The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been hearing a lot about the “new normal” for months. But in a way, athletics got out ahead of the curve. Pro hockey and pro basketball found a way to restart their seasons in a bubble during the summer and are now in the homestretch of their seasons. Major League Baseball experienced some early bumps, but eventually found a way to get back on the field and will start postseason play this week, with the Twins among the expanded 16 qualifying teams.

Even the money-mad NFL partially gave in to the pandemic by scrapping the preseason, forcing sideline coaches to wear facemasks or face fines, and allowing individual teams to decide if they were going to allow fans in the stadiums.

College athletics reacted predictably along divisional lines. Division II and III schools pushed fall sports to the spring with the hope that the winter sports season can start around January 1. However, Division I colleges couldn’t resist the pleas of parents, boosters, players and coaches. Schools like the University of Minnesota, missing the cash it would’ve gotten from playing early football games, eliminated some sports to help plug the revenue drain. Then when others started playing football, the Big 10 gave into the pressure, rescheduling games to start next month, and thus reopening the money spigot.

Sports like soccer, cross-country and volleyball that cost DI schools money to run remain dormant. 

At the high school level, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) cautiously started with an August compromise that allowed soccer, cross-country, girls’ tennis and girls’ swimming teams to compete, but moved football and volleyball to the spring.  

The science regarding how COVID-19 spreads hasn’t changed. However, as colleges began to resume playing football and every state around Minnesota began to play high school games, the pressure mounted. On September 21, the MSHSL relented and we’ll now have abbreviated prep football and volleyball seasons starting in October.


house ad


The workloads of high school athletic directors just increased tenfold. Take Saint Thomas Academy’s Dan O’Brien. In addition to being the AD, O’Brien is the head football coach of one of the state’s perennial prep powers. With close to 100 kids in the upper three grades on his roster, O’Brien has a balancing act to perform to get ready for the season and follow the guidelines to keep everybody healthy.

“We have them in pods by positions,” O’Brien said. “We go for 10 minutes at a time and then move around the field. That way, we know who’s with whom if something happens. We haven’t had any major outbreaks, and that’s a good sign.”

“It was the right decision (to restart football),” O’Brien said. “The positives outweigh the negatives.”

Kids are kids and even under the best of circumstances somebody will end up testing positive. O’Brien understands that. Still, he added, “The kids are excited to be on the field and with each other.” The hope is that thrill will lead to responsible behavior.

Official practices for prep football began on September 28, and a six-game regular season will start on October 9-10. In STA’s case, the plan is to play what would’ve been the first six games of its original schedule. A two-week section tournament will follow, with a format still to be decided and everything to be wrapped up by the end of November. In this time of a new normal, it’s all that could be fit in.

“It was the right decision (to restart football),” O’Brien said. “The positives outweigh the negatives.”

At Minnehaha Academy, AD Josh Thurow has a different set of issues to deal with. The Redhawks are part of the SMB football cooperative that includes Saint Paul Academy and Blake. The SMB Wolfpack is also a football power at its level. Like STA, it finished second in the state in its class in last year’s Prep Bowl.

SMB practices at Minnehaha and plays games at Blake. In a normal season, the roster would number around 70 players. Thurow anticipates having roughly 55 this year. With players coming from various locales, accommodations are potentially trickier than would be the case at most schools.  

“The kids have the (health) questionnaires they fill out every day,” Thurow said. “Each school, however, has its own guidelines.” Merging all that and figuring out how to make things safe in the locker room is easier said than done.  

SMB is a member of the Independent Metro Athletic Conference for most sports. For football, though, it’s in the Twin City Maroon. Thurow didn’t know for sure how this year’s abbreviated football schedule was going to work.  

When it comes to this fall’s games, Thurow has another headache as the assigner for the Minneapolis Football Officials Association. “Not all of our guys are 35 years old,” he said with a sigh. “Some of them are sitting out this season” due to COVID concerns.

As a result, the schools that are relying on Thurow to send them officials are going to have to move some games to Thursdays and Saturdays instead of the usual Friday nights. The fact that the MIAC and NSIC college divisions are not playing football this fall helps, but finding enough officials to work games may prove to be dicey.

Volleyballers also ready to take the court

While football garnered the lion’s share of attention when the return of play was announced, the joy was just as prevalent in the volleyball world that a prep season would take place this fall after all.  

Most prep volleyballers have been busy with their club teams. Minnehaha Academy coach Kim Benka understood this issue all too well. In addition to being the Redhawks coach, she works with a club team whose season extends into early October. Thus, the workload for prep volleyball players is rather hefty these days.

“The girls want to be on the court,” Benka said. “They’re excited to start playing.” 

Minnehaha has been splitting court time by grouping older players together, with the younger ones staying by themselves, in voluntary training sessions. “I had mixed feelings because volleyball is an indoor sport,” Benka said. “I told the girls this could go 50-50.”

Official practices for prep volleyball also began on September 28. Regular-season games can start as early as October 8. The volleyball season is limited to 11 weeks.

The Redhawks plan to play all their IMAC foes twice and are looking to find four nonconference opponents to fill out the maximum of 14 matches. As with football, there will be a two-week postseason with a format still to be decided.

Still, volleyball has some issues that football doesn’t. “We sanitize all the volleyballs,” Benka said. “The girls wash their hands before we start. They wear masks when they start. They practice social distancing when they can. They want to do what they can to play.”

Decisions on whether to allow spectators at volleyball matches had not been decided at press time. As was noted in this space a while back, the ability to webcast matches will become more important than ever for the high schoolers. 

So the games are on again and the new normal will look a little like the old one. However, there’s one significant difference. The pros and DI colleges are playing football because, frankly, they have to in order to stay financially afloat. The high schools are playing because they want to.  

One can only hope all of them know what they’re doing.

Dave Wright can be reached at


The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.

Leave a Reply