Snow has long since started falling, the calendar has flipped and a long-awaited season like no other is finally set to begin.

The coronavirus pandemic pushed back the usual start of high school winter sports practice from November to the first week of January. Social distancing protocols will give a different look to various sports, but on Thursday, Jan. 14, the games, meets, matches and competitions finally begin.

One of the biggest differences and challenges athletes will face is getting used to competing while masked in certain sports. The Minnesota Department of Health’s most recently updated youth sports document released requires mask usage except for in gymnastics, cheerleading, wrestling and swimming and diving.

Masks in high intensity activity present a challenge. In hockey, combining a face covering with a helmet and mouthguard is an extra difficulty. Finding a way to get back on the ice, though, is the top priority for local teams.

“The masks and protocols are obviously not how these players nor families had hoped for their season, especially seniors,” Anoka/Spring Lake Park girls hockey head coach Dana Romaker said. “My biggest push personally to players and families is to focus on the positive and we are going to just live with what has to be done in order for us to be able to play.”

Romaker herself is eager to get the season rolling, her first as head coach for the Stormcats, which enter their second year as a co-op program this winter.

“I am excited for the upcoming season! The energy the players have brought to the ice since day one has shown they are ready to be back as well,” Romaker said. “There was a lot of work in terms of regulations and protocols put in place. The ADs, coaching staff and booster club members have been a huge help during this time to get us back up and running.

“I am extremely excited to be given this opportunity to work with these players. So far they have a great energy, their personalities are fun and positive and they are smart, hard-working hockey players.”

Basketball is in a similar position to hockey, a sport containing repeated quick bursts of action over an extended time frame. An obstacle, but one that high schoolers accustomed to new challenges in the past year have handled in stride in preparation for the season’s beginning.

“They have handled it extremely well,” Andover girls basketball head coach Blake Nicols said. “It is a challenge and an obstacle, but our girls haven’t wavered from protocols and respect that safety is the primary priority in all of this. Teenage Coach Nicols would not have handled this as well as these girls are, that is for sure.

“There was a tremendous amount of excitement, especially from our seniors (when the season began). The delays led to serious uncertainty if we’d get to play, and when we learned of the start date there was a lot of joy and excitement from all our girls and coaches.”

From that uncertainty has come a new appreciation for simply being able to compete for many athletes. And a broader focus carrying beyond the scoreboard.

“The two hours together on the court – with distance learning and the limited social interactions we are able to have with the pandemic, without a doubt it is just being on the court competing together,” Nicols said. “This has been a humbling perspective reminder for me as a coach that basketball can and should be more about the girls having a positive experience and creating memories versus the narrow focus of winning games.”

Wrestling is one of the sports exempt from mask usage in competition by the MDH. But team practices have to be split up into smaller groups of athletes and staff, with extra precautions and care needed as a sport built on close physical contact.

For the Blaine wrestling team, coming off of one of its best seasons ever in which it reached the Section 7AAA finals a year ago, it’s a matter of doing whatever it takes to try to get back to the same level again.

“We are extremely excited to get back on the mat,” Blaine wrestling head coach Josh Prokosch said. “The team was doing virtual practices prior to in-person and they have been chomping at the bit just to get in the room. We need to ‘pod’ practice and limit the amount of athletes and coaches in the room as well as contact. This is crazy tough! You need to be in physical contact to be in the sport -–that being said, we are doing things right. We limit practice partners and swap coaches out for the two practices we are needing to run as a result of social distancing.

“The team is looking forward to more success. Last year was fun, but it’s in the past. They want more. It will be tough to make a big splash after losing what we did. However, we have a core group that is ready to rock and roll.”

Boys swimming and diving has a small advantage on most sports, with several coaches carrying over from the fall girls swimming and diving seasons to lean on for how to handle practices and meets.

“Very similar,” Coon Rapids boys swimming and diving head coach Doug Donaldson said. “Both teams have handled it very well – it has certainly helped me having coached through a COVID season already to know what to do and what to expect.

“(Feeling) relief. We have all been anticipating this season so much and hoping that it would happen. I think we are all excited to be back in the water and getting the season going. We are certainly looking forward to our first taste of competition. ... We have some very good swimmers back and some helpful additions. We are focused on working hard and improving and we are hoping to push for a conference and section title this season. Beyond that, though, I think we are all just happy to have a season and hoping above all else that we can make it to the end of the season healthy and with no setbacks.”

In the season with the most Minnesota State High School League sports, Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, gymnastics and dance are all set to get underway this month as well.

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