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Prep sports: 'Complex decision' leads to soccer's return

Though football is delayed until spring, MSHSL gave soccer the go-ahead.

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Denfeld boys soccer coach Scott Anderson (second from left) and fellow coaching staff greet a pod of players before warmups during tryouts at Duluth Public Schools Stadium on Monday, Aug. 17. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Duluth Denfeld senior Keegan Chastey and his teammates were apprehensive Aug. 4 as they awaited the Minnesota State High School League’s decision on the fate of a fall soccer season.

“With everything being so uncertain during these weird times, we were all sitting there waiting for the announcement to be made and hoping we would get the opportunity to play,” Chastey said recently. “I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t get to play my senior year. It’s not quite the full schedule that we were hoping for, but it’s better than nothing.”

The MSHSL sanctioned an abbreviated boys and girls soccer fall season, though it delayed another outdoor contact sport — football — until the spring due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“We were really excited, but we also said that we have to make the most of it because it could be done at any point in time,” Parker Chastey, Keegan’s younger brother, said of the threat of positive coronavirus tests shutting down the season.

Why one outdoor contact sport would be allowed and another not allowed is baffling to some.

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“I have no rationale from anyone as to why the State High School League made that decision,” Hermantown boys soccer coach David Thompson said. “Soccer will be restricted to pods (of 25 or less in practice) so maybe for football they felt they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Erich Martens, the MSHSL executive director, echoed that explanation, saying the Board of Directors’ goal was to provide a season for every sport at the best time possible. The board relied on input from the Return to Play task force, the MSHSL sports medicine advisory committee, the Minnesota Department of Health and the National Federation of High Schools before making their recommendation.

“It’s always a complex decision,” Martens said. “When you move from low- to medium- to high-risk activities, where are we going to draw that line between where we think we can try a season and where we move it somewhere else?

“When looking at those risk ratings, we’re giving the low-risk activities a chance to get started. We have very few football teams that would have (pods of) 25 or less and the amount of sustained contact over the course of a competition is significantly more with football than it is for soccer.”

During Denfeld’s boys tryouts earlier this week, coach Scott Anderson put 48 players in four groups of 12. That way, if someone showed symptoms of coronavirus, only that pod of players would need to be quarantined and not the whole team.

“Depending on how you do your practices, a positive test does not mean that you will have to shut down your team,” Martens said. “It may shut down a portion of the team or it may just impact the individual if there was a really good method of social distancing and elimination of that extended contact time frame as defined as 15 minutes within six feet.”

Denfeld’s pods were reduced to three and as the regular season approaches, it will be just varsity and junior varsity squads.

“Now if anyone comes down with a case or any symptoms, we have to sit for two weeks,” said Keegan Chastey, last season’s News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year. “We have to try and keep everybody safe, that’s the main goal.”

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In order to do that, players are expected to follow standard practices such as take their temperatures, wash their hands, use social distancing and avoid postgame handshakes.

Equipment is being sanitized before and after practices, locker rooms are off limits and coaches and players are wearing masks on the bench.

“For some people, this is their last chance to play,” Keegan Chastey said. “So they need to think about other people when they do whatever action they’re doing. Hopefully we can get that across to the whole team. Don’t be an idiot, basically.”

Ultimately, Anderson says, all the changes are to increase player safety.

“There’s risks with sports anyway, but playing in this COVID time has added on to it,” he said. “We want players to be safe, their families to be safe, coaches, officials. There’s a lot of people involved to think about.”

Up to 250 fans — per the mandated limit for crowd size in Minnesota — will be allowed at games.

According to new Lake Superior Conference guidelines, each player will be allowed to designate six members to attend home games and four on the road.

“We don’t know how many (students) will want to attend games this fall based on no football and no volleyball. There are two fewer activities so there may be more kids willing to come to games and we have to have something in place in order to stay within the guidelines,” Hermantown activities director Beth Clark said. “The ADs put their heads together and that’s what we came up with. We’ll see if it works.”

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Still, there will be no social distancing during games. Players can’t stand six feet away when they are marking an opponent.

“You can’t take away your competitiveness like winning the ball away,” Parker Chastey said.

Now that soccer has been given the green light, the next question to resolve is if there will be any section playoffs or a state tournament. The MSHSL hasn’t provided a definitive answer.

“There have been no decisions as to what our postseasons are going to look like,” Mertens said.

Conversations for tournament play are ongoing, though facility availability along with safety factors will be key in determining whether any playoffs can be held.

“We have a number of our college and university sites that are likely not to be available to us,” Mertens said. “It’s likely going to fall back to our member schools and the facilities that we have available in our regions.”

Anderson, whose team fell one victory shy of the state tournament a year ago and is a contender in Section 7A, called the current non-decision a disappointment, “especially for seniors whose goal is to go to state.”

His star player, Keegan Chastey, is one of those seniors.

“I’m just thankful to play during a global pandemic — especially since other people aren’t getting that opportunity — but considering how good I think we’re going to be this year, it would be disappointing to not have that opportunity to show that during playoffs,” Chastey said.

Mertens says feedback on the decision has been mixed.

“I think people are coming to terms with a whole new reality on a number of things,” he said. “We have a lot of student-athletes and families who would love to see a football season start now, and we’ve had a number of folks who have said, ‘Thank you for making the decision to postpone it and look for a potentially safer time to have a season.’ ”

Only time will tell whether the MSHSL got it right.

“We’re not going to know if we made the right decisions tomorrow or next week or even next month,” Martens said. “It’s going to be a test of time and we’re going to have to be as deliberate and strategic as we can be with each decision that comes forward.”

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