The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Minnesota high school sports once again.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced new restrictions to slow the spread of the virus on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Among the restrictions are a pause on high school sports.

Football playoffs were in full swing and the volleyball season was winding down the regular season when the announcement was made. The season for both sports ended on Friday (Nov. 20) at 11:59 p.m. with the rest of the football playoffs and all of the section volleyball tournaments canceled.

Park Rapids had its football season end on Tuesday (Nov. 17) with a 57-12 loss to Perham in a Section 8AAA quarterfinal playoff game. Because of COVID issues, the Park Rapids volleyball team had to cancel its final four regular-season matches to end the season with an 0-10 record. Section tournaments for volleyball were scheduled to start on Nov. 30.

“Our volleyball team was ready to come out of quarantine and play in the playoffs. It was a tough way for their season to end,” said Jeremy Nordick, Park Rapids’ activities director. “However, looking at the positives, we were unsure going into the fall season if anyone was going to be able to play. Our football team was able to get in seven games and our volleyball team was able to get in 10 matches. That is much more than many teams throughout the state, so I hope our seniors can look back and remember some of the fun times that they had this season.”

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“It’s not easy, and it’s not fair. But it’s a sacrifice that we need to make,” Walz said in his address. “Much has been asked of you. And we need to ask a little more. We’re at a dangerous point with this pandemic.”

In addition to ending the football and volleyball seasons early, the Minnesota State High School League informed the more than 500 member schools that the start of winter sports will be delayed until at least Dec. 18 in accordance with Executive Order 20-99.

“We recognize the recent rise in positive cases and the impacts on communities and schools. Our schools have been addressing positive cases and close contacts, adjusting learning models and making difficult decisions regarding programs,” Executive Director Erich Martens said in a release by the MSHSL. “We all know how important these programs are to students and to their mental and physical health and we all want students to participate. We believe League programs offered by our member schools provide the safest and most effective experiences and yet, at this time, we are required to take a pause. We look forward to returning to in-person participation in our winter sports and fine arts activities when these restrictions are lifted.”

Boys basketball and boys hockey teams were scheduled to start practices on Monday (Nov. 23). Boys swimming and diving as well as wrestling had a starting date of Nov. 30 while practices for girls basketball and gymnastics were scheduled to start on Dec. 7.

“As a former high school football coach, I recognize the positive health impacts and unique developmental and social benefits of sports,” Walz said in a separate release. “But the 192 outbreaks connected to sports are too concerning to let these activities continue during this dial back. Sports-related cases are nearly twice as prevalent among high school-age children as any other age group, and they increasingly play a key role in the need to move schools to distance learning.”

“We were ready to go starting Monday. I was looking forward to it, our coaches were looking forward to it and our players were really looking forward to it,” said Josh Meader, who was looking to kick off his first year as the Panthers’ head boys basketball coach. “When I was watching Governor Walz's press conference and saw that we had been pushed back, my initial reaction was just being bummed out for our players and the rest of the winter sports programs. Our kids deserve a season and I will do whatever I can to help them get one. I also know our players will do everything they can to get a season as well. I feel quite good about our chances to have a season, even if it may start later than normal because we have great kids in our program who want to play and will be the leaders in helping all of our programs get going into a winter season.”

"I'm sure I had similar feelings to most high school and youth coaches. My heart breaks for these young athletes because they have already sacrificed so much. Sports are so important in terms of providing a sense of purpose, friendships, physical activity and a healthy way to cope with the high stress levels the entire world is dealing with," said Park Rapids head boys hockey coach Derek Ricke. "We must focus on what we control, and right now, that means making some personal sacrifices to be the best teammate we can be for our team, our community and our country. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm very confident we will be back on the ice. We just need to support each other, do the right things and trust the process over these next four weeks."

“I know there is a lot of disappointment throughout the state and right here in Park Rapids about the pause. I feel for our winter coaches and players that were really excited to get things started,” said Nordick. “Just like the fall, there is a lot of uncertainty as to what winter sports will look like. I am hoping that this pause will be helpful in getting our activities back on in a month. We will take things as they come and stay Panther Strong.”