Football, volleyball moved to spring; Bears, Zephyrs react

Mahtomedi football players were briefed by assistant coach Ken Stevens during a summer workout.

When the long-awaited verdict on high school sports arrived on Aug. 5, football and volleyball players learned they’ll be playing in the spring, not the fall.

Regarded as the two most risky fall sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, their seasons were moved to mid-March though mid-May, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) announced.

The plan is for football and volleyball to be wedged between the winter and spring seasons, the latter of which will start late and last through June.

“I had heard every rumor under the sun, so I just had an open mind,” said Ryan Bartlett, White Bear Lake football coach. He said they’ll probably be practicing once they find out the parameters. As for moving it to spring, he said, “I’m just glad we are playing football.”

Mahtomedi football coach Dave Muetzel also had no idea what would happen.

“One day I was thinking that we would play for sure, and the next day I believed there wasn't a chance we would play,” he said.

For his players, Muetzel assessed, “It is still raw with them, so their first reaction is they are upset, sad and frustrated. Some were able to look ahead and at least be happy that the season was not canceled.”

White Bear Lake volleyball coach Mike Alexander had been “confident” that they’d play in the fall.

“I knew that the season would look different, with no fans, and what I assumed would be only local team matches and no tournaments. I was quite surprised when we were moved to the spring.”

Aaron Forsythe, Mahtomedi activities director, reflected, “I know our student athletes who had their volleyball and football seasons moved to spring are disappointed they can't compete this fall, but I'm relieved they have something to look forward to.”

Seasons in all sports will be reduced by 30%. For football, that means a six-game regular season, rather than eight. In volleyball, it means 14 playing dates and no invitational tournaments.

All these plans are subject to change, of course, including whether there will be state tournaments, depending on the pandemic developments.

While this was a blow for football and volleyball athletes, some are making peace with it.

“It’s tough, because I lost my spring season, too, lacrosse,” said Branden Berwald.

Still, the Bears’ returning senior quarterback had a positive spin on it, after some reflection.

“If we played in the fall, we might not have been able to finish the season or have playoffs. In the spring, we’ll have a better chance to play all our games and maybe go to state. We’ll probably have fans in the stands. We’ve got seven months to get ready. And when we get to playoffs, it will be a lot warmer.”

Spencer Oxton, a versatile senior who also plays hockey and baseball, will squeeze a football season between his other two sports. “Spring will be a busy time,” he said, not complaining.

Oxton said he was “really fired up for football” when August arrived, as usual, but otherwise said he was “not devastated” by the season moving to spring.

“It will be a cool story, I think, down along the road a ways, to tell my kids.”

Kendra Gustafson, Bear volleyball senior, said players were surprised. “We thought that if fall got moved to spring, spring would get moved to fall.” The players are “all on the same page” after talking it over, she said, “It’s going to be different not having volleyball in the fall, since that’s what we’re used to, but we’re all just grateful that we still have a chance at a season.”

Fall practices will be allowed. Alexander said he’ll give high-school age members opportunities to play volleyball. There won’t be traditional practices, because the teams will not be set until spring. The coach plans a random draw league, similar to the summer.

“More than ever,” Alexander said, “I want to use sports as an emotional outlet and an escape, from the uncertainty that seems to be a constant currently in our players’ lives, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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