Limited winter prep sports seasons approved

The Stoneman Douglas High School goalie hangs out in the net.
The Stoneman Douglas High School goalie hangs out in the net during a game.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Updated: 7:39 p.m.

The Minnesota State High School League voted Thursday to go ahead with winter sports seasons, with a 30 percent reduction in games and matches.

The schedule includes a 17-week season for basketball and a 15-week season for hockey, the state’s two highest-profile winter sports. Dance, gymnastics, wrestling, nordic and alpine skiing and adaptive floor hockey will also go forward.

That follows the board’s previous delay of some fall sports to next spring due to COVID-19, and a decision last month to restore football and volleyball after pressure from parents and players to restart the programs.

Like limits to the fall activities, the winter plan has limited competition between schools. It allows only two- or three-team contests, with no tournaments or invitationals. The seasons are being moved slightly to accommodate fall sports: dance is scheduled to start Nov. 9, the rest of the sports in late November and early December.

The decision doesn’t guarantee kids will take to the court, the ice, the mat, the pool or the ski hill. Participation still depends on individual districts and the status of their school options due to COVID-19. Schools with distance-only learning aren’t eligible for high school sports — although some schools are eligible for in-person learning and sports, even if they opted for virtual classes.

Parents, too, will ultimately decide whether their children participate in the extra-curricular activities.

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The league decision follows an impassioned plea by Skip Toops, a high school coach in Pierz, to allow wrestling, despite doubts about direct personal contact between wrestlers and the risk of COVID transmission.

Toops launched a Facebook page and a petition to keep a season this year, even though wrestling is considered high risk by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Minnesota Department of Health.

Toops pushed back on that in remarks to the league Thursday, saying wrestling already has to routinely deal with infectious outbreaks and has a good track record for hygiene.

“Looking at four national dual and individual tournaments in the past three months, with a total wrestler participation in excess of 12,000, with fans in excess of 75,000, the organizers reported a total of zero COVID instances within two weeks post event,” he told the board.

The league took no action on postseason play, leaving storied traditions like the state high school hockey tournament in limbo. League executive director Erich Martens said the restrictions on spectators mean most events couldn’t pay for themselves with admission fees. He also told the board that COVID-19 remains a real threat.

“Recognizing that the number of cases, the impacts on our member schools grows by the day. That brings great pause to what we're talking about. The number of competitions that are created add to the risk. Maybe as much or more for the community that follows or is engaged in those as it does for the participants,” he said.

Still, league staff said that organized and supervised activities are likely better than letting kids play by themselves, or in privately organized events that may have more lax standards.

An MPR News analysis of Minnesota Department of Health data this week showed that kids under the age of 20 have the lowest per-capita COVID infection rate in the state — and unlike people their parents’ age, their cases aren’t really going up, either, even though many are back in school and playing fall sports.