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Ready, set ... play: Prep football teams dealing with shorter preseason, new practice restrictions

If practice makes perfect, expect hiccups in Week 1 of Minnesota's prep football season. Not only is the preseason 33 percent shorter -- two weeks instead of three -- but newly implemented restrictions curtail the amount and nature of practice time.

If practice makes perfect, expect hiccups in Week 1 of Minnesota’s prep football season.

Not only is the preseason 33 percent shorter - two weeks instead of three - but newly implemented restrictions curtail the amount and nature of practice time. Duluth East coach Joe Hietala called it a “double-whammy” and concedes that Aug. 22 openers across the state could be fraught with follies.

No, that’s not a misprint. High school football games commence 16 days before Labor Day.

Practice started Monday.

“You look at the schedule and you tell yourself you get 12 days before you play your first game,” Hietala said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s coming whether we’re ready or not.’

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“I can’t imagine it’s going to be particularly crisp. I imagine the referees are going to be real busy.”

In the past, teams practiced for two weeks before participating in a jamboree-style scrimmage, which uncovered weaknesses that could be addressed during a third week of preseason work. They were excellent teaching tools and allowed players the chance to tackle someone other than a teammate.

There’s no scrimmage this time around. There’s no live contact this first week.

“Now, we’re going to get about three practices’ worth of hitting and then they have to play a game,” Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz said. “It’s a way different dynamic.”

The expedited timeline is a result of TCF Bank Stadium’s availability for state tournament finals. The Minnesota Gophers host Illinois and Wisconsin on Nov. 21 and 28, respectively. So instead of playing prep title games the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving - as is the norm - they are two weeks earlier this fall, Nov. 13 and 14.

And because of this year’s delayed Labor Day, it’s likely practices would have started Aug. 17 under traditional circumstances. Starting them Aug. 10 saved one week; trimming the preseason saved another.

Compounding the problem are practice limitations. Gone are the days of endless workouts and marathon two-a-days. Instead, the Minnesota State High School League established a meticulous set of guidelines.

For example, total practice time on any given day during the first week can’t exceed four hours and no single practice can last more than two hours. If a team wants to have a pair of two-hour sessions, “there must be at least a (two-hour) recovery period prior to the second practice,” according to the MSHSL handbook. Also, double-practice days must be followed by single-practice days, with some leniency afforded light walkthroughs. Friday, Day 5, is the first time teams can don full pads.

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The rules are more liberal for the second week of practice. But they’re still restrictive. And they’re forcing coaches to be creative when it comes to time management.

“One thing that we’ve looked at that’s different is we’re putting a lot more on our kids outside of practice, in terms of preparation and playbooks,” Proctor coach Derek Parendo said. “We can’t spend as much time setting up a formation; they’re going to need to know where that is - do their homework, essentially.

“They need to know what some of these plays are before we get out to the practice field. That will save us some time to put in more stuff.”

Protecting players - from the heat and from the mounting malady of concussions - was the impetus for the new policies.

Hietala noted the logistical headache created if a team wants to practice four full hours.

“That takes six hours out of your day (because of the two-hour recovery in between),” he said.

That’s hard on his assistants, the bulk of whom aren’t teachers and thus already are burning through ample vacation time to be there, as well as his players. Most of his kids, Hietala said, aren’t able to go home between workouts and instead would be tasked with killing two hours.

The coach was asked if, all things considered, the changes were necessary or if they were too radical.

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“In my opinion, it’s definitely over the top,” Hietala said. “I’ve always felt that coaches and educators have always had the best interests of the kids (in mind).”

Hietala’s Greyhounds open the season against rival Duluth Denfeld in a rare Saturday afternoon matinee. Lenarz and the Lumberjacks, meanwhile, make the mini-trek to neighboring Esko the same day, and Proctor welcomes Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin.

That’s little more than a week away.

It’s a challenge, but one that’s facing every team in Minnesota.

“We’re all in the same boat and all the teams are going to have to deal with the restrictions on the shorter practice times and the shorter preseason,” Parendo said. “We’re all going to be fighting the same battle.”

Said Hietala: “Every school across the state is feeling that same pinch.”

Related Topics: FOOTBALLPROCTORCLOQUET
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