Football coaches will admit, with relief, the most peculiar start to a Minnesota high school football season came and went without some of their fears being realized.
The changes, affecting matters such as when the season started and how practices could be conducted, were substantial. Football conferences were replaced with a new scheduling approach.
Coaches’ concerns were, in turn, elevated. Now, with the regular season’s second half upon them, most coaches have found a groove. The early-season challenges, however, are not far from their minds.
The Prep Bowl, every program’s top prize, will be held Nov. 13-14, two weeks earlier than normal because of scheduling conflicts at TCF Bank Stadium. Coaches voted to start the season earlier, thereby ensuring teams a full regular-season schedule and a postseason opportunity. Their decision, affecting this season only, meant no preseason scrimmage to assess their teams. Instead that Saturday — Aug. 22 — marked the season’s first games.
Adding to the time crunch, national safety guidelines eliminated two-a-day practices on consecutive days.
As so often happens in high school sports, regimented coaches found adjusting to changes more difficult than did their young players.
“The kids reacted well; they don’t really understand how it used to be,” Champlin Park coach Mike Korton said. “It was tougher on coaches who have done things a certain way for 20 years.”
Change brought consternation but also positives. New preseason practice restrictions “were good for morale,” St. Michael-Albertville coach Jared Essler said. He can relate. As a senior at North Dakota State in 2004, Essler took part in the first season the NCAA eliminated consecutive two-a-day practices. “We thought we were living the dream,” Essler joked.
Blaine coach Tom Develice anticipated a dozen new football players came out because of restricted practice time. He feared greater risk of injury but instead found players were mentally sharper and in turn more physically whole for the season’s first game.
“We weren’t dreading two-a-days all the time,” Develice said. “What can happen is, players get frustrated, their practice habits tail off and then they get injured.”
When teams hold two practice sessions in one day, players must be given a minimum two-hour recovery period before the second practice. Korton, accustomed to giving players an hour of rest, said the increased time gap presented a logistical challenge for players in the weeks before the start of school.
“Some of our kids, we can get them here one time,” Korton said. “But if we let them leave, we aren’t going to get them back.”
To combat the problem, Korton said increased fundraising allowed the team to provide players lunch each day.
Less practice time left coaches with decisions to make. Are we emphasizing special teams enough? How much do we want to task players to learn? What can be implemented later this season?
Further complicating matters was not having the Saturday scrimmage. No scrimmage meant no film, which made correcting mistakes more challenging. That produced what Essler called some “weird, silly things” in the first game. His Knights made seven turnovers in a loss to Moorhead.
“It was hard to put all these changes on top of each other,” Essler said.
Another sweeping change this fall, district scheduling, meant the end of conferences. Each of the state’s 373 football programs was placed in one of 16 districts. The shake-up has meant better competitive balance for some long-suffering metro-area programs. For example, Mound Westonka started the season 4-0, its most victories in 15 years and first four-victory season since 1992.
Park of Cottage Grove, historically a struggling Suburban East Conference member in many sports, was denied admission into the Metro East. The high school league’s placement of the football team in the East Metro Red subdistrict, however, meant the Wolfpack plays all of the Metro East Conference schools. The Wolfpack is 3-1 so far.
“That’s what high school sports should be about, competitive balance,” Park coach Darin Glazier said. “A 70-0 game isn’t good for anyone. Two teams should prepare for a football game where they both have a chance.”