Minneapolis Southwest senior running back and linebacker Nick Flaskamp smiled in the huddle last weekend even as he missed the usual trappings of high school football.
Flaskamp and 11 of his Lakers teammates thought they lost their fall football season when the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) postponed the sport until spring because of COVID-19 concerns.
But an unexpected opportunity to play 7-on-7, a no-contact version of football with emphasis on the passing game, in the fall provided a welcomed opportunity.
A similar void created by postponing high school volleyball to March also has been filled by a surge in fall club leagues.
Whether football and volleyball resume high school seasons this fall is expected to be decided Monday by the MSHSL.
In the My7on7 Passing League, full pads — heck, full rosters — aren't required. Games in the 32-team league, offered in the fall for the first time, are played on Saturday afternoon at Life Time Sport at Winter Park in Eden Prairie.
"I realized how happy I actually was to be back playing with my teammates," Flaskamp said.
When My7on7 owner Ty Thomas founded the league n 2015, he sought to keep kids and families involved in football who had concerns about tackling and concussions. This fall, the league allows high school players "to improve their skills because they get a lot of reps," Thomas said. "And they get to have some fun with their teammates."
Thomas's oldest son, Deonta, was a receiver/defensive back for three-school co-op SMB last season.
Flaskamp has participated in summer 7-on-7 passing leagues since before his freshman year at Southwest. With other states around the country playing a fall football schedule, Flaskamp hopes he can still fulfill his college football aspirations.
"The 7-on-7 stuff is not as good as real football," Flaskamp said. "But being on the field and actually playing was great."
The enthusiasm extended to coaches such as Forest Lake's Sam Ferraro, who watched games along with friend Nick Keenan, Champlin Park's coach.
Senior quarterback Caleb Kasa's willingness to organize a team brought the Rangers into the league, Ferraro said. The format fits well with Forest Lake's run-pass option offense.
Games began Sept. 12 and are scheduled to continue each Saturday through Oct. 10 with playoffs and a state championship in each of the four divisions. Several metro areas programs are involved, along with teams from Rochester, St. Cloud and Eau Claire, Wis.
Additional 7-on-7 leagues around the metro area include "2020 Saturday Night Lights" at Minnetonka High School, presented by Inspired Athletx, a Plymouth-based company where "doctors and coaches working together to empower elite performance." A team from Moorhead comes south to face metro area opponents.
On the first day of My7on7, Forest Lake, playing in the Varsity AAA division, split its first two games.
"When they beat Hopkins in the second game, it was like we won a Friday night game," Ferraro said, adding that he fought the temptation to offer tips.
"It was hard not being able to go up and talk to them," he said. "The coaches are missing football, too."
Fall volleyball surges
When the high school league pushed volleyball more than a half-year down the road, Wayzata coach Scott Jackson and other local volleyball coaches decided to create fall leagues to fill the calendar space normally occupied by the prep season. So far, they've been a hands-down smash.
"I thought the spaces would fill," recalled Jackson, who coached Wayzata to the Class 3A state title in 2019 and also runs the Minnesota Select volleyball club. "I didn't expect the mad dash for spots. It was a bit overwhelming. Normally, it might take weeks to fill up. This was more like hours. It was like a music concert."
Burnsville's Northern Lights, one of the metro area's top clubs, drew nearly 300 players grades nine through 12 for its in-house league. On the other side of town, more than a half-dozen of the metro's top clubs, such as Select, Mizuno M1, Kokoro, Crossfire, Kandi Elite, Vital and Club 43, banded together to form a league. And there are more.
For Ava Moes, a 6-3 senior hitter from Lakeville South, joining a fall league was a no-brainer. She wasn't desperate to improve her game; she has a scholarship to the University of Tennessee locked up. It was simply about sheer love of the sport.
"It's been tough, honestly," said Moes, who calls Northern Lights home during the club season. "So many of us girls are volleyball die-hards. It's what we live, eat and breathe. It was just weird going back to school this year and not having a season-opening match or anything."
The leagues, which have been going on for about two weeks, have been diligent about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Only players, coaches and officials are allowed in the gyms, parents and others being strictly forbidden. Practices are two nights a week, with matches on weekends. Masks are worn except when on the court, and players are not allowed to linger at the clubs.
Even with the strict protocol, Moes said the leagues have been valuable. "It's an awesome chance to get together, brush some of the cobwebs off and get back to some sense of normalcy," she said.
Maple Grove senior Skylar Gray, who committed to the University of Minnesota before her sophomore season, plays in two leagues. Having been away from the sport for so long, she's eager to make up for what was lost over the spring and summer.
"You can work out and do everything you can to develop your base skills, but there's nothing like being back on the court," she said. "There are a lot of things that are different, but I just wanted to get out there. I'm really enjoying it."