Abrupt end to season shocks Crimson

Maple Grove football coach Matt Lombardi gives instruction to his players during a recent game. The Crimson had their season cut short last week due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Molly Holmgren)

Unless you’re a state champion, the end of a high school football season can be both painful and sudden. That said, the conclusion usually happens after a long-fought, 48-minute playoff battle on the field.

For the Maple Grove Crimson, and many others in the state, the end of a bizarre season came in the form of an emotional message from their head coach in a team meeting. The reason?

COVID-19, of course.

Maple Grove planned on taking its 4-1 record into Northwest Suburban Conference rival Champlin Park on Wednesday, Nov. 11. It was supposed to be the final regular-season game in a season that was anything but regular. Instead, the Crimson were told their season was done.

Head coach Matt Lombardi said a junior varsity player reported not feeling well and tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday. Coaches and players worked to clean equipment, and the infected player was isolated from his teammates.

The team did not practice on Monday and Tuesday of last week to help ensure no further spread, but it wasn’t enough to save the season as school administrators elected to cancel the Champlin Park game and the upcoming section playoffs.

“We’re trying to make the kids safe, but this is doing the opposite. I’m frustrated,” Lombardi said. “I have a bunch of senior kids who I’m worried about. They had a lot of structure with this team, and they just lost it. As a head coach, I’m not happy at all. I’m advocating for my kids and advocating for the community. No structure for these kids is not good.

“We always talk to them about how we can absolutely live with losing a game. But when something like this is taken from you, it makes it that much tougher to take. It’s a very hard moment for those kids because there really isn’t any closure. They’ve put everything into this program and then this happens. I’m not ready to put a moral bow on this. It’s easier to do after a disappointing loss. Then, they’re at least out on the field and giving it a fight. The kids are mad, and it’s a real emotion. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

The fact there would be no state tournament or Prep Bowl if the Crimson won the section, did not ease the sting, Lombardi said. Maple Grove’s season was at a crossroads coming off an eye-opening 13-6 home loss to Centennial on Oct. 23 where things simply didn’t feel right.

Lombardi and his staff made a few changes, had some chats with team leaders and things quickly turned around. Convincing wins over Osseo and Anoka followed, leaving the Crimson brimming with confidence as the playoffs approached.

DECISION WAS SAFETY-BASED

Ron Meyer, executive director of finance and operations who oversees COVID-19 response, said the decision to cancel the remainder of the season is based off of guidelines from public health organizations.

“The decision affecting Maple Grove football was made in the same way we’ve made decisions for more than 200 other positive cases since Aug. 20,” Meyer said. “Our district follows a process created by the Minnesota Department of Health covering two primary obligations: creating and implementing safety plans for every site and program, and taking prescribed action when there are positive cases, close contacts, or symptomatic individuals among students or staff.”

When there are positive cases, the district gathers information, conducts contact tracing and reports all information to the MDH. That organization makes a determination regarding action the school district should take.

“Our obligation is to follow that determination, and we have done so for every COVID-related incident to date,” Meyer said. “In this case, after staff conducted thorough contact tracing and held multiple consultations with four different MDH epidemiologists, all four epidemiologists made the same determination: all players should quarantine for 14 days. This quarantine effectively ended the season.”

Lombardi, however, said the district panicked and that his team takes extra caution when it comes to social distancing. Junior varsity players keep plenty of space between their varsity teammates, and once game action starts, players – other than linemen – are rarely in close contact.

“In a perfect world, we wanted to play as many games as we could because I thought we would’ve gone a long way,” Lombardi said. “I feel awful for the young man infected. He didn’t do anything wrong. I feel as badly for him as anyone. This is a tough pill for a 16-year-old to swallow, and that’s part of why I’m frustrated.

“Numbers have shown that few cases have happened during competition. Where it’s happening is when they’re getting together. In football, you’re always moving. It’s intended to be about spacing. This is devastating for all of us. It’s a feeling of shock and sadness. The things that make football great are about the team, togetherness and selflessness, and this takes it away from them. The players are stunned and super-sad.”

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