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It’s normally a busy time for Stillwater Area High School athletes, but spring sports have been put on hold due to the coronavirus. (Gazette staff photo by Stuart Groskreutz)

The early thaw provided some optimism for most Stillwater Area High School teams starting on time and outdoors this spring, but the new coronavirus has halted any and all of those activities.

The Minnesota State High School League, following direction from Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, placed limits on participation in all MSHSL activities and athletics until at least Friday, March 27, including all training sessions, practices and scrimmages.

In addition, the MSHSL has prohibited all contests and competitions with other MSHSL programs until Monday, April 6.

“The impact for us is we’re going to have a late start,” Stillwater Activities Director Ricky Michel said. “Optimistically, we’ll start everything late.”

Several of the spring sports seasons were already underway. Synchronized swimming held its first practice on March 2, followed a week later by softball and track and field.

The baseball and golf teams were scheduled to begin on Monday, March 16, but that did not occur after District 834 extended its spring break for two days leading into the state mandated school closures.

The opening day for boys tennis was supposed to be March 23 while boys and girls lacrosse is scheduled to start on March 30.

“This is kind of a wait-and-see thing,” Michel said. “We’ve been there before with the weather. In 2013 I think we started on April 28, so that’s something we can work through. Some sports are easier to try and manage than others.”

The impact of COVID-19 extends way beyond sports and activities, but those remain an important outlet for kids and their parents and that doesn’t make any of this easy.

There are also no guarantees that the seasons will resume at all.

“I feel bad for kids, because you have some looking forward to the spring season and they’ve been waiting the whole year,” Michel said. “We’re crossing our fingers hoping there will be some type of spring season.”

Contingencies have already been discussed and a few scheduling changes have been made, but Michel is taking it day by day while trying to remain optimistic.

“It doesn’t make sense to try and act on anything because we don’t know where we’re going to be tomorrow,” Michel said. “If you asked three days ago, restaurants closing and theaters closing would not have been a thought.”

The MSHSL canceled the conclusion of the girls basketball state tournament and ended the boys basketball season before the entire state tourney field had been finalized. That was part of a chaotic few days, which included the NCAA canceling the remainder of its winter sports and all of its spring sports championships.

“I think I like the idea of taking it in two-week snippets and reevaluating,” Michel said. “I think if you do that, there’s some hope still that something might come out of it, but if (the MSHSL) did like the NCAA did it’s done and it’s not coming back. I don’t think we wanted to do that.”

These drastic steps are intended to limit exposure to the virus. Kids can still train and prepare for their sports, but restrictions exist to ensure that none of it is mandatory. According to MSHSL directives, coaches are allowed limited contact, but cannot suggest or support group practice sessions, provide performance feedback or “place undue influence on participants to take part in any individual workout or skills training.”

“You can touch base with the kids and provide workouts, but not mandatory workouts,” Michel said. “I think (the communication) is an important thing right now because some kids are not going to take this very well and mentally might not be in a very good situation, so I think having that contact with coaches is good.

“You’ve got seniors and kids who have looked forward to this all year and there’s a possibility their dream might not come true. I’m glad the MSHSL changed their stance on that and I’m glad they have given coaches some contact. Nothing mandatory of course, but you can send them information if they want to train on their own.”

Michel understands the temptation, but said it’s important to “flatten the curve” while trying to limit the spread of the virus.

“I think the tough thing, and that the thing that’s most challenging for us, after the first two days is that we have to provide a model for social distancing because they can’t work out in groups,” Michel said. “(On Tuesday) we had two girls playing catch for softball. You can go out on a grass field and do that, but then we had 15 to 20 lacrosse players who wanted to work out and we can’t let you do that.

“We’re following the Governor’s directive here. It’s tough to tell kids they can’t play and do something and they don’t know what to do right now.”

Michel said nobody is happy about the steps that have been taken, but most are understanding.

“I think for the most part people are empathetic towards the situation, but you also have people who want the show to go on and they want things to go back to normal and you have to tell people it can’t happen,” Michel said. “I think they would like us to reconsider the stance, but there’s nothing to reconsider here. The Governor has said this and the Minnesota State High School League has said this — we can’t do anything.”

The Stillwater baseball team’s scheduled trip to Florida was canceled and upcoming annual trips by the orchestra, band and choir are in jeopardy.

The SAHS theatre department was scheduled to perform Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”, but that has also been wiped out.

“This was to be their last week of preparations, but seven performances are off the table,” Michel said. “Right now, we can’t find a window between the concerts in April and May.”

For any of the winter sports teams which hadn’t held their postseason awards banquets, those are not expected to be rescheduled.

Michel also lamented the many other school activities, especially those geared towards the seniors, that are in jeopardy — such as the senior countdown and sharing what their plans are beyond graduation.

“We’re missing that and we’re going to miss some of that energy in the building,” Michel said.

It’s a challenging time, but Michel also shared a message from boys basketball coach Brady Hannigan on dealing with these challenges and uncertainty — a real-time test of teamwork and sacrifice that is cultivated through participation in athletics and activities.

“He was talking about the concept of team and that this situation and where we are as a public are a team,” Michel said. “While we may not have the virus, we have to prevent people from our community from getting that kind of thing and being impacted by it. It’s our role as a team to make sure everybody else is healthy. We’re all kind of dealing with the same things.

“I couldn’t have worded it any better.”

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@ecm-inc.com

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