Coaches and athletes of high school winter sports finally received some good news.

After having the start date of winter sports pushed back twice, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced on Wednesday (Dec. 16) that youth sports can begin practicing on Jan. 4. The Minnesota State High School League had set potential starting dates of Dec. 21, Jan. 4 or Jan. 18. Even though there is still no official word when games can begin, games could start as early as Jan. 14 following the necessary 10 days of practice.

Walz had previously put a month-long pause on youth sports on Nov. 18 in an effort to slow down COVID-19. That was set to end on Dec. 18. Walz extended the order for another two weeks as COVID numbers have remained elevated.

The MSHSL maintained the decision from earlier this fall to hold 70% of the standard allowable contests for winter sports with a limit of two contests per week. The limit will be expanded to three contests per week in the final two weeks of the regular season to allow for makeup contests. The MSHSL says it is committed to providing section and state tournaments for all winter sports, but dates and locations for those postseason tournaments have not been finalized.

“While we recognize that our students, coaches and families are anxious to return to activities and athletics, the January 4 date aligns well with many member schools’ calendars as they return from extended breaks,” said Erich Martens, the executive director of the MSHSL in a press release. “This opportunity to participate in athletics and activities also comes with great responsibility. It is critical that all students, coaches, directors and officials maintain the highest standard of health and safety, both in and outside of school. Everyone must actively share the responsibility of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping themselves and others safe and healthy.”

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Park Rapids activities director Jeremy Nordick had mixed reactions to the news.

“I had mixed emotions. I know our coaches and athletes are ready to go and were hoping to start this coming Monday. So, I was a little disappointed from that end. However, knowing that we have a confirmed practice start date on January 4 is very encouraging. There is still more guidance from the MSHSL that will come out later in the week on when we can start competitions. I'm hopeful that we can get events going on January 14. That's the date that's been floating around,” said Nordick. “I know everyone involved in all our winter sports is beyond excited to get back competing again. Scheduling will be a little bit tricky depending on what the guidance allows. Right now we are picking up the set schedules and trying to move as many December events to February and March as we can. Obviously there may be some events canceled due to the allotted time frame, so we will prioritize with conference and section opponents first and go from there.”

Winter sports were originally scheduled to start practice on Nov. 23 (boys basketball and boys hockey), Nov. 30 (boys swimming and diving and wrestling) and Dec. 7 (gymnastics and girls basketball), but those dates were originally delayed until at least Monday (Dec. 21). Walz pushed those starting dates back two more weeks when all six sports can begin gathering together.

Some area coaches weren’t happy that they can’t begin the season until Jan. 4.

“We are disappointed with the news of the extension of the pause. We were really looking forward to being able to come together and practice together next week,” said Menahga head girls basketball coach Cody Pulju. “The players are disappointed with the extension, but weren't surprised as our start date has already been moved several times. We look forward to being able to get the ball rolling finally on January 4.”

“The announcement by Governor Walz to extend the pause for sports really came as no surprise. It is extremely frustrating for us to continue to wait, but on the other hand, we are hoping we can have a season,” said Scott Kramer, the head coach of the Nevis boys basketball team. “Our guys are really chomping at the bit to get back in the gym, and it is even more frustrating when our team has extremely high expectations and has been seeded No. 1 in the state in Class A basketball by a couple of media sources. We were hoping to start over the break, so that we could utilize the limited gym space we have for the different levels of boys and girls teams that need to share space. I know it will be a challenge to get everything up and running with the implementation of pods and limiting the number of athletes interacting with each other.”

“January 4 would be the earliest we could start. I could see the Governor pushing it back to the middle of January, then extending our season to the end of March. He still has not said when competition would start, so who knows how that is going to look,” said Park Rapids head wrestling coach Matt Clark. “As far as my wrestlers, I have not had much contact with them because of distant learning. I really wish I could get my hands on them, but it does no good worrying about things I cannot control.”

“We knew this was a possibility, but the news is still a bit disappointing. However, we are glad that there finally seems to be a set date and a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Nic Lembcke, the new head coach of the Park Rapids girls basketball team. “The girls are eager to get in the gym and get started. It has been a long road for them. Mentally, the girls are ready to go. Now it will just be getting into the gym and getting ourselves physically ready to compete. I think they are handling the whole situation with great attitudes, which is all they can do. We have to focus on the things that we can control.”

‘(Walz’s) announcement is pretty much what I had expected,” said Nevis head girls basketball coach Paul Schroeder. “Saying that, I had prepared myself as well as my girls mentally for the delay.”

Other area coaches are just happy that a starting time has finally been set.

“I love it. I am excited and ready to go. It’s awesome to have a date finally set for our first practice,” said Josh Meader, who will begin his first season as Park Rapids’ head boys basketball coach. “The players love it, too. They are happy to have a date and to have something to look forward to. They are happy to have something they love back. It is awesome to know when we all get to be together again as a program. It is going to be really awesome for the kids to get a season and show how much they improved over the summer and fall.”

“I am excited to continue our progress from the summer. I am personally ready to get things going. Our guys are extremely ready to play and test their skills,” said Tim Wurdock, who will take over as Menahga’s head boys basketball coach. “They are cautiously optimistic. They simply want to play basketball.”

“I think it was really positive news when we received an official start. I would have loved for that start date to be December 21 instead, but it's so important these young athletes have something to look forward to. They have sacrificed so much already. When I connected with some of the team, they were extremely excited. They have been waiting and hoping for some positive news,” said Derek Ricke, the head coach of the Park Rapids boys hockey team. “It may not be what they wanted, but they're circling that date and are more than ready for it. I'm really excited to get the team back together and get on the ice. It's going to truly be a great day for hockey.”

“We are anxious to be back in the pool doing what we love. We know that it's important to maintain a safe and healthy environment during these difficult times, but we are glad the Governor recognizes how important youth sports are for kids,” said Megan Rykhus, the head coach of the Park Rapids boys swimming and diving team. “The swimmers are very excited to get to start their season. It's been a rollercoaster of emotions as the start dates have continued to change, but we are optimistic about being back in the water on January 4. They are itching to start participating in their winter sport.”

Walz admitted it was a tough decision to push the start of winter sports back again, but said the health of the state’s athletes and coaches takes priority over the importance of participating in sports.

“Organized sports provide developmental opportunities for youth and mental and physical health benefits for Minnesotans of all ages. So we should start to bring back these activities if we can do so safely,” Walz said in a release announcing the new executive order. “We can limit risk for participants, coaches and families by first returning to practices in smaller groups with heightened precautions. By starting small and keeping transmission low now, we can begin to consider returning to games and competitions that require interactions between different teams and the presence of spectators.”