At the same time Gov. Tim Walz was ordering an end to their season Wednesday evening, the St. Agnes and Concordia Academy volleyball teams prepared to play as “Now or Never” from “High School Musical 3” sounded across the gym.
Dire concerns about running out of hospital capacity to treat rapidly growing numbers of COVID-19 cases seemed to be taken sensibly by the 30 or so people watching from the Concordia gym bleachers in Roseville.
They sat on green X’s that established social distancing. Virtually all wore masks, as did coaches, officials and players on both teams who were not in the game, seated on chairs spaced and staggered. Most of Concordia’s starters wore masks as well.
On the court, the action belied the standard for virus transmission. If players were within 6 feet of each other, it was for instants or seconds, nowhere close to the 15-minute standard for gauging COVID exposure.
Before the match ended, with highly ranked Concordia winning in three sets, both teams took a hard loss.
Walz ordered a statewide four-week pause on indoor youth sports, starting Saturday, affecting tens of thousands of athletes, including those finishing high school fall seasons and starting winter activities at hundreds of schools.
The decision puts a temporary halt to a season like no other. Players seeing games postponed or canceled as teams coped with COVID cases or schools shifted to distance learning. Coaches and athletic directors scrambling to find new opponents, often at the last minute. Parents and fans pleaded to keep sports going, fearful of the mental health effects of the alternative.
“There is gratitude that we’ve had at least some of our season, but it’s also sad,” said Dawn Gillman, a Dassel-Cokato football parent whose Let Them Play MN Facebook page, with 22,000 members, has become a daily digest of sports parents’ emotions.
An electronic petition that her site began on Tuesday, urging Walz to not take away sports, approached 9,000 signees by the time he announced his decision.
“I do feel frustrated with our leadership in the state of Minnesota in determining what was safe or not. If the season started on time, it still could have been shorter and it could be wrapped up by now,” Gillman said.
Volleyball and football, initially deferred to spring by COVID concerns, were subsequently started in late September. The four-week pause wiped out a final crammed week of volleyball games, many rescheduled to deal with COVID postponements earlier in their already-shortened season. Also gone is a two-week postseason.
Concordia coach Kim Duis had to look away from her players after the match Wednesday to keep from crying.
“Their emotions are up and down, just like mine are because it’s not how you want to end a season,” she said. “And I know teams went through it last spring, but this was a group in the making for five years to actually win a state tournament. So that is the hardest part.”
Football’s playoffs started without 20% of the state’s teams, already sidelined by COVID issues. In advance of Walz’s announcement Wednesday, numerous teams scrambled to reschedule games from Saturday to Friday, in some cases changing opponents to simulate championship matchups, but mostly to get in one more game.
Among indoor winter sports, dance teams began practice on Nov. 9. Boys’ hockey and boys’ basketball practice was set to begin Monday, with girls’ basketball and hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, boys’ swimming and adapted hockey to sports to follow.
For Minneapolis North senior Davon Townley, accustomed to carrying a positive attitude, the pandemic is starting to take a toll.
“I’m trying to keep my head up,” said the 6-6, 245-pound Townley, a football tight end and basketball power forward. “It’s unfortunate when you can’t do what you love.”
Hopkins dance team coach Marit Green said she was “really sad about the pause, but the health and safety of everyone is more important. … The kids are just looking for an answer to move forward with, instead of the uncertainty that has plagued us all.”
Fergus Falls girls’ basketball coach Brad Strand and his team were going over their traveling gear recently. At one point, he paused and told his players, “We’re going to wear these. It just might be delayed a little bit.”
“I think it’s important to do whatever is necessary to ensure complete safety,” said Strand, president of the Minnesota Girls’ Basketball Coaches Association. “We know that with a pause, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, said, “Our coaches and leadership have been very supportive of the decisions being made throughout the shutdown and will be throughout this pause. We want our kids to be safe.”
Safety and uncertainty have been youth sports teammates since play resumed for legions of community and traveling leagues in June, and especially since high school fall sports began in August.
As canceled or postponed games piled up, it bred a palpable sense among high school athletes and coaches that each game could be their last. At Chisago Lakes, the football team played just once.
For Minneapolis Southwest football player Nick Flaskamp, just having the season was his biggest payoff. “All in all, I’ve had a great time this season,’’ the running back/linebacker said. “It’s been the best season I’ve ever had in football.”
For Hopkins girls’ basketball junior Amaya Battle, pausing the season is not as shocking as when the pandemic stopped the Royals one game short of a championship last March. Where the pause doesn’t help for Battle, who has 13 Division I scholarship offers including from the Gophers, is with recruiting.
“I’m one who likes to go on campus visits,” she said.
Back in the Concordia gym after the home team Beacons won the second set, reality began to set in for Kira Fallert, Concordia hitter and one of the state’s top players.
“It kind of started to hit me at the start of our last set,” she said. “[Teammate] Brooke [Weichbrodt] looked at me and said, ‘This is our last set on this court.’ And I was like, ‘I can’t think about that yet. We’ve just got to get through it. Too early to think about that.’ “
Vance Tverberg couldn’t see his daughter, a junior on the Beacons’ team, play because she has a few days to go in quarantine after sitting near someone who tested positive for COVID. She hopes to be back Friday, when the Beacons hope to get one more match in before the shutdown.
His more immediate concern was consoling his eighth-grade daughter, also a volleyball player, who had just learned her club volleyball season would be on hold.
“Even though it’s heartbreaking and very difficult,” he said, “the one thing we can do is believe in a better tomorrow and be positive. It’s out of our control.”
Star Tribune high school sports editor Paul Klauda and Nick Kelly contributed to this report.