Minnesota’s spring season for high school sports and activities ended Thursday with everyone losing, particularly seniors, when a shutdown initially begun in March was extended for the rest of the school year.
The Minnesota State High School League made the announcement Thursday shortly after Gov. Tim Walz said that Minnesota schools, which have been using distance learning for several weeks, will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which curtailed the tail end of the high school basketball postseason, clipped baseball, softball, lacrosse, track and field, golf, boys’ tennis, synchronized swimming, adapted softball and trapshooting before most of the hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes across the state had started to practice.
As Rosemount boys’ lacrosse coach Lance Kuehn mentally prepared himself Thursday to console players, to “look for the right words in those moments in life when we face setbacks,” one of his players had already found some words to share.
“One of my seniors reached out and said, ‘Thank you,’ because he knew this was going to be his last chance to play for me,” Kuehn said. “That really got to me.”
League Executive Director Erich Martens said, “This difficult decision was one we had hoped we would not need to make.’’
The league has been following the state’s lead since March 25, when Walz closed schools in favor of distance learning until May 4. The high school league moved quickly to extend its shutdown of spring activities for the same duration, hoping it would help slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We had such big expectations for this season. At first, I was positive we’d have some sort of short season, but as more stuff came out across the country, those hopes starting diminishing. It just makes be feel kind of empty.”
Since then Walz had signaled it was unlikely that schools would reopen this spring. Still, interest in the fate of spring activities remained high, with more than 200 school administrators and coaches participating in league video conference calls the past three Thursdays.
At Rosemount, Irish boys’ lacrosse players flocked to optional, weekly video conference calls the past few Thursdays to be together and to hear Kuehn’s word of the week.
“Empathy” was the most recent word. Kuehn encouraged his players, while disappointed, to take a larger view.
“While we were holding on to a glimmer of hope to play, we had to think bigger than ourselves,” Kuehn said.
Benilde-St. Margaret’s senior attacker Maitland Luksan said the “heartbreaking’’ news Thursday caused her thoughts to drift back to a season-ending playoff loss last June 3 “and how if I knew it would be my last high school game, what I might have done differently.”
A first-time team captain for this spring, her duties included encouraging teammates to “keep their heads up and to stay in a routine.” She also took part in optional team activities, including a “30-day lacrosse challenge” consisting of team-building and lacrosse-focused workouts. Red Knights players also sent each other handwritten cards through the mail.
For Luksan, who has signed to play lacrosse at Youngstown State, the next question is whether she will have much of a summer season with her True Lacrosse Minnesota club team.
At Lakeville North, senior pitcher Kaitlyn Young, a preseason favorite for the Minnesota Miss Softball award, said she hadn’t let herself think about possibly not having a season until the talk began to swirl Thursday morning.
“We had such big expectations for this season,” Young said. “At first, I was positive we’d have some sort of short season, but as more stuff came out across the country, those hopes starting diminishing. It just makes be feel kind of empty.”
This was supposed to be Lakeville North’s year, with Division I players in Young, who has committed to Eastern Kentucky, and senior shortstop Jenna Beckstrom, who signed with the Gophers.
“These girls train 10, 12 months out of the year,” Panthers coach Mike Schultz said. “Their work ethic was tremendous. They worked and worked for this shot, and the sad part is seeing that go away.”
Like most coaches, Totino-Grace baseball coach/athletic director Mike Smith said he’d been trying to take a positive outlook on possibly having a season, but it was always in the back of his mind that things might turn out this way. Still, he said, the finality of the league’s decision stung.
“We have some multisport athletes, but for some of these athletes in the spring, this is all they do,’’ Smith said. ‘‘They’ve been plugging away since fall, and now it’s taken away.”
Schultz said he’s confident his players will bounce back from the disappointment. “We’ve talked not about ‘what ifs,’ but about ‘what is,’ ” he said. “What are we going to do moving forward? We’re going to make it through.”
For Young, the loss has helped her find a new level of appreciation for her sport. “I will never again complain about practices.” she said. “I’m going to look at this as something I get to do, not have to do.”
The high school league board meets Friday and expects to offer more guidance to schools as the focus shifts to questions about summer workouts and fall sports, with state officials saying it’s too soon to know when school buildings will reopen.
“Everything we can do to slow the spread and impacts of COVID-19 will help ensure the health of all,’’ Martens said, “and will most certainly increase the chances that programming for students can return.”