Spring football for Minnesota high school athletes may have a shorter lifespan than the XFL or the Alliance of American Football.
Blaine Novak, president of the Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors, has called for a special meeting of the League’s board Monday morning. The only item on the agenda in the virtual meeting is whether or not to bring back football and volleyball to the fall season.
Similar to the Big Ten, which voted unanimously Wednesday to start playing in October, it appears a groundswell of support has arisen to abandon the plan of playing the sports from March to May, as was approved at the Board’s Aug. 4 meeting and attempt to begin play as early as Oct. 2.
On Sept. 3, Michigan reversed a decision made three weeks earlier to play football in spring, after the state government loosened public health restrictions. North Dakota and Iowa were already playing football in the fall, and Wisconsin officials have allowed members schools to determine for themselves whether to play in the fall or spring.
“Absolutely I’d like our football season, whatever it ends up looking like, to be played in the fall,” Duluth East football coach Joe Hietala said Wednesday. “When the talk was about playing the season in the spring, it was more ‘OK, we’re happy to have an opportunity to play football no matter when it is.’
“But the way the weather works around here, I can’t imagine we’d be outside playing in the middle of March. If we can get a shortened season in October and through the end of November, I think that’s the best way to go.”
When contacted Wednesday morning, East activities director Shawn Roed said the school was waiting for more information from the MSHSL before rendering a decision. By late afternoon, Hietala said the Greyhounds were on board.
“We’re definitely a ‘yes,’ ” Hietala said. “You especially want to give seniors some version of a normal football season, and I think there’s a fear that if we push this out to the spring then it’s not going to happen at all.”
Details of what the season would look like are scarce so far, and that’s an issue with some Northland coaches.
“I’d like to be playing football but if it does come to fruition Monday, what is it going to look like?” Proctor’s Derek Parendo asked. “Are we going to have fans? How many games can we play? How many teams make the playoffs? Those are all factors, and would it be better to keep it in the spring if we can play more games? I don’t look at it as such a simple answer.”
The MSHSL didn’t offer much information in a short statement provided Wednesday afternoon.
“The Minnesota State High School League continues its work of providing the safest possible way for students to participate in all League activities and athletics for the 2020-2021 school year,” Executive Director Erich Martens said. “This special meeting called by Board President Blaine Novak will be a continuation of those very important discussions and decisions.”
The change in thinking appeared to take root Tuesday at a Twin Cities-area workshop, which caused Novak to give a required three-day notice of an emergency MSHSL Board meeting.
Hermantown coach Mike Zagelmeyer said he is in favor of the move.
“I’m all for going back to playing this fall,” he said when contacted after practice Wednesday. “I think that would be the best move. What I don’t know is the particulars, if we would have playoffs or a state tournament. Obviously that plays a part. How long is the regular season going to be? The boys all want playoffs because they have that dream of a section championship and a state run.”
The MSHSL allowed football and volleyball teams to conduct 12 fall practices, which began Monday and runs into early October.
Not every school went along with that option. Some, like Proctor, preferred allowing student-athletes to participate in other fall sports. Parendo says the MSHSL was slow in announcing detailed plans about such practices after postponing the sports.
“That was frustrating with a lot of the coaches that I talked to,” Parendo said. “We were a little disappointed that the High School League didn’t have a plan immediately. I was expecting the High School League to have all that set ahead of time but they didn’t. If they vote to (return to playing in the fall) they better have a plan to go immediately because we don’t have time to wait anymore.”
According to reports emanating from discussions at the workshop, football games could start as early Oct. 2, with practices beginning Monday. Volleyball teams could practice Oct. 12 and start playing matches Oct. 22. No end dates to the season — or potential state tournament dates — were determined.
East began practicing Monday and is using pods of fewer than 20 players at each end of the field.
“I think we can do it and abide by all the safety practices,” said Hietala, who thought his players could be ready to play by that first weekend in October. “The fact that we got a head start this week, it certainly helps.”
Hermantown also chose to utilize the practice time on its new artificial turf field.
“Our boys wanted to play and I was getting stir crazy,” Zagelmeyer said. “We were going to take advantage of the situation, so we’re treating it as a normal fall and doing what we do at the beginning of any school year.”
Zagelmeyer said his desire was purely personal opinion and not one that the school district has signed off on yet.
“We always follow the State High School League guidelines,” he said, “so if we are allowed to play, I envision us playing.”
Hermantown AD Beth Clark and several other Northland ADs did not respond for comment.
Grand Rapids AD Anne Campbell said she is still in conversation with school officials.
“Concerns are safety, is it now safe to play? Is there an opportunity for postseason play this fall? Does playing in the spring assure us of postseason play?” Campbell said. “I am discussing the situation with my head volleyball and head football coach, as well as administration. We would like some concrete answers before we respond.”
As Parendo said, “Just because the High School League comes out and says you can play football and volleyball, it doesn’t mean the schools will.”