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.

“We are looking forward to the upcoming season,” said Tim Sager, White Bear Lake boys hockey coach. “It is going to take a lot of discipline and responsibility from everyone to create a safe and healthy environment so we can play this year.”

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

White Bear Lake will have three openers on Thursday — boys hockey at Roseville Area, boys swimming hosting Woodbury, and wrestling at Mahtomedi in a triangular including Stillwater.

The Bear basketball squads start Friday with the boys hosting Irondale and the girls at Irondale, while the Nordic ski team opens at Battle Creek Regional Park against Stillwater and Roseville.

On Saturday, the Bear girls hockey team opens at Mounds View. Next week, the Alpine skiers open Tuesday in a five-team meet at Afton Alps, and the gymnasts open Thursday at Park of Cottage Grove.

For Mahtomedi, the defending state champion boys hockey team will start Thursday evening at Henry Sibley, while the wrestlers host the Bears on Stillwater.

Lid-lifters for the Zephyrs on Friday will be boys basketball at St. Thomas Academy, girls basketball hosting Tartan, and girls hockey at South St. Paul. Next week, Nordic ski will open with a conference meet at Hyland Park Reserve, and the gymnasts start Friday, hosting Tartan.

Winter sports, which normally start in November to early December, were cleared by the Minnesota State High School League to start practice 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.

Wrestling being such a close contact sport, they have a set practice and competition protocol, including intense daily cleaning, to ensure the safest environment possible for the wrestlers, coaches and personnel who help at matches.  

“I don’t think our facilities have ever been so clean,” said Bear coach Craig Nasvik. About masks, he said, “I am glad that once on the mat, masks for wrestlers don’t have to be worn. But once off the mat, they are on.”

The wrestlers, he said, quickly adapted to safety guidelines.

“Everything is different, from practice, busing, sitting mat-side. This is what we have to do, to have the opportunity to compete.”

The seasons are shorter by 30 percent. Basketball teams, for instance, have a 17-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-19 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.

The health department 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 carpooling 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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