Caledonia football coach Carl Fruechte, one of the state’s most heralded winners, called his seniors Wednesday morning to admit defeat.
The season is over, after just three games. The Warriors’ 71-game winning streak, tops among current streaks in the nation and second longest in state history, is on pause.
An increase in area COVID-19 cases, coupled with what district superintendent Craig Ihrke called “several cases recently” within the high school, led him to move the Caledonia school to distance learning Wednesday and shut down all extracurricular activities for the time being.
The season began with no state tournament planned, suspending the Warriors’ drive for a sixth consecutive Class 2A state championship and 11th in 14 years.
Then game cancellations piled up as other programs dealt with COVID concerns. First Stewartville on Oct. 16. Then St. Charles on Nov. 7. An agreement with Pine Island to play on Nov. 7 ended up flaming out as well.
“We had other schools that wanted to play us,” Fruechte said of his 3-0 team. “But having one of us drive four or five hours to the other wasn’t going to work.”
This week’s shutdown eliminated three more possible games for Caledonia by ending its pursuit of a section championship on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Shortened seasons are playing out with increasing frequency across the state. The surge in COVID cases has school districts — their schools seeing more cases and feeling the effects on attendance and staffing — shifting to distance learning and curtailing sports.
Many teams, hit by COVID cases or quarantines, have missed multiple games. Chisago Lakes and Rush City each played just one of their six scheduled games before their seasons were canceled.
Districts including Duluth and St. Peter are bringing football and volleyball to a halt next week. They are joining others in delaying winter sports, most of which were set to begin this month. Some have delayed them until December, others until after Jan. 1, hoping the virus situation will have improved by then.
None of this made Fruechte’s phone calls easier. What’s worse, he said, was some of the alarming responses.
“One of our guys said, ‘I’m not doing well, Carl.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I hear ya,’ ” Fruechte said. “I’m scared for some of these kids.”
The team’s Twitter account posted notice of a school board meeting Monday, saying the shutdown decision would be on the agenda and urging “a large community presence.’’
A frustrated Fruechte criticized Gov. Tim Walz’s response to the pandemic, saying, “He has put undue pressure on superintendents, principals, and activities directors. I believe this virus is the real deal, and I feel bad for all who are dealing with it or died from it. But we’ve got to move on and live life.”
Players and coaches will meet outdoors Monday, at the normal practice time, to clean up fields and turn in gear. And, Fruechte said, because “we need to have some closure.”
But the longtime coach knows additional work remains.
“Keeping our kids together is extremely important,” said Fruechte, who on some days this season has been on the phone with parents or players almost nonstop from 7:30 a.m. until noon. “It’s a very trying time and we’re trying to do the best we can.”
When it comes to ensuring the emotional and mental well-being of his players, Fruechte is using the equivalent of smashmouth football – a style for which his championship teams are known.
“We can’t beat around the bush with mental health,” Fruechte said. “If anything, I’ve changed to becoming more aggressive, to attack this more. We tell our kids, ‘Talk to someone who you love and respect and get it out. That doesn’t make you weak.’
“I’ve always been open when it comes to our kids and I’m going to be even more open now,” Fruechte said. “Turning to drugs and alcohol isn’t going to help. I’ve told our kids, ‘Come on over to my house and scream if you need to get it out. Come to us and talk.’ ”