The upcoming high school winter sports season could be longer than originally planned if the Minnesota State High School League follows the likely recommendations of a task force it commissioned to set start and end dates for those sports.
And the door was opened slightly for the possible return of state tournaments.
The league’s Return to Participation task force met virtually Wednesday in advance of Thursday’s board of directors meeting, which is expected to determine the start and end dates of winter sports seasons along with the number of contests to be allowed in each sport.
In August the league, at the urging of the task force and following Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, mandated that fall sports adopt 20% shorter seasons in length and 30% fewer contests.
But when presented with three options for the winter sports seasons — the fall-style reduced season, a full-length season with earlier start dates and a full-length season with a later start dates that extended deeper into March — a significant number of task force members spoke in favor of a longer season with earlier start dates. They cited a need to accommodate scheduling changes in the wake of potential COVID-19 outbreaks while also not infringing upon the spring season.
Most also felt a longer season would allow for athletes to stay together longer in a safer, controlled environment. With the exception of Alpine and Nordic skiing, other winter sports — basketball, hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, boys’ swimming, dance team and adapted hockey — are played indoors.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned this fall, it’s that if our kids aren’t with us, they’re [playing sports] somewhere else,” said Waconia athletic director Jill Johnson, who heads up the task force.
Said league associate director Bob Madison, “The message we continue to hear is that kids continue to participate when they’re not under our guidance.”
While the task force is expected to recommend longer seasons, it remained committed to having fewer contests, roughly 18 each in hockey and basketball. In a typical season, basketball is allowed 26 regular-season games, hockey 25. There was support for allowing more than two games per week — the limit for fall sports — nodding to the challenges of rescheduling postponed games.
“We know the season will need to be tweaked to account for the inevitable positive tests that will occur,” Madison said.
The Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association has made two proposals for the hockey season, each asking for its season to begin Nov. 16. The task force likely will recommend starting the hockey season Nov. 23 to reduce the amount of overlap with football, which will be in the final week of its postseason by then.
Girls’ hockey, which normally begins practice in late October, is expected to begin near the same time as boys’ hockey, a late start designed to avoid overlap with volleyball.
The boys’ basketball season likely will start Nov. 30, two days after the completion of the football season, with girls’ basketball’s start date likely to follow a week later, again to minimize conflicts with volleyball, which will conclude Dec 12.
The task force did not spend much time Wednesday discussing potential postseason scenarios. But in a direct address to the group, league Executive Director Erich Martens said if they did not consider potential state tournament possibilities, they were “missing an opportunity.”
“We believe it’s the task of the league to advocate for increased opportunities for kids,” he said.
This year the league has resisted holding traditional state tournaments, citing the potential for them to become super-spreader events, and talked of smaller season “culmination events.”