The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

The signs had been there for a while. All one had to do was watch the news on television or glance at the newspaper or the internet. With COVID-19 cases and deaths on the rise, Governor Tim Walz found himself backed into a corner where no politician wants to be.

Still, it stung when the governor’s pronouncement came on November 18 that high school and other youth sports will be forced into a four-week lockdown. Some schools were able to scramble and get in one last football or volleyball game. For people like Highland Park High School athletic director Pat Auran who had no teams still competing, it meant a further delay in getting students back playing again.

“With the number of teams who had to quarantine, it just didn’t work anymore,” Auran said. “If one player comes to practice and tests positive, everybody is out for 14 days.” 

The lockdown is currently scheduled to run through December 18. Minnesota State High School League bylaws state that there must be two weeks of practices before games can be played, so that pushes the start of winter sports out to at least early January.

Auran and other Saint Paul City Conference athletic directors spent a lot of time on the phone on November 19 figuring out their what their next steps will be. “We’ll probably be limited to just conference games,” Auran said, once play resumes. “Historically, that (early January) is when the conference started anyway. You might be able to sneak in one or two nonconference games.” 

The same is likely to be true for the other local schools in other conferences. Time is simply not on their side if there’s to be any hope of still holding state tournaments for winter sports.

Hockey is tricky because of ice time availability, but Auran has an even bigger problem. The Highland boys’ team is now an independent. New head coach Brandon Ferraro is still hoping to find a conference that will take his team, even if it’s just for one season.

The winter prep tournament schedule has some significant unknowns. Skiing, for example, is obviously dependent on cold weather and snow. That state tournament is currently slated for the last weekend in February. Wrestling, gymnastics, basketball and hockey are all subject to arena availability. Those tournaments are currently slated to be jammed together in March and early April. However, those dates may have to change when the Timberwolves and Wild schedules are released.

To quote Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.” 

“We’ll probably be limited to just conference games,” Auran said, once play resumes. “Historically, that (early January) is when the conference started anyway. You might be able to sneak in one or two nonconference games.” 

Time for MIAC presidents to make a decision

Although university presidents ReBecca Koenig Roloff, Suzanne Rivera and Julie Sullivan have all seen their names in this newspaper before, this will be their first appearance in its sports pages. It’s likely they wish that wasn’t the case, but there’s nothing that’s not novel about 2020. 

Roloff is the president of Saint Catherine, Rivera is the new boss at Macalester and Sullivan has the same gig at Saint Thomas. They and their counterparts at the other MIAC schools are scheduled to meet soon to discuss what’s next on the horizon for the athletic conference.

The time for equivocating is past. The presidents must quickly decide to get on with a winter sports season amid a surge in COVID-19 cases or simply call the whole thing off.

There are plenty of precedents the presidents can refer to. Eight Division III conferences as well as the Division I Ivy League have already put the kibosh on their winter sports seasons. Two MIAC colleges—Saint Olaf and Carleton—have also announced they’re out. That leaves 11 MIAC schools that are still practicing without knowing if their winter sports seasons will continue.

That’s getting tiring.

Hockey players can only work on skating and shooting drills, with no scrimmaging or contact allowed. Basketball teams can practice, but no scrimmaging can take place. The other noncontact sports, such as swimming and track/field, are also holding practices with restrictions.

While they’re doing so, the athletes can only look longingly at other leagues, such as the Big Ten, WCHA and NCHC, that are starting to play games and wonder why they’re still stuck in neutral. 

The coaches can only tell their teams so many times to behave and practice distancing, wear masks, etc. You’re talking about restricting 18- to 21-year-olds.

As one college coach put it, “You’re asking social butterflies not to use their wings.”

For those reasons, the presidents need to make a decision soon. Going through with an abbreviated season has obvious risks—and money—involved. Constant testing for the coronavirus is not cheap. Scheduling needs to be completed ASAP. The NCAA winter tournament dates are set and won’t likely be changed.

As has been the case with governors and mayors this year, there is a time when you either fish or cut bait. It’s now time for the MIAC college presidents to do the same. The winter holidays are fast approaching. The players and coaches have done their jobs about as well as could be hoped.

Make a decision and move on, folks.

Bad Behavior 101 

Do you ever wonder why athletics produce so many bad apples? It’s because players see what some coaches do and think it is OK to act out. 

Consider the silliness shown by Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck in their November 13 game in Minneapolis. Fleck went first, drawing a 15-yard penalty for running on the field to protest a call against his team. It was selfish and stupid because it ended up knocking the Gophers out of field goal range.

With the game winding down and Iowa ahead 35-0, Minnesota had a chance to get a late score and avoid a shutout at home. Fleck, quite properly, called a timeout to set up a play to get the possible score.

Not to be outdone, Ferentz then called three consecutive timeouts. Minnesota did score the touchdown it wanted. As odd as it may sound to some folks, 35-7 is still better than 35-0. Asked about the timeouts afterward, Ferentz offered a boorish comment about not wanting to leave them on the scoreboard.

Coaches, even at the Division I level, are supposed to be teachers and role models. One wonders what kind of lesson was learned on that night. 

Fleck, for example, could have chosen the verbal route that the late and legendary Saint John’s football coach John Gagliardi took one afternoon in Collegeville. The Johnnies were involved in a tight tussle when referee Don Wheeler flagged an SJU player for holding. Gagliardi was upset and demanded a conference. Wheeler went over to the sideline, explained the call and told Gagliardi the game would now resume without further discussion. Gagliardi fumed some more and finally yelled at Wheeler in a voice that could be heard in the Saint John’s Abbey, “You stink!”

Wheeler dropped his flag and marched off an additional 15 yards against the Johnnies. He then looked over at Gagliardi and calmly asked, “How do I smell from here, John?”

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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