MSHSL schedule reaction: Problems anticipated for volleyball

Maddy Hornyak of Lakeville North goes up to play the ball during the 2019 state Class 3A volleyball tournament. Hornyak will be a senior in 2020-21; if she has a senior volleyball season it will take place in the spring instead of fall.

Spring season places high school programs, club teams in conflict

With the Minnesota State High School League shifting volleyball season to spring 2021, it’s likely one of the best players in Eagan High School history won’t play her senior year.

Kennedi Orr, a two-time Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year, would have been the state’s top returning player this fall. But she is on track to graduate in December. By the time Minnesota high school volleyball teams begin practice in March, Orr is expected to be at the University of Nebraska preparing for her first college season.

“Kennedi will graduate early, so she played her last high school volleyball match last year,” Eagan coach Kathy Gillen wrote in an email.

Orr’s older sister Brie, also a star player at Eagan, took the same path. Brie Orr graduated a semester early, then enrolled at the University of Iowa, where she will be a senior this fall.

For Kennedi Orr, the premature end of her high school career means she will have played five varsity seasons at Eagan – and appeared in five state Class 3A championship matches. She helped the Wildcats win state titles in 2015-16. Eagan was 31-1 last season, with its only loss to Wayzata in the Class 3A final.

If Orr’s high school career is over, the setter/outside hitter finishes with 2,005 assists and 1,055 kills. Last year she missed nine regular-season Eagan matches while playing for Team USA at the world Under-18 championships. She helped the U.S. win the gold medal and was named the tournament’s top setter.

She’s the third Eagan player to win the Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year award, joining McKenna Melville and Taylr McNeil.

The MSHSL board of directors Tuesday moved the high school football and volleyball seasons to a March to May 2021 window in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other traditional fall sports will be played in the fall with reduced schedules.

In Gillen’s view, the early departure of a premier player like Orr isn’t the only problem with the volleyball schedule change. It also puts high school programs and Junior Olympic club teams in competition for players. Most years, the club season begins immediately after the MSHSL state tournament in November and runs until early summer. The club season also is prime time for college recruiting.

Current MSHSL eligibility rules do not allow athletes to play for high school and club teams in the same sport at the same time. The majority of Eagan’s varsity players – and some on the Wildcats’ lower-level squads – play club volleyball, leading Gillen to question whether she could field a high school team in the spring.

“The bottom line is, March and April are months in the JO season with major qualifying tournaments. And players lost a recruiting year last year, so they will need to play this year for sure,” Gillen wrote. “I think it would be impossible to do both even if the MSHSL says you can. How do you practice three days a week and weekends with club and still manage a Tuesday or Thursday match with high school (which you haven’t practiced with because you have club volleyball the other days)?”

High school volleyball teams will be allowed to practice in the fall, although Gillen says she doesn’t see the purpose in that if the first match wouldn’t be until March at the earliest.

“Who wants to practice without the outlook of having competition?” Gillen wrote. “It’s like the high school league wants the coaches to continually give an athletic ‘experience,’ but they aren’t doing the same. We have been practicing and working out all summer - how long does that continue without the hopes of an actual game?”

Noting that professional leagues have been operating without fans present, Gillen wrote, “I’m sure volleyball could have done so as well.”

Football adjusts

Football does not have quite the same scheduling issue that volleyball has. Upon learning that his team’s season wouldn’t start until March, Lakeville South head coach Ben Burk wrote on his Twitter account: “I love football because it teaches life. Season got postponed? Good. More time to prepare and get better.”

Reached later by phone, Burk said his players didn’t necessarily have the same reaction, but he was confident they could adapt. Tuesday’s announcement hit the Cougars while they were in the middle of a four-day summer team camp, which they presumed would help them prepare for a season opener in early September.

Now, “it goes back to what we always tell our players about controlling the things they can control, which are effort and attitude,” said Burk, who is going into his first full season as the Cougars’ head coach.

Football teams also will be allowed to practice this fall. Practice frequency and other details are still to be determined, although Burk said he expects the Cougars will take advantage of the opportunity for fall workouts.

If the football season had to be moved, Burk said he was happy to see it placed in a window between winter and spring sports.

“We want our kids to play as many sports as they can. We don’t want them to have to choose between one sport or another, and we’ve never told a kid it’s football and nothing else,” Burk said. “We think playing other sports is good for our kids physically, and it helps them as competitors.

“But I do feel sorry for our spring sports coaches. They lost their season this year, and next year their season’s going to be pushed back.”

Traditional spring sports, which started in March and ran until early June, next year are expected to start in May and run until early July.

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