The one little agenda item for the meeting — “Reconsider Placement of Fall Activities Seasons” — holds massive ramifications.
Whether or not to start football and volleyball yet this fall is the decision the Minnesota State High School League board of directors is expected to make in a special session set for 9 a.m. Monday.
On Aug. 4 the board postponed both sports — the most popular by participation for boys and girls — until spring because of COVID-19 concerns. Since then, Minnesota has become an Upper Midwest island without prep football this fall. And fall club volleyball exploded in popularity.
A few hours after the Monday meeting was announced Wednesday morning, a league Return to Participation Task Force met virtually to determine best-case scenarios for starting football and volleyball. Suggestions included start dates for football practices (Sept. 28) and games (Oct. 9 or 10) as well as volleyball practices (Oct. 12 after the club season ends) and games (Oct. 26).
Board member Russ Reetz, Prior Lake’s activities director, said the goal is to present the board with complete fall calendars for both sports, from dates of first practices to the conclusion of postseason events.
Should the board vote to keep football and volleyball in the spring, the remaining 2020-21 sports calendar could be confirmed at its Oct. 1 meeting.
The league also sent a survey Wednesday to more than 500 member schools, seeking a response by noon Thursday to two central questions: Whether football and volleyball should be played in the fall of 2020 or spring of 2021, and the most important reason for that response.
The unexpected nature of the Monday meeting has football and volleyball athletes, parents and fans excited for the sports’ return. But some coaches acknowledged significant issues, including uncertainty regarding COVID-19 precautions and protocols.
Owatonna football coach Jeff Williams said that since the league announced the Monday meeting, coaches have reached out to him, saying they’re “really nervous about a fall season.”
“I’ve had coaches tell me they have had 10 players go out for other sports,” he said. “Do they pull them off those teams? Other coaches have taken part time jobs. What do they do?”
Retired Brainerd coach Ron Stolski, executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association, said one coach told him he had three players take jobs with local dairy farms and two others who joined the cross-country team.
“And he said ‘the cross-country team has never been better!’ ” Stolski said. “We all want to play, but it’s not as simple as that.”
Football coaches say a well-defined postseason is needed. With no state tournaments in the league’s budget, it has talked of having smaller, as-yet unannounced “culmination events.’’
“We need a guarantee of a robust playoff system,” said Williams, an association first vice president. “The kids deserve that. If not, then let’s wait until spring and take our chances there.”
Stillwater coach Beau LaBore, also an association officer, said he’s “disappointed the season didn’t start on time, but I respect the [MSHL’s] decision. … If we can ensure a worthwhile season, with playoffs, let’s kickoff. If not, then the best experience for our young men is likely in the spring.”
Said Reetz, “Some of our football players came to my office this morning and said, ‘We want to play in front of our student section and we will wait until spring if that is what is needed.’ ”
Volleyball coaches are eager to begin play, but admit it’s not as easy as just drawing up a schedule. Many high school players, having not played a competitive match since the Junior Olympic club season was canceled in March, jumped at the chance to compete in fall club leagues when the high school season was postponed to March. Those leagues are underway and are expected to wrap up by Oct. 11.
“The girls are playing anyway,” Eagan coach Kathy Gillen said. “They’re just not playing high school.”
Maple Lake coach Marty Kiebel, a past president of the volleyball coaches association and member of the volleyball coaches advisory committee, said playing volleyball in the fall, even if the season runs later than normal, is preferable because it won’t force players to choose between high school and JO seasons in the spring. The spring months are among the most important for club team players, with its high-profile national tournaments that provide recruiting exposure.
“I know kids want to play, but I don’t think they want to play just to play,” he said. “We can have a state tournament. It may not be at the Xcel Center, but it’s important to have a meaningful endgame.
The Monday meeting came about after a nearly four-hour board workshop Tuesday that included considerable sentiment for reconsidering the board’s Aug. 4 decision. Both sports have been allowed to hold three weeks of practices starting last Monday.