Running the bleachers and returning to the weight room may not sound like much, but for Park Rapids athletes it was a major step to getting back to normalcy.

Since the middle of March, high school athletes haven’t been able to practice or work out with their teammates because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That changed a little bit when those athletes received the OK to return for some restricted organized activities at the school facilities on June 15.

That was the start of an eight-week strength and conditioning program. In addition to working with trainer Angel Clark for 30 minutes in the weight room, athletes will work on conditioning on the football field for 30 minutes under the direction of activities director and head football coach Jeremy Nordick during the one-hour sessions.

“We felt it was very important that we get our facilities opened up for our kids. Being away from their friends for three months was an extremely long time for them,” said Nordick. “It was great to see the smiling faces and the energy that each of them brought. It was an awesome start to summer workouts.”

“Athletes were excited to return to the weight room and socialize with their teammates,” said Clark. “I feel like the weight room and starting sports practice will bring a sense of normalcy to their day.”

Returning to those basic tasks provided a welcomed reprieve for the group of high school athletes.

“I’ve missed it so much,” said Katie Burlingame, one of the senior captains of the Park Rapids volleyball team. “It’s been so boring. This is really important because we need as much practice as we can get. This is one step closer to having a season.”

“It’s been very boring working out by myself and not seeing anyone,” said Kendra Scholz, the other senior captain of the volleyball team. “I’ve been trying to stay in shape, but it’s nice to have other people around again. This has been a crazy experience. This is very important for us because we have a new team and we need to build back up our abilities and work together as a team.”

“It’s been a long time (away from organized sports),” said Abby Morris, a junior who is preparing for tennis this fall. “The weight room is very important to prevent injuries and get us ready for fall sports. We needed this. Hopefully it will get us ahead of other schools.”

“It’s nice having friends here to help you and not having to work out alone,” said James Hartig, one of the senior captains of the Park Rapids football team. “This is so important. Without this, we wouldn’t be ready (for when the football season starts).”

“It feels like we’re making progress. It puts hope in peoples’ minds that we’ll have a football season,” said Lane Monaghan, another senior captain of the Panthers’ football team. “When we didn’t have a track season, I realized real quick how much I like school and sports. Hopefully we’ll have school in the fall.”

The strength and conditioning program is broken up into four one-hour sessions four days a week. Each hour consists of nine athletes conditioning on the football field for 30 minutes and another nine athletes doing a workout in the weight room for 30 minutes. With no organized sports activities for three months, the 72 spots filled up quickly.

Temperatures are checked and health questions are asked before each athlete is allowed to participate. Strict guidelines are in place, including maintaining social distancing, not sharing equipment and avoiding contact during drills.

Conditioning drills include bleacher runs, body lifts with burners, sprints and working out with tires. Clark has designed different workouts focusing on gaining strength, speed, agility and flexibility. In the weight room, Clark is focusing on the big lifts (clean, back squat and bench) while adding some auxiliary lifts.

“Right now we are in the early stages of our summer program, so much of it is technique, stretching and core strength. After a couple weeks we'll be able to press a little bit harder and make some big gains with strength and speed,” said Nordick. “We all still feel pretty awkward and uncomfortable with the guidelines that we have to follow, but I think a lot of that will go away fairly soon once we get back to a routine. We are following the strict National Federation High School (NFHS) guidelines. Right now we are in Phase 1. We are hopeful that we can get to Phase 2 or 3 in the next week or two, which would mean we could have a lot more variety with our summer workouts and practices.”

After three months away from competition, Nordick and Clark know it will take some time to get the athletes back in the physical condition they were in before the spring season was canceled.

“I was pleasantly surprised as to how good of shape our kids are in considering the long break from activities,” said Nordick. “I know many of them have spent some time working out and running on their own, so they responded very well to our first workouts.”

“When some of my athletes walked in, I was shocked at what some of their bodies looked like. Some of them have lost a lot of mass, but I am excited to get that mass put on them,” said Clark. “It will come back fast. We just need to keep working.”

Getting back to the weight room, even though it’s in a limited capacity, is a huge step in getting these athletes ready for the fall sports season.

“Many of the kids are excited to get back into the weight room,” said Nordick. “It's not what we want, but at least we have a plan in place so they can make some gains over the next eight weeks.”

“We have these athletes four hours a week and we are doing everything we can to get them ready mentally and physically,” said Clark. “Athletes have been told to start slow and that they will make a gain this summer. There is no doubt in my mind that athletes WILL make a gain and they will be ready to perform this fall.”

In addition to the strength and conditioning course, head volleyball coach Christine Sauer, head boys basketball coach Josh Meader and head girls basketball coach Nic Lembcke began holding limited practices at the Area High School and Century School gyms on June 15. Programs for baseball, softball and gymnastics began on June 22. All those sports are deemed medium-risk sports. Sports such as football, hockey and wrestling are among the high-risk sports that can also hold practices with no-contact drills.

The Minnesota Department of Health announced on June 19 that outdoor games and scrimmages for all sports can begin on June 24 and that games and scrimmages for all indoor sports can begin on July 1. This is a phased approach beginning with individual workouts, moving to intrasquad games and finally going to games against other teams in a couple of weeks.

While those coaches couldn’t partake in a full practice for the first week, they believe it was an important first step to getting back to normal.

“It feels amazing to be back in the gym,” said Sauer. “We knew the girls wanted to be here and needed to be here; not only physically, but mentally. Because of all the restrictions, we need to get creative in what we do. The girls have been doing a good job of following those guidelines. It’s different, but it’s going to make the players stronger. They are dedicated and are just excited to be back in the gym.”

“I think the girls and the coaches are excited about getting in the gym. It has been a long couple of months, and this returns a little bit of normalcy. The first few days have been great. The girls have been working hard and are focused on improving despite the circumstances,” said Lembcke. “With all of the restrictions, we have had to make some adjustments in our summer programming and focus on individual skill building. There was going to be a big focus on skill development this summer even before the restrictions. It is going to be important for us to get as much time in the gym as possible. I think that is going to be a huge benefit to us. If the girls remain committed and focused on building their skills this summer, they should be an extremely fun team to watch when the season rolls around.”

“The boys are eager and excited to be back in the gym. The best part is they are just simply excited to be together again, as many have not seen much of each other during this pandemic. I’m just happy to see them all working hard and having fun and being able to do it together,” said Meader, who will begin his first season as a head coach. “The restrictions are a challenge. I think it really helps push all of us as coaches to improve ourselves and think outside the box on how to improve our skill levels in a unique way while also trying our best to keep it fun and challenging for the players. It is important to get in the gym this summer to build our family atmosphere and grow together as players and as human beings off the court. This extra time we get this summer will benefit us in many ways this upcoming season with being able to improve our skills, create a family atmosphere where all feel involved and valued so they can succeed in their role, and finally just reminding us of how much fun it is to play basketball together.”

Nordick expects these first steps back will pay big dividends for the athletes in fall sports.

“Most of our athletes understand that for us to be successful, they have to take some personal responsibility to get themselves in better physical condition when the season starts,” said Nordick. “I'm very optimistic that our kids will be in great shape when the fall sports season comes around.”