Anything but idle during the current pause on winter sports, a Minnesota State High School League task force has finalized scenarios for the return of both the season and state tournaments.
On Thursday, the league’s board of directors is expected to vote on a recommendation to approve starting the winter sports season Dec. 21, three days after Gov. Tim Walz’s four-week pause is scheduled to end.
While some school districts already have decided to postpone winter sports until after Jan. 1, the league is seeking to be ready Dec. 21, keeping it in concert with youth sports.
The board is also set to discuss models for state tournaments, the traditional season-ending events that were canceled this fall.
Both recommendations come from the league’s Return to Participation Task Force. The group is a mix of 15 activities directors and region representatives from around the state. They began meeting weekly in the fall to navigate the fast and fluid changes to sports schedules triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The task force met Monday to choose from four models for having winter and spring sports. Members broke into four small groups, three of which recommended the model to start winter sports Dec. 21 and conclude state tournaments by the first full week of April.
Dean Haugo, a task force member and Moorhead activities director, previously said he regretted the loss of fall state tournaments.
“We should have had them as an option instead of canceling them early,” Haugo said at the Nov. 12 meeting, where discussions intensified. “It’s easier to cancel them later than realizing we should try to put them back on.”
The recommended model means all winter sports would lose one week from their traditionally scheduled amount, with both genders of basketball and hockey losing two weeks (from 18 to 16). In October, the board approved a 30% reduction in winter sports games and meets.
“In talking with coaches, they want games more than weeks,” said Russ Reetz, task force member and Prior Lake activities director.
The task force’s work simultaneously involves winter and spring sports, given the potential overlap of student participants. Indoor facility use is also a concern, especially in late March and early April when weather is unpredictable. The coronavirus wiped out spring sports last year, so maintaining a full-length spring season in 2021 is a priority.
This recommended model has most spring sports starting the last week of March, with normal season lengths, and state tournaments ending by June 19.
In terms of the postseason, small group feedback supported shrinking the section playoffs from two weeks to one. This allows some sports an additional week in the regular season for flexibility in case of COVID-19 delays. Other sports, meanwhile, have one less week of overlap with the spring season.
The task force’s recommended winter and spring schedule information is based on draft documents that are subject to league review and adjustments.
Another working document of keen interest to winter sports athletes, coaches and fans is the league’s “State Tournament Road Map,” designed to identify options and models for hosting winter state tournaments.
The document was developed by Craig Perry, a former league associate director being paid as an independent contractor.
“We recognize how valuable and important having a state tournament is,” Perry said during the Nov. 12 introduction of the road map document.
Perry’s work attempts to balance the desire to capture the traditional state tournament experience with current restrictions on attendance. Concerns include health and safety guidelines, venue availability and costs, and revenue streams. The league dropped state tournaments from its 2020-21 budget, shrinking it to $5 million.
In October, the league nearly approved a “super regional” model for state tournaments, allowing for culminating events while mitigating travel. Likewise, the league’s ‘‘road map’’ allows for tournament format options.
Jill Johnson, Return to Participation Task Force chair and Waconia activities director, said during the Nov. 12 meeting, “It’s exciting to think that there might be something at the end of the tunnel for winter.”
David La Vaque is a high school sports reporter for the Star Tribune.
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