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Prep sports: Northwestern soldiers on amid a pandemic

With schools around them not playing, and the neighboring state on pause, the Tigers play on.

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Northwestern fans wear masks as they sit spread out while the Tigers huddle before the start of the second half of their game with Spooner in Maple Thursday night, Dec. 10. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

MAPLE — Northwestern boys basketball player Harrison Nelson kept tugging at his mask, clearly annoyed by it Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Tigers’ home gym, but the referee wasn’t as amused.

“Hey!” the official bellowed at the senior guard. “Get that mask up.”

“He warned me a couple times,” Nelson said after Northwestern’s 74-43 Heart O’ North Conference win over Spooner. “After that, I managed my best to keep it up.”

Northwestern will do whatever it takes to keep playing, even while schools around them aren’t. Minnesota high school sports are on pause, and many Wisconsin schools, including Superior, are still a no-go as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

“It’s very weird,” Nelson said. “We were scheduled to play Superior earlier this week, so it was tough that we weren’t able to play them, but it’s alright. It definitely feels good to be playing ball again.”

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Northwestern’s Cole Lahti (22) fouled by Spooner’s Caleb Potaczek (5) in the first half of the game in Maple Thursday night, Dec. 10, as students watch from behind a rope lining the court. The rope keeps fans out of the front row of the bleachers, away from the players and officials. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

About 100 people were in attendance, including junior varsity players who came out to watch after their game. Everyone in attendance wore masks and were spaced out decent, for the most part.

Northwestern allowed its players to invite two fans apiece, but no tickets were allotted to the visiting team.

For Northwestern, it’s about student participation for all students, not just basketball players. The danceline made an appearance before the game with pompoms and did a performance at halftime as well. For Spooner coach Tom Clark, it was all a bit much.

“We’re trying to stay safe,” Clark said. “I think kids should be kids, but we as adults should make the environment safe.

“I want my kids to play. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, but I’m not going to have the pompom girls there, a student here, the iFan guys there, all friends of a friend, walking in. And if you tell me tomorrow my kids can’t play because of that, I’ll be upset. You tell me, if this is the rule, and this will give my kids an opportunity to play, I’m going to back it. But you better back it, too.”

Clark is from Indiana but it didn’t take him long to realize deer hunting in Wisconsin is a cherished family tradition. This year, none of his players went to hunting camp over the Thanksgiving holiday.

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“I feel if we’re going to maintain this, we all have to do this together,” Clark said. “Politics aside, you’re really ruining a kid’s childhood by not letting them play. But you got to protect them. If you’re an adult and you’re going to go out and mess around, don’t be around that kid because that kid is going to bring it back to his team, and that team is going to get ruined.

Spooner runs its varsity practices separate from its JV to avoid any chance of contract tracing between the two groups. With only eight varsity players, that doesn’t allow the Rails to scrimmage.

“Our first real scrimmage was against Rice Lake, and that was a game, and we hung in there,” Clark said. “We’re taking this COVID for what it’s worth, we’re taking it as it is. I’m proud of these guys. I can’t answer for the Bayfields and Ashlands. I don’t know what’s going on in their world, but I would say to those schools, maintain your kids being in a bubble. Let them play. Let them be kids.”

In an Oct. 23 release, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association cited a study by the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of School of Medicine and Public Health concluding participation in high school sports in the state had not led to an increase in COVID-19 infections among athletes.

The study involved a statewide sampling of 30,000 and found the case and incidence rate was actually lower than those reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services for those 14-17 years of age, with only one case — 0.5 percent of the reported cases — attributed to transmission during sports activities. Furthermore, no reported cases resulted in hospitalization or death.

Northwestern coach Nolan Graff expressed his gratitude to the Northwestern school district for allowing the Tigers to soldier on, even when learning has gone virtual. Some schools have the policy that if learning is virtual, then students shouldn’t be gathering for sports or other extracurricular activities, either.

“The idea we’ve taken is that we go into every practice, we go into every game, and play like it’s our last,” Graff said. “We really don’t know what to expect next week. We’ve got a game Saturday (an 82-62 victory Dec. 12 at St. Croix Falls), and I don’t even know if we’re going to be able to play that one. Up until the point where you get there, you really don’t know. We’re just excited to be playing.”

Minnesota put sports on pause and many Wisconsin schools around them aren’t playing, either.

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Graff said they are trying to do this in the safest way possible while still allowing student participation.

“It’s not perfect, but if we have to wear a mask, we have to wear a mask,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”

The referees wore deluxe masks that were quite large, going from above the nose to well below the chin, enough fabric to hide a beard.

The players’ masks were much smaller and slid down more readily, especially Nelson’s.

“Sometimes it will slip down accidentally, when I’m running around and stuff,” Nelson said. “It’s pretty tough, but you can do it. We’re all doing our best to keep them up. It’s definitely worth it. If you have to wear a mask to be able to play, then you’ll do it.”

Nelson laughed after being told it might be time for an equipment upgrade.

“Yeah, I definitely need a new one,” he said, his smile quite apparent, even from behind his mask.

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Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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