Chisago Lakes volleyball coach Hannah Lindstrom expected a victory.
In a season that was first delayed from fall until March, then started up in late September before being almost immediately sidelined when COVID-19 pushed the high school into distance learning. Then the season restarted for three matches before it was suddenly put on hold again last week by an immediate return to distance learning. A school board meeting last Thursday would determine the next move.
Encouraged that other schools had recently kept playing sports despite such a shift, Lindstrom, in her third year as head coach, believed going into the meeting that something would be worked out.
That’s why she and athletic director Jodi Otte spent the day reworking the team’s schedule, not only to make up a match that was canceled that evening, but to find room for others wiped out in the first COVID shutdown.
She and her assistants made plans to celebrate Friday during practice with the team, which was scheduled to play Monday at Princeton. The Wildcats — led by nine seniors, many with college-playing plans — held realistic hopes of winning the program’s first conference championship in 33 years.
During the virtual board meeting, Lindstrom and football coach Bill Weiss both called in to speak. Lindstrom, a 2013 graduate of the school, cited letters written by several players, submitted earlier because they thought they would be playing that night. They sent a video they made on their own, urging the board to let them play on and pledging to do so safely. Lindstrom provided an online petition, started by her husband, Hunter, with more than 1,700 signatures gathered in only a few days.
None of it mattered.
Rising COVID cases, and the disruption of resulting quarantines on attendance, is hitting school districts all over the state with increasing force. That has pushed many to shift back to teaching students exclusively at home, as they did when the pandemic hit last spring.
Board members heard presentations describing those increases countywide, and most critically that the surge was crippling attendance in their schools, including staff. “Community spread” of the virus had considerably worsened since the first move to distance learning last month. Chisago County, after averaging 10 to 12 COVID cases per day heading into the fall, soared to an average of 30 daily cases in October. County health officials said they expect the rate to double again in November.
More than 10% of high school students, including three sports teams, were in quarantine, officials said. Signaling the gravity of the situation, the district's plans to move to distance learning on Nov. 10 were moved up five days to last Wednesday. State provisions mandate no games or in-person practices during such levels of infection.
With more than 300 people logged in remotely to the meeting, the board’s six members voted one by one — unanimously — to “discontinue” fall sports. Hannah and Hunter, who began dating as Chisago Lakes students, watched in disbelief from their home.
Just like that, the football program, which got in one varsity game on Halloween, and Lindstrom’s 48-player volleyball program were done. What discussion there was centered almost exclusively on whether winter sports, originally set to start this month, could even get going in January.
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When the two-hour meeting ended, Otte quickly called her coach. I’m so sorry, she told her, I never expected this. What do you need from me?
A few of Lindstrom’s players reached out. The coach responded, but decided to hold off contacting the team as a whole until the next morning. The night included lots of tears. The community, she knew, held intense feelings about keeping students playing, and underlying views on COVID were emotional and political. She needed time to process things.
“We are devastated,” she wrote in an e-mail that evening. “We know the board sees a bigger picture and wants what’s best for the community. We know they are bound by guidelines and changing statistics. We respect them greatly and know they are doing what they are required to do. But we were not expecting this.
"My heart breaks for our student athletes. I am angry, and I am concerned for their well-being.”
Before she went to bed, she got on Twitter and posted a video from Monticello volleyball players — her team’s would-be opponent that evening — offering support to Chisago Lakes players and looking forward to playing them soon.
“This is sportsmanship! THANK YOU @MontiVolleyball for helping cheer up a tough night,” she wrote.
The next morning Lindstrom, who played four years of volleyball at Chisago Lakes and a season at Bethel before a back injury ended her playing career, sent an e-mail to her team.
She told players she was proud of them for advocating for themselves. That unfortunately there were things they couldn’t control, just as in a game when they play to their ability but victory doesn’t result. She wrote of being respectful to the school board. That it was OK to be sad, frustrated, confused. And wanting to stay connected, even though there would be no virtual practices.
Take care of yourself, she said. Reach out to coaches. Do what you need to do. Be grateful for every chance we get to be back together next season.
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In an interview Lindstrom recalled an exercise she did with her players last summer, when they were dealing with the disappointment of their season moving to March. About taking the time to be frustrated or mad. And then moving on, to try and find positives.
They’ve had to do that several times since then, as their season restarted, stopped, restarted and now stopped again in a matter of weeks.
“I’ve seen them grow and handle adversity and handle inconsistency better this time around,” Lindstrom said. “It doesn’t make it OK but already I can see them emotionally handling this better, but still acknowledge this really sucks. Just seeing them go through it again and again and again is challenging for a coach.
“It’s hard to know who to blame because there isn’t really anyone to point fingers at,” she continued. “The school board’s hands are tied, our administration’s hands are tied. The community wants something, clearly, based on all the information gathered. But we can’t make it happen. That’s such a frustrating position to be in. And something that I can’t do anything about.
“I just hope they are able to stay together and get through it. It’s something that happens in life, unfortunately, and I just hate that it had to come at this price.”
As news spread Friday about the season being over, Lindstrom said she received overwhelming support, including random Facebook messages from community members she didn’t know. School superintendent Dean Jennissen sent an e-mail, thanking her for the culture she had created with her team. Other coaches weighed in, sharing positive messages and grieving with her.
Lindstrom, a business teacher at nearby Rush City High School, acknowledged the support of community members to sign petitions to get kids back into sports, “which is wonderful,” she said. “But the biggest thing they can do is help us lower these [COVID] numbers” by using masks, practicing social distancing, washing hands, staying home and “taking it seriously.”
She said players would get invited to do things with friends on weekends but choose to stay home with their families because they didn’t want to risk not being able to play a game the following Monday. ‘‘But then [they] see other community members not doing that,” she said. “That’s such a hard thing for a high school athlete to process.
‘‘We hope that this experience will send a message that this is serious, and the best thing they can do is stay home and give our sports a chance of playing.”
Hannah Lindstrom photo courtesy of Kirsten Thompson, Eye Candy Creative Photography