Mike Zagelmeyer gathered his Hermantown football team into the traditional postgame huddle following a 20-point playoff win over Duluth Denfeld on Tuesday night.
But the usual celebratory mood was dampened by Zagelmeyer’s expectation that high school football would be suspended the following day by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
Zagelmeyer spoke to his players, especially the seniors, and told them they likely had played their final game.
“We talked about it in pregame tonight,” he said afterward. “We don’t think there’s going to be another opportunity. We wanted to make sure that we left it all out on the field tonight. We’ve done that all season because we never knew if we were going to get shut down.”
Zagelmeyer’s prognosis proved accurate.
Walz announced new COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday, which include a pause on all high school and youth athletics for four weeks. The measures are set to take effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday and last through Friday, Dec. 18.
“Today marks a somber milestone in the pandemic as we surpass 3,000 Minnesotans lost to COVID-19,” Walz said in a news release. “We are at a breaking point. As hospitals near the crisis of turning away new patients, continuing as things are is simply not sustainable. The actions announced today will help prevent more families from losing a loved one and ensure our hospitals can treat those who fall ill."
That means Hermantown won’t be playing in the Section 7AAAA championship game it was set to host Nov. 25 against either North Branch or Cloquet, which hosts the other semifinal Thursday.
“It’s out of my hands, and to be honest I am getting COVID tired. I am tired of talking about it,” Zagelmeyer said after the game. “These people who make these decisions — I have my own thoughts on it — they’re in a tough spot. The MSHSL is in a tough spot. Walz is in a tough spot. I’ve always wanted to play but I understand that we have to think about the greater good right now, and maybe that’s not playing a football game.”
Some sections have revamped their schedule due to the changes. Section 8AAAA scrapped the semifinals and will allow unbeatens Rocori and Grand Rapids, the top two seeds, to contend for the title at 5 p.m. Friday in Cold Spring. Sections such as 7AAA, which was slated to hold semifinals Saturday, and Nine-Man Section 5 were still considering changes, officials said Wednesday night.
“We all know how important these programs are to students and to their mental and physical health and we all want students to participate," Minnesota State High School League Executive Director Erich Martens said in a statement. "We believe League programs offered by our member schools provide the safest and most effective experiences and yet, at this time, we are required to take a pause. We look forward to returning to in-person participation in our winter sports and fine arts activities when these restrictions are lifted.”
Other sports affected include volleyball, whose season originally had been delayed from its usual August start until October and was supposed to conclude in the second week of December; basketball, hockey, wrestling and boys swimming, whose seasons already were delayed by a matter of weeks, and now cannot begin until Dec. 19 at the earliest; as well as any indoor or outdoor organized youth activity.
"The League will continue to study options to build a revised calendar of activities that meets our goals of providing the greatest possible experience in every one of the activities provided by the League,” Martens continued. “We appreciate the excellent work of our schools and staff in following the guidance provided and implementing protocols that keep students, coaches, officials and others safe and we are confident that they will continue to do so when programs return."
Greenway’s unbeaten volleyball team gathered together at a player’s house Wednesday night to commiserate.
“Everyone is just down and depressed,” senior outside hitter Claire Vekich said. “Today was our last practice, and we kind of knew (the news) was coming with tweets predicting what would be said on the news. We came in knowing it would be our last practice, and it was definitely emotional. You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.”
Greenway will play Grand Rapids in its final match Thursday after a shortened season that the MSHSL originally moved to the spring and then, during an emergency session, allowed for a return to the fall.
“I don’t understand why they move it to the spring for the benefit of the kids and then move it back, and then move it back again,” said Vekich, the News Tribune’s reigning All-Area Player of the Year in volleyball and a Division I hockey signee. “I don’t get it. If we would have kept it in the spring, there would have been a good chance that we would have had a vaccine breakthrough and we could have had a full season with fans.”
Duluth Public Schools activities were halted for nearly four weeks beginning Wednesday after Superintendent John Magas’ decision last week. Several other Northland schools had either ended fall sports or had football or volleyball teams quarantining due to positive coronavirus tests or close contacts.