Football, volleyball coaches look ahead to season like no other
Scott Butt didn't think it was going to happen.
He, like roughly three-quarters of high school football coaches in Minnesota, wanted football to be played this fall. He was concerned about a potential spring season, which the Minnesota State High School League had decided on back in August, and how a brutal Minnesota winter might impact field conditions. He wondered why, if 34 other states could take to the gridiron, Minnesota wasn't one of them.
The Crookston football coach just wasn't sure if the Minnesota State High School League would take those factors into account as they met last Monday to reconsider their earlier decision. He figured too much had already gone into making sure the spring season would be successful.
Ashley Stopa, on the other hand, felt more confident going into Monday. She was encouraged by the mere fact the discussion was taking place. If things hadn't changed since Aug. 4, why would the MSHSL even bother?
"If they were talking about it again and it didn't pass," the Crookston volleyball coach said, "it would have been a pretty emotional blow."
Instead, athletes and coaches rejoiced as the MSHSL made the decision to bring football and volleyball back to the fall. For those athletes and coaches, October and November will now have at least some measure of normalcy.
The season itself will be another story.
After originally postponing football and volleyball, the MSHSL had given some consolation by allowing teams to get in 12 practices between Sept. 14 and Oct. 4. But those, too, were pockmarked by uncertainty.
"We only had 12 practices and then it's, put the footballs away," Butt said. "Now what do we do?"
That said, most athletes were happy to get back to doing what they love.
"The girls were really itching to get back in the gym," Stopa said. "Most of them haven't had the opportunity to play since last fall."
At first, these practices weren't anything serious for the Pirates. Neither Butt nor Stopa tried to implement fresh schemes or really work on new skills. Stopa held inter-team passing competitions and doubles tournaments, just as a way to loosen up. Most of the emphasis was on overall conditioning and getting back into a rhythm: Butt, actually, wants to "overemphasize" conditioning for the entire season.
While fitness is never going to be top-notch at the first practice, that's downplaying just how long the athletes had been away — many had their spring sports seasons taken away too.
"For the most part, the kids really were at a loss of what they could do," Butt said. "I know a lot of them have flat-out said they became couch potatoes going to online school. It's taken longer to get back in shape than it has in other years."
It's likely the effects of that will still be showing themselves once actual games have started. Butt thinks there will need to be more substitutions, and that teams may call more timeouts in the beginning of games — not to make any strategic adjustments, but to give players an earlier breather.
Many teams will also have to re-acclimate athletes who picked up a new fall sport — soccer, girls' tennis or girls' swimming — in belief that football and volleyball would be played in the spring.
Taking all that into account, Stopa thinks that even though everyone is in roughly the same boat, experienced teams that have been together for a while already will have a head start this season.
Butt likens the dynamic to that of Major League Baseball, which recently wrapped up its 60-game regular season after starting on relatively short notice in July. Every game matters that much more. Teams with a lot of uncertainties could suffer as a result.
"We gotta emphasize really coming out and being ready to go week one, play one, quarter one," Butt said. "You don't have that time to let yourself get behind and then play catchup. It just isn't gonna happen."
Fans — or the lack thereof — will play a large role as well. With social distancing, and limiting attendance to 250 fans, football games won't be as rowdy as normal. But volleyball, being indoors, won't have any fans at all.
With a sport that relies so much on a close-up, energetic environment, Stopa knows that she and her team will have to find ways to compensate.
"I'm a pretty energetic coach and I'm pretty vocal during games," Stopa said. "I think that the bench is going to be playing a huge role encouraging and cheering and showing support. ... The first game that we have, we'll kind of adjust from there and see what else we need to bring energy."
Ultimately, though, the MSHSL has given high school teams across Minnesota a second lease on life, and there's not much grousing about the particulars of it — football and volleyball will look very different, but they're back.
As far as energy goes, maybe that's all the Pirates will need.
"I think the girls are learning to appreciate the opportunity because it was taken away," Stopa said. "Just playing and being a part of a team is going to be really meaningful this year. ... We're just all really excited and we appreciate the opportunity to play."
"When we got out here Monday and (the players) knew they were playing a game, they were jacked up," Butt said. "Their intensity level rose."
Just days after that, Butt and his team found out when their season opener would be: Saturday, Oct. 3, at home vs. Roseau.
"Our intensity went up even a couple more notches then," Butt said. "I thought it was gameday that day."
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