Prep sports: Playoff season and COVID-19 intersect
Rising positive tests and school shutdowns bring question of continuing athletics to the forefront.
High school football teams’ schedules this fall resembled a sardonic Abbott & Costello routine.
While “Who’s up next?” was the common refrain instead of “Who’s on first?,” schedulers and coaches’ heads hurt all the same trying to keep up with the innumerable changes the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought.
As an already-shortened football season enters an abbreviated playoff campaign starting today, the situation has grown more complicated.
For example, Duluth Denfeld — which sat out the final two games of the regular season due to coronavirus protocols within its own and its opponents’ programs — was set to host Hibbing in a Section 7AAAA first-round game. Only Hibbing canceled its fall sports activities last week, meaning Denfeld automatically moved into the semifinal round to play at Hermantown tonight.
That contest had to be moved up two days in order to allow Denfeld to beat the shutdown deadline before Duluth activities go dark for the better part of a month starting Wednesday.
The other remaining 7AAAA teams — Hermantown, Cloquet and North Branch — all have dealt with coronavirus issues either in their football or volleyball programs.
Duluth East forfeited participation in the Section 7AAAAA football playoffs, while three of the six 7AA teams (Moose Lake-Willow River, Eveleth-Gilbert and Royalton) did likewise. Many other sections are minus a team or two.
That begs the question: Should the show go on?
“It’s been a rollercoaster, for sure,” Denfeld football coach Erik Lofald said Monday when asked about the day-to-day changes. “It seems like it’s more hour to hour as far as things changing. I joked with a couple people that I’m afraid to answer my phone because most of the news has not been good news.”
The Hunters had a positive COVID-19 test after their game against Hibbing, forcing them to call off a game vs. Proctor. The regular-season finale against North Branch was canceled due to positive tests in that program, though Denfeld’s players were still quarantined anyway.
Saturday marked Denfeld’s first practice in two weeks, and Tuesday’s playoff game will be the final athletic action in the district until at least Dec. 14, as announced last week by Duluth Superintendent John Magas.
“The Department of Health has indicated if the numbers do not improve, distance learning through Jan. 8 may be necessary due to continued high rates of community spread and holiday exposures,” Magas said in a statement. “While we are hopeful that we can return to our current model and eventually to even more in-person instruction, we want to be as transparent as possible with the community, allowing families to plan for the possible extension of distance learning if needed.”
Hermantown switched to a distance learning model Monday and had two volleyball players test positive last week, shutting that program down until Thanksgiving weekend.
“If we don’t have anyone in quarantine or have any positive cases at that point, we would resume volleyball,” Hermantown Superintendent Wayne Whitwam said Monday.
Whitwam says internal numbers indicate that prior to last week, not one positive transmission had been traced back to the high school, and, despite some opposition, he is inclined to return to in-person instruction in the near future and keep athletics going as long as possible.
“Our hope is to get back to hybrid learning Dec. 8,” he said. “I see our academics pausing just like sports. When we have a case or an outbreak that hits us, we shut down. When we are able to run again, then we do. The countywide numbers are scary, and there’s a definite feeling that if we’re not going to have in-person instruction, that we shouldn’t be doing athletics. My board members are saying that and I hear them, but I’m also saying that this is a temporary thing.
“There’s a part of me that says we have to let these sports take care of themselves. You get a positive case, and that shuts it down for two weeks.”
Grand Rapids has avoided a shutdown in what turned out to be the football team’s first undefeated regular season since 1976. Coach Greg Spahn and activities director Anne Campbell say the players and coaches undertook the extra precautions of social distancing and wearing masks in order to keep their season going.
“When we first started back in August, right away I was dealing with a couple COVID contact tracing situations and I thought, ‘We’ll never get through this fall.’ And then we did,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to jinx us, but I’ve been super proud of how our coaches and student-athletes have handled this. We’re very stringent on the screenings and the temp checks, telling kids who don’t feel good to stay home.
“Tomorrow might be a different story, but right now we are moving forward and our superintendent has given us the go-ahead so we’re going to keep going.”
Though Itasca County’s positive cases are at record levels, Campbell insists the school numbers do not correspond. And she is a proponent that athletics promote better involvement in academics.
“We know when kids are active and in a sport, they are much more engaged in school,” Campbell said. “So it’s really important to keep our kids engaged and healthy at the same time.”
David Thompson has a unique perspective on the situation as coach of the Hermantown boys soccer team and as a parent of a Duluth East basketball player.
“I got to navigate that with my team, and I want the opportunity to talk to the (Duluth) school board and (tell them) ‘Give these teams a chance and if they screw it up, it’s on them,’” Thompson said.
Thompson says compliance with protocols was directly due to a continuation of athletics. Players wore masks and socially distanced during the fall even if they didn’t want to.
“When you give the kids the activities, it gives more people more incentive to stay safe,” he said. “It provides these kids an incentive to socially distance and wear masks. And when they go to the mall or wherever they go, they are smarter about it because they know if they are not, they’ll lose their activity. If you take away the incentive, these kids don’t care if they get COVID.”
Denfeld’s Lofald says he is “super conflicted” in terms of how to respond. His mother, Jill Lofald, is the chair of the school board.
“I have a couple of horses in the game,” he said. “Not only is our team directly affected, but there’s a perception that my mom is making the decisions. Do we want kids playing sports? I think so, yes. I’ve advocated to let them play for a while. The reality of what we went through, we know transmissions are not happening on our team but they are happening in the community at a staggering rate. Go ahead and play but be ready (to shut down). With the high numbers in the county, it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to affect your team.”