COVID-19 had a lasting impact on every sport in 2020.
The pandemic first disrupted high school activities in March when the Minnesota State High School League canceled the final rounds of the state girls basketball tournament as well as the section finals and the entire state tournament in boys basketball.
COVID-19 continued to affect local sports the rest of the year, ending with the start of the winter high school sports season being pushed back to January of 2021.
The decision back in March cost the Nevis boys basketball team a chance to contend for a state title.
After winning the Section 5A West title with a 61-58 victory over Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa at Wadena on March 11, the Tigers were scheduled to play Hinckley-Finlayson at Crosby in the Section 5A championship game on March 13. That game was canceled and the season abruptly ended.
That announcement was a tough one to take for the Tigers and the other teams competing for section and state titles.
"It's a tough decision to make, but I understand it in terms of the big picture. With that said, I honestly think they could've played the outstate section finals in boys to at least give the teams and seniors one last game to finish with little to no risk. The game was originally supposed to be played with limited fans. I know our kids would have played with no fans if necessary," said Nevis head coach Scott Kramer, whose team officially ended the season with a 24-4 record. "We had a meeting with our kids and it was really disappointing. Getting to the state tournament is a dream for kids and it is especially frustrating for us as we really liked our chances in the title game after getting to this point. I can't speak for the kids, but the initial feeling is that we have been cheated out of our opportunity. Having coached a long time, these opportunities don't just happen by accident. Coaches know how tough it is to get to the state tournament and now that we are on the doorstep, it is frustrating to not even get the chance to cap our season and fulfill our goal of getting to Williams Arena. I told the players that we had a great season, but I don't know when this is really going to fully sink in."
That was the start of more disappointment for high school athletes.
The MSHSL followed by canceling the entire spring sports season on April 23. That meant Park Rapids athletes would not get the opportunity to compete in baseball, golf, softball, and track and field.
“I think most of us anticipated this day would come, but continued to hope that it would not. It is heartbreaking for all of our kids, parents, coaches and community,” said Jeremy Nordick, the activities director at Park Rapids. “We have to trust that our leaders are making the right decisions for us to forge ahead safely.”
“It’s very sad, but to be honest I fully expected it with the situation our world finds itself in currently. I continually think about everything that school-based activities bring to the lives of our students, their families, our schools and our communities and how all of that has been put on hold. We continuously are teaching and learning life lessons about winning and losing and now all of our participants, coaches, staff, schools and communities are learning lessons about a pandemic,” said Bryan Wormley, the activities director at Nevis. “I fully support our state, the MSHSL and our school in all of our actions to look out for the safety and best interests of our students, coaches, staff, schools and communities. As far as activities being postponed and now canceled, it’s just been devastating.”
“When I heard the season had been canceled, I wasn't entirely surprised. Although it was a very difficult decision to be made by the MSHSL, I feel that it was the right thing to do for the health and safety of our communities,” said Don Donarski, the activities director at Menahga. “This entire experience is one for the ages. My coaches and I feel horrible for all of our students and in particular, the student athletes. These kids are missing out on the opportunities that sports provide along with the life lessons. I often tell kids to participate in as much as you can while you are in high school because once you have graduated, you will never get these opportunities again.”
Restrictions eased up in the summer when golf courses were allowed to open and amateur baseball teams were allowed to play. American Legion baseball canceled the season, but Park Rapids was able to have a season playing a Senior Babe Ruth schedule.
On April 17, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order allowing golf courses in Minnesota to open. That was more than two weeks ahead of the original target date of May 4 for golf courses in the state to start taking tee times.
“Honestly, I was in utter shock. I thought there was no way we would be open before May 4. I didn’t even think that would happen. I was thinking we wouldn’t be open until the first part of June,” said Tadd Usher, the general manager at Headwaters Golf Club. “It was really frustrating not knowing when we could open. We wait all winter for spring so we can get out and golf. Our members were anxious to get out here. It was pretty amazing news.”
The members of the Park Rapids Esox amateur baseball team were also anxious to return to the diamond. The amateur baseball season started on June 21.
“It felt great to finally be back out there with the guys. A spring without baseball was no fun at all. I couldn't have imagined having a summer without it as well,” said Nick Jasmer, who started the season opener in left field and also is the head coach of the Menahga baseball team. “I believe it was important to get baseball back up and playing. Baseball can be a big outlet for a lot of people, including myself. It is a great chance to get out, enjoy the nice weather and have some fun. It was a great day to play ball.”
“It’s nice to be back,” said Riley Massie, the lead-off hitter and starting center fielder. “Honestly, as more and more time passed, I thought there would be no season.”
“It feels good to be back,” said starting second baseman Cody Schirmers. “It was a little dicey for a while whether we’d play or not this summer. It’s nice getting the boys back together.”
“I honestly didn’t think we’d have baseball this summer,” said shortstop Jed Ryan. “It feels pretty good. It brings back a little bit of normalcy. It feels like summer.”
Park Rapids ended up posting a 4-8 record during the three-week Senior Babe Ruth baseball season.
“Overall, our summer season was a success. Our record isn't going to show what progress we made this year, but progress we made nonetheless,” said Kevin Murphy, who coached the Park Rapids Senior Babe Ruth team and was scheduled to serve as the new head coach of the Park Rapids high school team before that season was canceled. “The main goal of this summer baseball schedule was to get experience for our ball players and that was certainly accomplished. We had a lot of talent on our team and it was great to get some baseball this summer to work on improving our skills and getting prepared for next season. I'm very excited for the future of Park Rapids baseball. We have a lot of potential and I can't wait to see what we are capable of in a regular season.”
COVID-19 also impacted the fall high school sports season.
For Park Rapids, cross country, girls swimming and diving, and girls tennis started as usual with some restrictions. Cross country was limited to competition with only two other teams while girls swimming and diving and girls tennis could only compete in dual meets. The Panthers competed in eight meets (including the Section 8A meet) for cross country, 14 duals (going 5-9) in girls tennis, and nine meets (including the Section 8A meet) in girls swimming and diving. Park Rapids had a 6-1 record in dual meets in the pool.
“Cross country is a sport that can be held with restrictions, so I was hoping (the MSHSL) could make it happen,” said Park Rapids head cross country coach Pat Richard. “I tried to stay as positive as I could and trust that a decision that was best for the kids would be made. I was excited and the kids were excited when we heard the news. We were all glad to get after it.”
“We are approaching the season as a time to continue to improve, grow and enjoy every moment on the court because you never know when it might be taken away,” said Park Rapids head girls tennis coach Brianne Morris. “It’s just nice to be back. We are all doing our best to enjoy every minute we can on the court because we know not everyone is able to play right now.”
“It feels good to be back in the pool. It’s been challenging with all the guidelines and protocols, but we’re happy to be in the water,” said Park Rapids head girls swimming and diving coach Todd Fritze. “About a month ago I wasn’t sure what the future held. We know things can change at any time, so we’re grateful that we get an opportunity to swim right now. We’re excited to be back in the water.”
Football and volleyball were originally scheduled to be moved from the fall to the spring. However, the MSHSL changed that decision, allowing football and volleyball to be played in the fall. Football was allowed six regular-season games while volleyball was limited to a maximum of 14 regular-season matches.
“I had a hunch that the MSHSL would push through on this decision,” said Nordick, who also serves as the Panthers’ head football coach. “I was very excited to hear the news. I know that all of our coaches and kids were hopeful to have a fall season.”
“My reaction was mixed. I am excited these girls don't have to wait until March with many unknowns of what kind of season they would get to have. It's here,” said Park Rapids head volleyball coach Christine Sauer. “I'm also a bit overwhelmed. Adding a very short notice of conducting a fall season means a lot more planning needs to be done. I am so excited for the opportunity to have the season, but know there is a lot of work to be done for it to run smoothly. There is no doubt that this season is going to be an amazing and memorable experience for the girls.”
The Panthers finished with a 1-6 record in football, including a 57-12 loss to Perham in the Section 8AAA quarterfinals. Park Rapids compiled an 0-10 record in volleyball before that season was canceled.
Gov. Walz canceled the final rounds of the section football playoffs and all of the volleyball playoffs as both sports didn’t hold state tournaments. That mandate carried over to the start of winter sports, which was delayed until 2021. That means boys and girls basketball, gymnastics, boys hockey, boys swimming and diving, and wrestling will have shortened seasons beginning with practices on Jan. 4 and competition starting on Jan. 14 with the possibility of state competition still in doubt.
“I had mixed emotions. I know our coaches and athletes were ready to go and were hoping to start (Dec. 21). 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,” said Nordick. “I know everyone involved in all our winter sports is beyond excited to get back competing again.”