Facing another two weeks of youth sports on hold because of COVID-19, the Minnesota State High School League on Thursday approved a trio of dates for restarting winter sports, including one that would have games starting in the last week of January.

The league set possible start dates for team practice of Dec. 21, Jan. 4 and Jan. 18 to address uncertainty with managing the spread of COVID-19 through the upcoming holidays. The plan puts a priority on games over season length, though there would be as many as 30% fewer games than in a normal season.

It also seeks to minimize disruption to spring sports seasons, which never got started last spring as the pandemic took hold. Those sports would begin as winter sports wind down, with a goal of finishing the week of June 14.

Approved during a virtual meeting of the league's board of directors, the plan includes something that was missing for fall sports: the possibility of state tournaments, though likely much different from those held in the past.

Dec. 21 is just three days after the end of a four-week youth sports pause ordered by Gov. Tim Walz in an attempt to limit group gatherings fueling the spread of the virus. Since his order, officials have expressed concern about Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers causing more surges.

State officials, who put high school and youth sports on hold starting Nov. 21, will decide when they can restart. The high school league is a nonprofit association of 506 member schools.

"The players want to get after it, I want to get after it,'' said Barb Metcalf, Park Center girls' basketball coach. "But if the governor wants us to stay locked down, we have to make the best of it. If anything, COVID 2020 has taught us is better patience."

Noting "the dynamic nature of COVID-19,'' league Executive Director Erich Martens said, "We need to remain flexible in the start of seasons and in carrying them to conclusion."

The state-ordered pause has sidelined tens of thousands of young athletes, including those finishing high school fall seasons and starting winter activities. Many parents have pleaded for some loosening of restrictions.

Dawn Gillman, a Dassel-Cokato football parent whose Let Them Play MN Facebook page has more than 22,000 members, spoke during the board meeting.

In an interview afterward, Gillman urged that Walz "understand that this should be a pause and not a shutdown. Because not being able to be together in school or with their teams has had a drastic impact on the mental health and the education of our youth."

Even before Walz took action, many school districts already had decided to postpone winter sports. For some, those delays extended past Jan. 1 as fast-rising COVID case levels and resulting quarantines pushed many into distance learning that shut down school activities.

Martens, in a news release, noted schools "are facing extremely high case counts.'' He said the league is ready to adjust its calendar plans if needed.

If sports can resume Dec. 21, high school games could be played starting Jan. 4, according to the league's approved calendar model. Winter seasons would be shortened another two to four weeks if they started on the January dates, with a tentative plan to end in the week of March 29.

For a Jan. 18 restart, competitions in all winter sports would begin after seven to 10 days of practice. For example, basketball and hockey would have 11-week seasons and play 18 regular-season games, according to the calendar model. In a typical year, those seasons would be 17 or 18 weeks with 25 or 26 games. Other winter sports would have comparably reduced seasons.

For postseason play, the league has discussed reducing two-week section playoffs to as little as one week. It's also considering a draft "State Tournament Road Map" designed to identify options and models for hosting winter state tournaments given current restrictions on large gatherings.

The league has received commitments of $433,000 from corporate sponsors to be held in reserve to help with expenses related to winter and spring tournaments.

Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, called the league's consideration of state tournaments "welcomed news.'' In recent years the boys' hockey state tournament, widely revered as a state institution, has typically generated $1 million after expenses, making it by far the league's biggest moneymaker.

"We know it might not be the same, but it doesn't have to be,'' McMillan said of 2021 hockey tournaments. "It should be about giving the kids an opportunity to play for a title in any format even without fans."

Said Park Center's Metcalf, "The kids put in the time and the work and they deserve to have some sort of final outcome. …It's about the kids and what they're going through, mentally and physically."

Staff writers Jim Paulsen and Paul Klauda contributed to this report.