Small towns feel the hurt of little-to-no high school sports

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School is starting and the trimmings — for many — were the best part.

They were highlighted by sports offerings, with volleyball and football typically creating the biggest buzz. Mabel’s Steam Engine Days, from Sept. 10-13, had been another annual crowd pleaser and a nod to summer being on its way out and school in full swing.

This fall, however, things are different, and not in a good way. The COVID-19 pandemic has devoured almost all of those trimmings. The pandemic yanked spring sports away for Minnesota high school athletes a few months ago, and now it’s worked its way into leveling much of what would have been offered this fall.

“You go to school now, and there’s just not a lot to look forward to,” Houston senior and three-sport athlete Becca Rostad said. “Before, we were thinking about the football games, and the volleyball games, and Homecoming. But yeah, going to school without sports is tough. It’s an empty fall.”

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Nowhere is the emptiness wrought by COVID-19 being felt in a bigger way than the high schools of small, southeastern Minnesota school districts such as Houston and Mabel-Canton. Sports enthusiasts in those communities — ranging from players, to coaches, to fans — have never been through anything like this.

At Mabel-Canton, when it comes to sports, there will be no games of any kind these next few months. At Houston, there will be soccer only, though just four boys and four girls from the school are a part of a co-op with Caledonia. The Minnesota State High School League voted on Aug. 4 to move volleyball and football to spring. That’s left boys and girls soccer, girls swimming and diving, girls tennis, and boys and girls cross country as the only Minnesota sports with seasons this fall.

But in many of the smallest communities, soccer, swimming and tennis have never been offered.

At Mabel-Canton, there isn’t soccer or cross country, meaning the Cougars are 0-for-6 this year when it comes to fall sports. The only thing they’re left with are small windows of practice times in a variety of sports the next few months.

And to make matters even more melancholy, their beloved Steam Engine Days has taken a major hit due to COVID-19, with only a handful of events being offered for the celebration.

“This is a bummer,” Mabel-Canton athletic director and Hall of Fame volleyball coach Lonnie Morken said. “Going back to school in the fall, there was always a special sense of excitement with volleyball and football, and Steam Engine days, and Homecoming. But because of all the stuff going on (with COVID-19), this is going to be different.”

TRYING TO STAY UPBEAT

Morken’s mission now is to treat these setbacks with as much resolve and positivity as possible.

“It’s tough because a lot of our kids have friends in Iowa and Wisconsin where they are playing high school sports now,” Morken said. “But we have to stay positive and have faith in our medical professionals and confidence that they’re telling us not to play (is the right thing).”

The sliver of bright light that Morken is clinging to is the MSHSL having allowed teams in volleyball and football to have a stretch of practices in the coming weeks.

From Sept. 4 through Oct. 3, volleyball and football will be allowed 12 practice dates. After that, winter sports will be allowed 12, then spring sports will get 12.

“I’m glad that the MSHSL wanted to do that,” Morken said. “There have been studies showing signs of depression for kids who’ve missed on things like their spring season. This is not the same as being allowed actual competitions, or going to watch your team play against a rival in football or volleyball. But it is better than nothing.”

Dale Moga is in his first year as the Houston athletic director and his fifth year as the Hurricanes’ girls basketball coach. He too sees the pandemic having taken a toll on high school kids who want to get back to living more normal lives and to participate in sports.

But he’s detecting optimism from these teenagers. He sees it as they keep showing up twice a week for speed and agility workouts at 6:30 a.m. in the Houston gymnasium, all of them donning masks, as is required there.

They are forging ahead, bent on the idea that better days are coming and that come winter there will be seasons, though likely delayed ones.

“Our kids are grateful for what they can do right now,” Moga said. “Their spirits are high for sports returning sometime this winter, and for volleyball and football to be played in the spring. Our (students) are hungry for seasons to be played. And I know our girls basketball team is preparing like a normal season is going to happen.”

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