end a season,” said John Maresh, coach of the Prior Lake team that won the boys’ meet. “It was kind of intimidating to kids when they show up to run a meet and there’s a police officer at the entrance to the park.”
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Hiring an off-duty officer underscores simmering tension as high school sports carry on amid the pandemic. Public pressure campaigns that initially focused on restarting seasons are shifting to press for more people to attend as fans and for restoring season-ending state tournaments.
On Oct. 8 — a week before the section meet — the high school league, following updated guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education, dropped its no-fans policy for sports played in gyms and arenas. Starting at volleyball matches that evening, up to two mask-wearing spectators per participant would be allowed.
That change got the attention of cross-country parents and fans of the South Suburban Conference’s 10 teams, which compete in Section 3. All season long a conference policy prohibited them from attending school-hosted dual and triangular meets.
Two days after the league loosened its indoor spectator rules, some fans defied the conference dictate for cross-country races and showed up at Eagan High School for the conference championship meet.
Not allowing fans at an outdoor race, while the league was permitting them inside gyms and arenas, “really upset a lot of parents,” Maresh said.
Acknowledging that Prior Lake supporters were among those at the meet, he said, “Coaches understand the rule, but they don’t make enough money to tell their parents to go home.”
Larson said he received reports from the Eagan meet that spectators “were all over the place, many without masks,” as well as congregating in the start and finish areas. He said with open access to the school grounds, those running the meet “didn’t have a way to deal with” people getting on the course.
Dalseth had no problems this fall watching her daughter, Margaret. She was the top runner at Visitation, which competed in a conference that allowed spectators at races in St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park in Hastings. Mother and daughter said fans wore masks, practiced social distancing and avoided crowding runners along the course and finish line.
When word reached Jennifer that Section 3, where Visitation would race in the Class 2A meet with many of the South Suburban schools, was not allowing fans, Margaret came home from school with tears in her eyes and asked, “Will you still be there, Mom?”
Her mother started sending e-mails to find out who made the decision, intent on getting it reversed. So did parents from other schools.
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The pandemic changed how section meets were run, too.
State guidelines limiting pods of athletes meant the two 16-team meets would consist of eight carefully synchronized races, with no more than four teams racing at a time. At Valleywood, the entire course was closed, with teams competing on one nine-hole section while the next to race warmed up on the back nine.
Teams arrived by bus at designated times with only their seven runners plus two alternates. Athletes had to drop their sweats in designated areas and pick them up individually after they raced. Schools even got assigned their own portable bathrooms, Larson said.
In an Oct. 8 e-mail to school athletic directors, Larson wrote that “not having spectators would allow our tournament staff to forgo the time consuming task of encircling the tee boxes and greens with pennants to keep those areas undisturbed.”
When parents learned of that, some offered to quickly recruit volunteers to do the work. Larson said that request wasn’t accepted, and that even if the course setup issue was solved, it didn’t address keeping fans from getting too close to runners.
Organizers of 12 other Class 2A and 1A section meets said fans were permitted at their races, in some cases limited to two per participant. The Section 6AA meet at Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista also had eight races spread out over the day. Spectators were asked to wear masks, practice social distancing, stay back from runners and avoid start and finish areas.
Dalseth — a member of Let Them Play MN, a Facebook group calling attention to high school sports issues in recent months — contacted her legislators, including Rep. John Huot and Sen. Greg Clausen. Huot, a basketball and football official, pledged to check. Clausen sent an e-mail to Larson and Utecht, saying he had watched several section meets at Valleywood in past years. He asked them to reconsider.
“For many parents this will be their last opportunity to experience their son or daughter participation in cross-country running,” he wrote.
Larson said the decision ‘‘was not an easy one” but that no schools contacted him with objections.
“We know that moms and dads were not happy with that decision,” he said. “We did what we thought was the best” for ensuring a safe race.
In the end, Dalseth caught a glimpse of Margaret, the team’s top runner, who hopes to walk on at Cornell next year. Margaret said she ended running with another runner from Eagan for much of the race. She saw her team’s two alternates at one point on the course, cheering her on, but that was it.
“It’s all about the kids,” Jennifer Dalseth said, “and they missed out on an opportunity to have fans. When you’re a runner that’s part of the experience — having people cheer for you. It’s a mentally tough sport. When you have crowd support, when you can see parents and siblings, it inspires you.
“I’m sorry that was missed.”