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Spring Lake Park girls tennis players took their turns hitting during the first week of fall high school practices. Masks and individual distancing practices have been instituted to help maintain safety and get athletes back playing after the cancellation of spring sports.

Uncertainty may be lingering.

But for now, excitement and living in the moment reigns as area girls swimming and diving, girls tennis, boys and girls soccer and boys and girls cross-country teams officially started practice this week.

After the cancellation of the Minnesota State High School League’s 2020 spring season and an early end to in-person classes in March, as well as the postponement of football and volleyball to March, it’s a welcome return to the playing field for many area athletes. A chance at some normalcy is present, despite a few notable differences compared to seasons past.

Coaches are wearing masks and distancing is being employed when possible as precautions against coronavirus. Games and meets will be limited in the number of teams that can attend and to nearby opponents, with a smaller number of events than usual. Postseason details remain tentative, with schedules liable to change at any time based on state health situations.

“Nothing in life should ever be taken for granted,” Spring Lake Park girls tennis head coach Dave Kuether said. “This season could end tomorrow if there is an outbreak. They all realize this, and each and every day together as a team has a different feeling and energy. There are 11 matches scheduled; so many variables could change that. As a coach, our worry prior to COVID was the weather, and if we would have to reschedule due to a rain out. Today, tomorrow is promised to no one … it could end in a blink of an eye. They all know that, and it was never ever about what spot you held on the team, or whether you won or lost. Today, it’s ‘I get to play another day.’”

Girls tennis is one of the sports most suited to distancing, with opponents separated on each side of the net. Prior to competition, it is about preparing safely during practice and providing a return to routine.

“We have numerous systems in place in order to keep players and coaches safe, healthy and distanced,” Anoka girls tennis head coach Joey Evavold said. “Mask and sanitizer are just as common tennis items this year as racquets and tennis balls! Me and my coaching staff are trying to keep staples of our program in place such as music at practice and favorite team games. We are trying to find the sweet spot between getting back to some normalcy, but we are also taking the virus extremely seriously. The girls have been doing a fantastic job so far rising to the challenge and doing whatever is needed to keep our team safe.

“We are extremely thankful that we are able to have a season during these unsettling times. The players have been very excited to get back onto the court and have something to play for. Due to the change of the sports season, we have actually seen a spike in numbers as we are getting a few volleyball players this year. The excitement is there, but we are taking a one day at a time approach. The information could change any moment so we are trying to enjoy the season as it is. It’s really important to me that we are giving the girls a safe opportunity to participate in an activity. It’s an opportunity that a lot athletes didn’t have last spring and I am trying to preach positivity and celebrating the daily successes that we get each day.”

“It’s wonderful to be on court with the team,” Kuether said. “There are MSHSL Guidelines that we all must follow, and also one step further at Spring Lake Park, which is great. Upon arrival, I take each team member’s temperature, ask a series of questions, use hand sanitizer and require a mask upon arrival. The team has been magnificent following these new protocols. The sun is shining, the girls are positive and are adjusting to our conditions as best as possible in these unprecedented times. I couldn’t ask for anything more of them.

“It’s been truly amazing, so many new players being introduced to the sport. The veterans have been energized to see new players, and attention given to the sport of tennis! The girls have been waiting anxiously, hoping that there would in fact be a season, and we are all extremely thrilled to be allowed to participate in the sport we all love. It’s never ever been anything more than enriching each and every player. Tennis is a way of life, both on and off the court. The girls need a sense of belonging and normalcy, and this year I feel tennis brings them so much more. Being able to share a piece of their life, especially now, brings a sense of comfort as an instructor, coach, mentor. I feel it means as much to them as it does for me.”

Girls swimming and diving is the lone indoor sport being held in the fall.

The area boasts several of the top swimmers and divers in the state, including a multi-time state champion and several more all-state athletes.

Finding a way to safely organize practices of 30-plus athletes in one area is a new and unique challenge, both in terms of how workouts can be structured and what equipment can be used.

“Practices are going to be quite different,” Coon Rapids girls swimming and diving head coach Doug Donaldson said. “We are limited in lane space to only four swimmers per lane, and they will need to start at different points in the lane to remain properly socially distanced. This adds quite a complexity to the practice because some athletes are able to start with a push off the wall and others will have to just start swimming right away. Divers will have to maintain social distance on the pool deck in between dives. Athletes can’t use the locker rooms, so they have to show up already in their suit and leave with their suit on. Everyone has to wear masks in the facility at all times, except when in the water or in-between dives. We won’t be using team equipment during practice as it adds to the complexity of maintaining clean items, so our practices will look different in that athletes won’t be using kickboards or pull buoys during practices. We also have to maintain distance during team meetings, so that is going to be quite different and I think a challenge in terms of keeping focus when so spread out!

“In terms of similarities, we are going to try to have as much fun as possible, we are going to be working hard, focusing on details and trying to get better! I really want to try and make it as normal an experience as possible, so we are going to do everything we can to make it that way. I will say, that for once, it might actually be beneficial to have a smaller team than others in our conference because we won’t struggle to get everyone in the pool like the other teams will.”

Coon Rapids in particular has been on the rise in recent seasons, both in terms of sheer numbers and meet success. Keeping that momentum going for climbing programs with limited offseason preparation is among the challenges, but a fun one.

“I think the excitement level is high,” Donaldson said. “We have a lot of athletes returning from last year and quite a few new athletes joining as well, which was honestly surprising to me! We didn’t really have an opportunity to get the word out this past spring and summer about the team, so it was cool to see the interest and new athletes joining. We had 41 girls last year and look to have about mid-30s this year, so I’d say that’s pretty good considering all of the factors involved. I’m really excited to have a veteran group returning. We have a lot of athletes with experience at the varsity level – our average grade level so far is 9.8 and our average experience level is 3.2 years. Typically, year three is where athletes really start to make breakthroughs, so I am hoping that happens for a lot of our girls this year! We lost some talented athletes to graduation, but I think the combination of returning experience and some up and coming performers will certainly help us navigate those graduations. I also think the lack of pool access over the spring and summer may end up being an equalizer for teams, so that might be fun to see if the landscape changes at all in terms of the competition.”

One of the biggest questions remains structuring girls swimming and diving meets, especially any sort of postseason competition. Whether an in-person state meet can be held or a virtual competition with times compared is the route, enjoying the ability to practice and train is the focal point.

“Well, we know the season is going to end sooner than in past years, but the plan is to try and have some sort of end of season event, even if it is not a section or state meet, and even if it has to be virtual,” Donaldson said. “I don’t want to change our approach too much because I think it is important to stay focused on improvement and making our team the best it can be, both in the water and out of it. I think the biggest thing is, we know it’s not going to be ‘normal’ so we just have to approach it with flexibility and an understanding that it will be a different season and unlike others, but that is OK. Control what we can control, and the things we can’t control we can’t worry about or focus on.”

For all programs, the unknown of having a playoff or not will be a looming question mark. It could be an extra challenge for programs accustomed to challenging for section titles and state tournament appearances, like the Andover girls soccer team. Keeping the focus on what can and can’t be controlled will be vital, as will be looking for daily improvement.

“The purpose of our practices will be the same as always,” Andover girls soccer head coach Tracey Griess said. “We want high focus and high energy and we want to come away knowing we worked hard enough to get that 1% better every practice. Every day we want the girls to compete to win their spot or to keep it. However, of course, some things will be different. We’ve got masks coming and going, personal preparation areas (PPAs) spaced 6 feet apart and we do everything in our power off the field to make sure we can finish our season. We’ve talked about the seniors a lot and how, for many, this is it. This is their last season so we want to be able to do it right for them.

“We are unbelievably excited and feel very fortunate! We are cherishing every day we get to play and are just taking it one day at a time.”

Stampeding packs of cross-country runners will be much smaller throughout the season as well, as big meets are being traded in for head-to-head duals. Like girls swimming and diving, it is unclear how a section or state meet could or will look.

Nonetheless, for all sports, it is currently off to the races, with optimism and hopefulness about what lies ahead and anticipation for all of the little things sports can bring.

“Everything! This is really one of my most favorite times of the year,” Griess said. “I’m excited for the seniors because they’ve worked so hard for the past three years to help build this program to what it is. I’m excited for the freshmen because everything is so new and you know they’ve been dreaming about playing high school soccer for a long time. And I am always excited to watch these girls play and see them apply the things we’ve talked about in practice and be successful. That really is the best reward.

“Enjoy every moment and take one day at a time. I really started learning this lesson when my daughter went through her high school career and it just flew by. It is that much more important this year because of the real possibility that it could end at any moment. These girls should be thankful for every game that we get to play and play every game like it is their last. We will emphasize that a lot and do our best to really enjoy the time we have with each other as much as possible.”

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