Football and volleyball players and coaches got the news they were hoping for last week when their fall seasons were reinstated.

“I wasn’t surprised. I think we all had a feeling it was coming,” said Ryan Bartlett, White Bear Lake football coach. “We are very excited. Everyone is pumped up and happy to be playing.”

“I am excited that the girls get to play, and grateful to have a season,” said Angela Helle, Mahtomedi volleyball coach. “I wish we could have fans, because that is what makes matches more exciting and fun.”

Reversing a decision in early August to move football and volleyball to a spring season, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minnesota State High School League directors voted Sept. 21 for an October/December season for each.

“This is not the season I was expecting but it’s the season I’m grateful for,” said Lizzie Nelson, Bears volleyball senior. 

“Having no fans will be a huge bummer because that’s one of the best things about playing varsity volleyball. We will have to adapt to a quiet gym, like we will a lot of other things under the protocol.”

Following MSHSL and Minnesota Department of Health pandemic rules, crowds at outdoor events are limited to 250, and at indoor events only essential personnel.

“After having our normal season postponed," said Mike Alexander, Bears volleyball coach, "I know my players are ready to hit the ground running and put together a season to remember.”

It will be a football season of mostly cold-weather games.

“I can’t complain,” said Brandon Berwald, senior returning as the Bears starting quarterback. “I don’t like chilly weather, but cold football is better than no football.”

“Everybody is very excited to get started,” said Tony Neubeck, Zephyrs senior co-captain who plays fullback and defensive end. 

“I’m happy with the decision. Either way, spring or fall, it would be pretty much the same, with cold weather, shorter seasons, maybe fans and maybe not.”

The MSHSL also decreed that there would be no state tournaments in any fall sport. The other sports have been operating since late August with shorter schedules and other pandemic restrictions.

The schedule will include six football games and 14 volleyball games, plus an abbreviated section playoff. The directors voted 15-3 for fall football and 14-4 for fall volleyball.

For each sport, practices begin Monday, Sept. 28. 

The White Bear Lake volleyball season opener will be Thursday, Oct. 8, at home against Mounds View. The Bears football opener will be Friday, Oct. 9, at Stillwater.

The Mahtomedi football opener will be Friday, Oct. 9, against Park in Cottage Grove. The Zephyrs volleyball opener will be Saturday, Oct. 10, at North St. Paul.

The MSHSL’s reversal came on the heels of the Big Ten announcing Sept. 16 that they will start football the weekend of Oct. 23-24 rather than have the spring season they designated earlier. Another possible influence was a grassroots group called “Let Them Play” pushing for fall seasons for football and volleyball.

“We heard about protests, and people upset about not having a season, and then we heard there was an emergency meeting Monday,” Berwald said. “Suddenly we’ve got two weeks to prepare for our first game … The guys have been working out and staying in shape on their own.”

The Zephyrs have been playing in a 7-on-7 passing league (no tackling) at the Minnesota Vikings facility in Eagan on Saturdays, with a dozen or more players showing up each week, Neubeck said.

The Bears volleyballers have been playing on different club teams, and are excited — and relieved — to be getting back together, said senior Kendra Gustafson.

“No one knew if the spring season was a guarantee, so we were all happy to hear that we will get to play.” 

“It’s all happening so fast. I didn’t realize that this was even a possibility,” said Nelson. “We are trying our best to get everything locked and loaded for the season.”

Brian Peloquin, Bears activities director, said he’s elated to have football and volleyball back in the fall, but added, “They are both going to look very different this year from a spectator standpoint.” All home events will be live-streamed on, he said. 

With COVID-19’s USA death toll recently passing 200,000, the pandemic continues to loom over sports and all other aspects of American life.

“I am nervous but we'll be as safe as possible,” said Bartlett. “Football is a contact game and so that will be a change from what we’re used to. We will space out more, have smaller crowds, do less contact in practice, and so on.”

He had not heard of anyone opting out, but would find out Sept. 28 when practices officially start.

“There are still so many unknowns that we will have to navigate, but that has been the story of 2020, so we will roll with it,” Helle said. “We will be following COVID protocols, which will be different, but the girls adapt well.”  

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