The winter sports season, twice delayed by Covid-19 restrictions, will launch next week, albeit with most participants wearing masks, few spectators allowed and shorter seasons.

Season previews for all teams appear in a special section in this edition of the Press.

Cougar teams opening Thursday will be girls basketball at home against Spring Lake Park, boys basketball at Spring Lake Park, girls hockey hosting Elk River, boys hockey at Anoka, and swimming at home against Champlin Park. The wrestlers will host Totino-Grace on Friday evening. The gymnasts open Monday at Elk River in a triangular.

While players, coaches and families are excited to be soon back in action, all are mindful that discipline and discretion will be watchwords.

“Trying to keep players healthy during the pandemic is of utmost concern and easily the most stressful part of the job this season,” said Jamie Sobolik, girls basketball coach. 

“Main concern is staying healthy with Covid and making sure the guys are making good decisions,” said Ritch Menne, boys hockey coach.

Winter sports, which normally start in November to early December, were cleared by the Minnesota State High School League to start practices Monday, Jan. 4, and competitions Thursday, Jan. 14, after Gov. Tim Walz lifted restrictions that had twice delayed the start of these activities.

“These experiences are so important to students, and they have been anxiously waiting to get these winter seasons started,” MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens said in a statement released Dec. 28 when he announced the starting dates.

“By implementing these safety protocols recommended by the 

American Academy of Pediatrics and required by the Minnesota Department of Health, we have the best chance to provide safe seasons with reduced interruptions and also plan for full post-season experiences.”  

Required to wear masks in practice and games will be the hockey and basketball players, and the Alpine and Nordic skiers. Exceptions were made for wrestlers, gymnasts, swimmers and cheerleaders.

In the fall, with most sports outside, masks were not required. Some volleyball players wore them voluntarily.

The seasons will be shorter. Cougar basketball teams, for instance, have a 18-game schedule rather than 26. There will still be two games per week, due to the shorter time frame to play. 

Whether section and state tournaments are held will depend on the Covid situation and the judgment of the governor and the health agencies.

Spectators will be banned from practices. At games,  spectators will be limited, based on the size of the venue. Concessions and entertainment are not allowed. Brian Jamros, activities director, said a policy will be posted on the school website early next week.

The health department also recommends that coaches focus more on individual drills early, to limit contact as much as possible before moving to team-based drills.  

The guidelines also stipulate that players should avoid locker rooms and showers, while car-pooling should be discouraged as much as possible.

“We are excited for the opportunity to start both practices and contests in this winter season,” Martens said. “The commitment to safety by our more than 500 member schools is critical to not only start our seasons, but to finish them as well.”

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