Even in the best of times, lots of questions would surround the Jackson County Central football program in 2020. In the summer of COVID-19, those questions are multiplied.
JCC graduated a bunch of seniors that helped the Huskies become one of the best offensive and defensive squads in southwest Minnesota in 2019. So in the coming year, the Huskies will need to regroup while contemplating a fall season that’s being held hostage by health concerns.
All Minnesota high school fall sports, in fact, are floating in never-never land as no one knows whether the coronavirus pandemic will allow seasons to happen or whether they’ll be burdened with new rules and regulations.
“It’s really, really unknown, and we’re concerned what school’s going to look like. Nobody knows what that’s going to look like, let alone what football’s going to look like,” said JCC head coach Tom Schuller.
As summertime deepens, coaches and athletic directors throughout the state must go about their business as if fall seasons will occur pretty much as they normally do. But no one can know for sure. The Minnesota State High School League said two weeks ago that it’s possible that some sports will happen and others won’t.
The league is following guidelines put down by the Minnesota Department of Health, which has divided fall sports into three categories: low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk. Low-risk sports include cross-country, singles tennis, individual swimming and diving and clay target shooting. Medium-risk sports are volleyball, soccer, doubles tennis and relay swimming. Football is considered high-risk.
Decisions on whether schools reopen in the fall is expected to be made late this month. Decisions on how or if to proceed with fall sports -- or whether some sports will take place, others will take place with restrictions, or still others will be sidelined, also will be made after several more weeks.
“Everything is so up in the air. They’re not going to make any decisions on anything until the state makes a ruling,” said Worthington High School athletic director Josh Dale.
Dale assumes that people will be disappointed, even upset, if some sports like cross country and soccer have seasons and other sports -- like football -- don’t. He said he’d be one of the disappointed ones.
“All the schedules are already made up. We have all the officials hired for all of the sports,” Dale pointed out.
Adding to Worthington’s nervousness is the city’s Trojan Field situation. Work continues on a total transformation of the home of the WHS football team that includes brand new bleachers, a large press box and -- most importantly -- a turf surface to replace grass. It will be ready for action for the fall season. But will there be a fall season?
“It’s a brand new facility and you might not be able to use it. But it’s pretty much a wait-and-see for everything,” said Dale.
Get ready and wait
Meanwhile, members of the Trojan football team await the imminent start of summer workouts. The school’s weight room will be open to athletes on Monday. Efforts will be made to limit activity to small groups, but the idea brings a smile to the face of head coach Gene Lais.
“Just to get the kids back doing something (is important),” he said.
Also, conditioning drills, and speed and agility training, can be started outdoors.
“Some of the kids may not have done anything since March,” Lais declared.
More organized practices can be under way in late July or early August, and Lais assumes his players will be more than ready to go.
“Especially the older kids. They lost the spring sports season, and they don’t want to lose their senior season,” he said. “Usually you don’t hear kids looking forward to getting in the weight room. But now we’ve got kids saying, ‘I can’t wait till the weight room opens so I have something to do.’”
Though expecting the best, Lais is nevertheless preparing for multiple possibilities for the fall.
“Everybody’s excited to get back, and our kids are excited to get back,” he said. “But just watching the news, one person hears good news and another person hears bad news.”
Todd Oye, athletic director and head football coach at Luverne High School, is planning to wait until late July to begin gridiron activities. He’s preparing as if the football season is going to happen, but like everyone else he can’t know for sure.
He tries not to get too far ahead of himself.
“You start thinking about it, and I really stop there. Because there’s so many scenarios you could get into,” he said.
For instance, Oye is wondering about how the roll-outs of border states, like South Dakota and Iowa, can affect what happens in Minnesota. Other states’ decisions can have a domino effect elsewhere.
And then there’s the issue of competitive balance, traditionally a high priority with the Minnesota State High School League. Some school districts are concerned that if one sport is canceled, many of those athletes will want to pour themselves into another sport that gets the go-ahead to play. A tennis team, for instance, could double in size.
That’s OK if a school and its coaching staff are prepared for it. But would you then have to make player cuts?
Schuller isn’t thinking about cuts. He’s just hoping his team will play.
The veteran JCC coach scheduled two outdoor practice sessions last week and he planned for two more this week. Trying to touch all the necessary bases, the JCC coaches take all of their athletes’ temperatures prior to the non-contact workouts. The coaches wear masks and the players wear gloves.
In previous years, the Huskies held passing practices with the Spirit Lake, Iowa, team. There were as many as a half-dozen 7-on-7 drills. But they’re not following through with that this year, just to be safe.
Recently, Erich Martens, executive director of the MSHSL, reiterated that benchmarks must be met before any school or sport can move forward.
“Right now, some schools have begun training in pods (small groups), meeting social distancing guidelines. Our hope is that they continue to make progress and meet all of the steps along the way. If the danger does not increase, we’ll take the next step,” he said, according to the Star Tribune. “I do believe with the time we have in front of us, it will be possible to formulate strategies and see what prototypes look like depending on risk.”