The first serves flew over tennis nets but no hands were shaken, no celebratory fives were highed.

Cross-country races took off but packs were small if they existed at all, with only two or at most three teams competing together.

By contrast, swimmers dived into the pool and in many instances raced only time, their opponent for the meet doing the same at its own pool. Fans weren't allowed, either.

Soccer games carried on with reasonable normalcy, the pandemic most reflected in reserves trying to keep six feet between them on the sideline. Fans, some wearing masks despite the heat, did the same in the stands. And had to bring their own concessions.

If any footballs flew or volleyballs were smacked, we didn't see it.

Small and strange in some ways but as competitive as ever in others: Welcome to a fall high school sports season unlike any we've seen before.

TENNIS: Two girls' powerhouses get back in their competitive mode

Tennis players were on their assigned courts at Minnetonka High School, competing as they always have. Coaches wandered between matches, observing and instructing. About 60 or so parents and spectators ringed the courts, some moving about to watch different matches, others fixated on the court where a daughter or friend played.

The season-opening girls' tennis match between Blake and Minnetonka, two of the state's best teams, appeared rather ordinary Tuesday. Or as Arlina Shen, the now-graduated two-time Class 1A singles champion from Blake, put it as she watched, "Doesn't look any different."

In the age of COVID-19, however, different is the new normal.

The bleachers, which normally sit between the courts, had been moved outside the surrounding fences. Blue dots placed intermittently on the benches indicated where fans were allowed to sit and still stay socially distant. And celebratory contact among players — high-fives and such — was limited to racquet taps.

"I talked to the tennis players and soccer players about 'cellys,' " Minnetonka athletic director Ted Schultz said. "Those aren't allowed any more. I'm not sure how easy that's going to be. They're kids."

Easy or not, everybody at the match, won by Minnetonka, seemed eager to acquiesce.

Blake parents Somia Mourad, Judy Anderson and Randall Barry stood 6 feet apart after the match, discussing the protocols in place at various schools.

"A number of schools, like Blake, are changing their policies to no visitors," said Mourad, whose daughter plays No. 2 doubles for the Bears. In other years it was easier to talk with parents and view other matches, she said, but "we're all very happy to abide by these rules. We're just happy to be able to watch."

The biggest adjustments for the players has been adapting to a shorter, limited season. The Minnesota State High School League already has indicated there will be no state tourney this year, labeling year-end matches between top teams as "culminating events."

That means Blake's streak of five consecutive Class 1A team championships will not be extended this year. And this was supposed to be Minnetonka's year to win an elusive state championship. The Skippers, a 6-1 winner over the Bears on Tuesday, have most of their players back from the 2019 team that lost to Edina in the Class 2A team final.

"Personally, I'm still holding out hope that we'll have a state tournament because of the depth with have," sophomore Maddie Prondzinski said. "This is our year! But I don't think it will happen."

Prondzindski, daughter of Wayzata boys' tennis coach Jeff Prondzinski, admitted that despite social distancing rules, there have been occasional slip-ups.

"We know we have to be socially distant," she said. "But we are girls. We do get close at times."

Before Tuesday's match, Sarah Shabazz, Minnetonka's No. 1 singles player, hadn't played a competitive match since February. Just getting out and playing, she said, was what mattered. "It felt great," she said. "Getting out there with my teammates and having that bonding.''

Not having a chance at a true a state title was disappointing, but she merely changed her focus.

"You can't control the things that aren't controllable. You have to forget about that and focus on beating Edina for the conference championship," Shabazz said. "That's probably a lot the same, only without all the people there."


SWIMMING AND DIVING: On your mark, get set ... where is everybody?

Jennie and Todd Lee sat in front of a laptop on the kitchen table of their Apple Valley home, watching their two daughters, senior captain Anna and freshman Lexie, compete in Eastview's opening girls' swimming meet of the season against Shakopee.

At the Eastview pool, participants stared into lone­liness. No parents, no fans, not even their opponent was there Friday night. Both teams in the dual meet were swimming in their own pools due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

"This is so unique," Todd said. "You can't do this for any other sport because everything is exactly the same in swimming."

At least for the most part. In the 10-team South Suburban Conference, Farmington, Lakeville North, Lakeville South and Shakopee are still hosting dual meets for the school districts that aren't solely going virtual. Lakeville North and South share a pool.

"The majority of our meets will be virtual and start at the same time," Eastview athletic director Matt Percival said. "It's a district by district decision. We're allowing for flexibility."

In the 14-team Northwest Suburban Conference, six schools — Andover and Anoka, Blaine and Coon Rapids, Elk River and Rogers — share three pools for meets. The conference is doing a score exchange for meets that don't start at the same time.

"The meets are really going to be more like time trials," Elk River athletic director Mike Cunningham said. "Coaches are a little timid and we have some issues with pool capacity."

Andover coach Marcia Ford has seen that firsthand.

"It has caused a little trouble with scheduling," Ford said. "We had to be at the pool at 12:30 p.m. for our meet at 2. Anoka came in at 4:30 for its meet at 6. We had to be done and out so everything could be sanitized before Anoka came in. It's an adjustment for everybody."

At Eastview, the lights at the pool went out during the diving competition. Fortunately, when they came back on, the live feed video came back, too.

"Boy, they were cruising through those events until that happened," Todd said. "I've been anxious to watch our daughters."

What Jennie saw had her concerned, though.

"I'm texting the girls right now," she said. "They are sitting too close together."

Social distancing and masks are a must along the pool deck.

"There is no virtual mom," Todd said laughing. "This is real mom."

To which Jennie responded: "Look how tech savvy I'm becoming."

Coon Rapids senior Megan Schultze, who has committed to Rice, initially was concerned that no fans or opponents would mean "less energy with less people at the pool," she said. "You just have to be the one to bring a positive attitude and energy to each meet."

It didn't show in her performance on Thursday, her first meet in six months. Her 500-yard freestyle time of 5:03.80 set new pool, conference and section records.

"I've never gone that long without a race,'' Schultze said. I wanted to make the most out of my first race back."

Coon Rapids coach Doug Donaldson said not having an opponent in the same pool helped some of his swimmers "compete without having the live comparison of how we were performing against the other team. I think it will help the confidence of a lot of our girls and ultimately end up being a positive result of the virtual meets."

The Lees always will remember the first one.

"We've never had two kids on the same team before," Todd said. "That's one meet under our belt. That's pretty cool."


SOCCER: Hand ball violation takes on new meaning

A wayward soccer ball landed in the East Ridge stadium bleachers, a few feet from visiting Mounds View fans. A well-intentioned member of the group began pursuit when a stadium supervisor hollered to leave the ball alone.

Outside hands, even when offered in assistance, were discouraged. Nothing personal. It's just that no one wanted to see the unusual opening night of the season turn into the final night because coronavirus prevention protocols weren't followed to the letter.

"We want the kids to be able to keep playing," another supervisor explained while reminding fans to wear their face coverings into the stadium.

None objected. Because everyone, from the coaches and players on the turf to the fans in the bleachers, understood that the normalcy they craved last Thursday evening meant accepting changes.

The first words from the stadium public address announcer were, "We're excited to offer you a game," and they drew cheers and clapping from the announced 132 spectators. After a summer of uncertainty, players were equally pumped.

"We didn't know if there would be a season so we're so grateful to be playing," East Ridge senior Alexander Hager said.

The host Raptors, Class 2A state tournament runners-up last fall, edged Mounds View 1-0. Little changed for the 22 players on the field. East Ridge players slapped hands while making substitutions and a Raptor player extended his hand to help a fallen Mounds View player off the turf.

"For the most part," Hager said, "it's not that abnormal."

But other adjustments in the name of safety were evident.

"It was weird to look down three benches and call for subs who felt like they are a mile away," Mounds View coach Joe Warren said.

Fans were reminded to wear face coverings when not seated and to keep 6 feet between themselves and those not in their household. Restrooms were open. The concession stand was closed. Inside the ticket office, where a maximum of 250 tickets could be sold, a bottle of hand sanitizer prevented paper containing each teams' rosters from blowing around.

Players grew accustomed to following safety protocols since summer workouts and their parents and friends live with face covering requirements in public spaces. And so, the mood felt relaxed. The only shouts and groans from the crowd were game-related.

East Ridge senior Cam Kor scored the game's lone goal. His lob over the Mustangs' goalkeeper came about five minutes into the first half.

"Soccer is a stress reliever," Kor said. "When I'm on the field, I just think about the game."

Away from the action, however, concern lingers. After all, just a few months ago, members of the Class of 2020 lost their spring sports opportunities.

"I was super scared that someone would get coronavirus and we wouldn't have a season," Kor said. "But I'm really happy we are lucky enough to be playing. I'm trying leave any worries out of my mind. I'm hoping and praying for the best."

Warren, a former goalkeeper for the Minnesota Thunder and NSC Minnesota Stars, relished the chance to lose himself in a soccer match.

"It's been good for all of us to get back out here and get moving," Warren said. "The players are following the rules because they just want to play."