A good night’s sleep Sunday figured to elude Mike Grant, deprivation the longtime Eden Prairie football coach blamed on nerves.
Monday begins fall sports practice at most Minnesota high schools, unofficially ending summer and starting the school year. Despite his veteran status, Grant said he deals with the same butterflies players experience before games. For the many athletes who spent their summer toiling in weight rooms or at camps or clinics, it was for this — the pageantry and passion of varsity sports.
“It’s an exciting day, especially for the seniors,” said Grant, who last fall led the Eagles to an unprecedented third consecutive big-school state tournament title. “Today is Day 1 of our journey. We’ll see in December what our story is going to be.”
Should Eden Prairie make its typical deep playoff run into November, players will experience unique surroundings. No Metrodome means two seasons of football and soccer state tournaments moving to new outdoor locations.
The semifinal and championship soccer games move to St. Cloud State while TCF Bank Stadium plays host to the seven football title games on Nov. 21-22. Semifinal games will be played on neutral-site turf fields.
Football, which attracts more athletes than any other Minnesota high school sport, lets schools and communities know where they stand. Last school year, 26,563 student-athletes playing football accounted for 31 percent of 85,124 fall sports participants.
Even at DeLaSalle, where the boys’ basketball team won the past three Class 3A state tournament championships, “our season sets the tone for the climate of success at school all year,” Islanders football coach Sean McMenomy said. “Kids take great pride in that.”
Last week, as the grind of a new season drew closer, McMenomy planned to take his wife downtown for dinner, enjoy a stroll along the Mississippi River near the school and then spring his trap.
“We will end our walk at the stadium and I’ll say, ‘Oh by the way, football is just around the corner,’ ” he said.
Coaching routines — filling out forms, assigning equipment, coordinating practices — are similar yet different nuances. But coaches live for a renewed interaction with athletes.
Don’t see me as a different person, new Park Center football coach Paul Strong urged his players. Strong, a defensive backs coach the past three years, carries the big whistle this fall. The Pirates opened practice last week in preparation for a “zero week’’ game played one week before most teams start their season for scheduling reasons.
“I was nervous, but once we were on the field, that went away,” Strong said. “I told the guys, ‘The only opinion that matters to me is what you think — where you want to go and how we’re going to get there.’ ”
Long-term goals also were on the mind of Andover volleyball coach Connie Huberty. In 2004 she purchased shoes in the school’s black and gold colors and told players she planned to wear them at the Xcel Energy Center, site of the state tournament. The ploy worked.
“I need a new line this season,” Huberty joked. “But we always set out to start our season at Andover and finish at Xcel. I never want my season to be over.”
The end is nigh, however, for high school football’s traditional conference format. Beginning next fall, teams will participate in one of 18 districts across the state. With larger collections of teams, districts were designed to preserve rivalries while alleviating scheduling headaches.
After several years of planning, compromise and hand-wringing, districts were finalized this summer. Such off-field drama will be far from coaches’ minds on Monday, as the hope and promise of the fall starts anew.
“It’s an awesome feeling you can’t replicate,” McMenomy said. “It only happens once a year.”