Dan Haertl has been coaching tennis for 35 years, and he’s always looked forward to the first day of practice. This year is no exception, but how the season is going to unfold remains a mystery for both Haertl and his Maple Grove girls’ tennis team as the country continues its battle with coronavirus.

Monday was the first day high school sports teams could begin fall practice. The Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors voted three weeks ago to move forward with seasons for soccer, cross country, girls’ tennis along with girls’ swimming and diving. Football and volleyball, however, were postponed due to health concerns related to COVID-19 and – as of now – are scheduled to have an unprecedented spring season beginning in March.

About 25 girls gathered on a perfect Monday morning at Maple Grove High School’s tennis courts for the first day of the 2020 season. The team formed a circle, each girl properly spaced six feet away from the next, while Haertl talked about his goals for the season was for everyone to simply improve, develop a love for the game and respect their opponent.

“It’s as weird as can be imagined because of COVID,” said Haertl, who is in his 13th as Maple Grove head coach. “Just in terms of preparation, I don’t know if the girls have worked as hard as they would’ve previously just in terms of the obstacles in the way. So, that’s kind of sad.

“I had mixed feelings when we learned we were going to have a season. Number one, I worry about the safety of all of us. Secondly, I love the game and I love coaching. I work hard to get these kids to become a family so we can feel like a brother-sister relationship and work that much harder to make one another better so they look forward to coming here – not because it’s an obligation but because they really enjoy the people they’re sharing the courts with.”

The Crimson are coming off a successful season that fell one victory short of the state tournament with a 4-3 loss to Wayzata. With only two regular varsity players lost to graduation, expectations to match 2019 are high.

That said, the fact there is a season at all had the team smiling.

“It was pure excitement when we found out we were having a season,” said senior Ashley Denninger, who plays No. 1 doubles. “We were so excited to be able to have a season after the few months of waiting. Obviously, I am concerned about other people’s safety. But thinking of school, tennis is the first thing that came into my head. I just wanted to have a senior season. I know we had a great season last year and I was hoping to continue that.”

CHAMPIONS TAKE THE FIELD

Things were different across the street at where the defending Class 2A state champion Maple Grove girls’ soccer team took to the glistening fields at Fernwood Athletic Complex. If soccer would be played was more in question than sports such as tennis and cross country due to the heavy contact and closeness of the athletes.

Once the MSHSL gave soccer the green light, it meant coach Ben LeVahn sprung into preparation mode. Among the biggest challenges is keeping a group of tight-knit friends from congregating.

“When the girls get here, they like to get together and tight and chat with their friends,” said LeVahn, who is in his 19th season as Crimson head coach. “If they’re going to be close, they have to have a mask on or they’ve got to space out a little. They’re all things were willing to work through. Just watching the girls, they missed their spring at school. They missed their club soccer seasons, so this is their first chance to compete in a long time. They’re just happy to have something that, as a kid, feels normal. It’ll really different once we get to games because there will be so many restrictions on what can happen before, during and after the match.”

Obviously, the season will look different than others. The Northwest Suburban Conference has set a limit of 250 fans for games, and each players gets two VIP passes for parents. There will be no huddles during or after competition, and players on the sidelines are required to wear masks. The number of matches for the season is capped at 17 and no more than two per week, and teams must only compete against teams in their conference, section or those that are considered “local” as travel is also restricted.

Even with the sacrifices, LeVahn is thrilled his team has an opportunity to play.

“I was not super-hopeful we’d have a season based on the things that I had heard,” LeVahn said. “But I was happy that we were going to be able to have a season and still do it safely based on some of the concerns they had for different sports. I thought we kind of fell into a high-risk category like volleyball did, but being outside makes a big difference. I’m pretty excited that we get to have something that feels a little bit normal, but as defending state champions, it’s tough not knowing if we’re going to have a post-season.

“One of the discouraging things for us was we didn’t want football or volleyball to miss their season, but the fact that we were kind of the last team sport, everybody was hopeful we’d kind of be the only show in town. But there will be severe limitations of who can come watch. The girls were hopeful to be the homecoming game and have some Friday night games, but at least we’re playing and there will be some fans. Early on, they were talking playing with no fans. But with our facilities, we’ve got enough space where we can definitely do it safely.”

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