All Minnesota high school winter sports are a go, with significantly fewer games and meets, without fans in attendance indoors. As for postseason playoffs, no decisions have been made yet.
Seasons for hockey, basketball and most other winter sports also will start from one to five weeks later than usual as the Minnesota State High School League seeks to minimize overlap with fall seasons and thwart virus transmission amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The league’s board of directors approved a plan during a virtual meeting Thursday that has boys’ hockey starting Nov. 23, two weeks later than normal, and girls’ hockey starting Nov. 30, five weeks later than it had been scheduled to begin before the pandemic.
Boys’ basketball will start Nov. 23, a week later than normal, and girls’ basketball Dec. 7, four weeks later than normal.
Teams in all four sports will have 18 regular-season games, down from 25 for hockey and 26 for basketball.
The league also approved a fall sports postseason that provides for two weeks of competition leading to section champions in boys’ and girls’ soccer and cross-country, girls’ tennis and girls’ swimming and diving.
Girls’ winter sports were dealt the biggest delays in season start dates, stemming from the volleyball season ending about a month later than normal.
The board approved a 30% reduction in winter sports games and meets, with two games per week and no invitationals or tournaments, consistent with how fall sports are proceeding. However, in the last two weeks of the regular season, winter sports can add a third game if needed because of postponements caused by COVID-19.
With winter sports approaching, a league task force had sought to limit overlap between fall, winter and spring seasons to minimize potential virus spread. That challenge intensified somewhat with the league’s decision last month to restart football and volleyball this week.
In most years, girls’ hockey begins practice in late October, with most other winter sports starting up by mid-November. This year football, the league’s most popular boys’ sport by participation, is expected to finish on Thanksgiving weekend. Volleyball, the most popular girls’ sport, wraps up Dec. 12.
Winter postseason concerns
Officials with coaches associations for hockey and basketball game offered decidedly mixed views of the plans while sharing concerns about postseason play.
Jon Ammerman, Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association president and the head coach at Moorhead, said some coaches are worried about top players leaving because of state tournament uncertainty.
“That’s a big selling point to encourage our players to stay in Minnesota,’’ he said. ‘‘The end goal of playing in front of 18,000 fans at the Xcel Energy Center probably isn’t realistic. But we’re willing to be flexible. We’ve shown that with our plans to this point.”
Tim Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Coaches Association and the head coach at Lakeville South, said the five-week-later start “leaves our female hockey players with five weeks of nothing to do. We should have started when the boys start, if not earlier.”
Morris said all fall programs under the auspices of Minnesota Hockey end at the end of October, as does most of the private hockey development businesses.
“At least the high school league can allow us to have some contact with our kids and keep training them,’’ he said. “Otherwise, the propensity for injury goes up and that’s a huge concern.”
Last March the Farmington girls’ basketball team had advanced to the Class 4A championship game when the tournament was shut down because of COVID-19. Tigers coach Liz Carpentier said this season’s delayed start is insignificant in comparison to the prospects of not having a state tournament.
“There’s going to be pushback if we don’t get a state tournament,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be at Williams Arena or Target Center. It could be two teams at a time at school gyms with no fans. There are so many possible solutions. It doesn’t make sense that we can’t find a way to add three more games to the end of the season.”
Tom Critchley, executive director of the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association, called starting practice Nov. 23 “as good an outcome as we could have expected.” Coaches had pushed for starting no later than Nov. 30 and a season long enough to allow for rescheduling games.
“Now, we’ll have to look at coming up with safety protocols for play,” Critchley said. “Maybe we’ll come up with something even safer than what is recommended.”
The coaches group is not finished stumping for a state tournament. That is a big deal, Critchley said, because of how last season turned out.
“Boys’ and girls’ basketball could be the first sports to go two straight years without a state champion,” he said. “We don’t want that.”
Section champs only this fall
The fall sports postseason discussion Thursday included a proposal to hold one more round of games, in which the eight section champions would square off. The board voted it down on a 10-8 vote and settled on the section tournament plan, which will yield eight champions in each class of each sport.
Officials emphasized during the meeting that winter sports postseason plans will be evaluated separately, mindful of what Minnesota Health Department guidelines recommend in the light of changing virus conditions.
Minneapolis North football coach Charles Adams III said he’s more than satisfied that the Polars will get the chance to show their skills this season.
“I can’t complain,” Adams said when asked his reaction to the league rejecting a proposal to add one more football game to the postseason. “Everything happens for a reason. We’re going to get the chance to play the game we love on brand-new turf in a brand-new stadium.” (The Polars’ stadium was renovated in the offseason.)
Getting football back this fall, he said, was reward enough. If it’s a section championship his team is aiming for, than they’ll be satisfied with that.
“Like I told them, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” he said.