With the recent decision by the Minnesota State High School League to allow winter sports to take place, local coaches have some concerns, but are ultimately pleased to see student-athletes getting the chance to play.

“Finding out that our kids would be able to take the mat was an exciting moment,” Road Crew coach Travis Hoffarth said. “I immediately relayed the news to our parents and contacted a company for new singlets.”

The MHSHL voted earlier this month to allow winter sports to take place, but with a schedule of games reduced by 30% and no more than two teams per competition, or three in the case of wrestling, dance and skiing. However, no state tournaments will take place.

“I know some people might be upset with losing out on tournaments, but we have to take what we can get at this point in order to get back to some normalcy,” Hoffarth said.

The MSHSL initially voted to move football and volleyball into early spring for this year in the hope of preventing the spread of COVID-19. They ultimately reversed that decision with caveats similar to what is proposed for the winter.

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“I think we just have to weather the storm to get through this as a group,” Northern Lakes boys hockey coach Craig Larson said. “If we don’t, and something else happens, then we don't have a season at all. We're pretty grateful.”

Fans will be allowed in the stands in the same style as current volleyball games - no more than two fans per participant and no greater than 25% capacity or 250 total spectators. Hoffarth said the limited crowd may take some of the luster out of wrestling meets, but having parents in the stands for the athletes’ memorable moments should be good enough.

For basketball, coaches feel that a lack of fans will have a negative effect on the notion of a home-court advantage.

“I think the biggest change will be finding energy and swinging momentum without crowd noise and energy,” Patriot boys’ basketball coach Rich Spiczka said. “It is a huge benefit when you get things rolling a certain direction to have your crowd feeding you that energy, so that will be different.”

Pequot Lakes girls’ basketball coach Brian Lempola said his team will have to “create our own energy” without being able to rely on a large crowd.

Larson doesn’t expect to see much of a change in dynamic for the Lightning at the Breezy Point Ice Arena.

“Quite frankly, 250 people in a rink like ours is a pretty good crowd,” Larson said. “If I was a high school hockey player in Grand Rapids - that sees probably 1,500 to 2,000 fans for a home game - that might seem a little weird. It really depends on your hockey community … Basketball players are playing on the same night as hockey players, so your fans are always split, so I don’t think it’s really going to be a big deal."

COVID-19 presents a more unique challenge for the hockey programs, with both the boys’ and the girls’ programs being co-ops, the teams have to look at cases for three or four different school districts, as a positive test in one school district could impact the others.

“It is really probably going to shut down our whole program if anybody gets sick, and that can be devastating,” Larson said.

Another concern is the potential overlap of the late-start fall seasons and the winter seasons, as a successful football or volleyball season would mean student-athletes who also play a winter sport would not have any break between the two seasons. Spiczka said that would be a good problem to have - hoping his athletes who also play football would find some success on the gridiron this year - and those athletes would be allowed necessary breaks, while Lempola said a lengthy volleyball season may have an impact on practices and playing time.

“We'll have to be very conscious of workloads and practice loads and things like that throughout our season, for sure,” Lempola said. “We’ll have planned off-days and shooting days and those types of things.

“I'm just glad for the kids that they have that to look forward to, and we're looking forward to it as coaches," he said.

Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or dan.determan@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.