Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide dialogue and an option for the Minnesota State High School League to consider when formulating a plan for a fall football season in 2020. The plan does take into consideration the inherent risks of playing during the unfortunate COVID-19 Pandemic and hopes to remain empathetic to those at risk or impacted by the severity of the virus. At the time this article is written, there remains a great deal of uncertainty and the situation remains fluid until Governor Tim Walz’s announcement on the plan for Minnesota Schools for the 2020-2021 school year and the corresponding MSHSL decision. This plan I present remains one of many potential options for leagues to consider during this unprecedented time.
With all of the potential rumors and ideas floating around in the state of Minnesota and around the United States, it has become very difficult to decipher credible information and viable alternatives when it comes to deciding the fate of fall athletics in 2020. I think it is fair to say that no matter how it looks or how long it lasts, fans, families, coaches, and players are hopeful for a safe and realistic return to fall athletics if it is possible. However, implementing a safe and realistic return to play has proved to be increasingly difficult with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 virus continuing to limit any attempts at planning for a future. At any rate, I have studied several plans that have been presented by various states and have analyzed the recommendations passed down by health/state officials in the hopes of developing a plan that would provide an opportunity for a return to sports this fall. This has served as a therapeutic exercise for me, but also has given me an opportunity to hopefully serve our players, coaches, and families who wish to have a voice advocating for a return to play this fall. My plan is far from perfect and is not without its own risks, uncertainty, and compromises. What my plan is rooted in, however, is hope and optimism. Hope that athletics can once again provide a positive learning experience for athletes, coaches, and communities and optimism that if developed & adhered in accordance with realistic health & safety guidelines, it can be put into action this fall.
At the heart of any plan is the true purpose that guides all athletics and that is the meaningful relationships and transformative experiences that athletics provide our student-athletes. Unfortunately, coaches advocating for athletics during these trying times have been labeled as “selfish” and “short-sided”, willing to risk anything “at the expense of the health and safety of athletes” merely to fulfill a hobby or interest. I can unequivocally state that for the majority of coaches in our profession, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For coaches like myself, the experience of building relationships, teaching transferable life lessons, and empowering student-athletes is our calling. It is part of our purpose in life and to have that privilege and opportunity removed from our school year is something we are willing to fight for. This is not in disrespect of those who are at risk or fighting this ugly pandemic, but rather to glorify the true purpose of our coaching profession and highlight the transformational impact of athletics on the holistic development of our student-athletes. I would never advocate for a situation that would put our athletes, their families, or our community’s health or well-being at risk. My hope is to use the challenging circumstances presented and provide a safe and equitable return to play solution for all. There is nothing political about this, nor something meant to create controversy. This is about the players, coaches, families, and communities and the transformative power of athletics. As such, I hope this plan provides a pathway that decision makers at the MSHSL can use when formulating a plan for football and replicate for other sports.
My plan for the 2020 Football Season in the state of Minnesota will require some cooperation, flexibility, and change. The first will be doing away with our current district scheduling model in favor of a section football scheduling agreement for one season. Before I go any further, I understand that sections in the state of Minnesota vary in size and below I have explained how the scheduling will work for each sized section. I’ve also included potential changes the league could consider to show that realigning of sections could work, but my proposition is merely an example. The second will be reducing the schedule to three regular season games and one one “final” game for a total of a 4 game minimum season for all teams in the state. The process of how these games will be scheduled and determined will also be explained in more detail below. The rationale for having fewer games is centered on the principle of having two weeks in between games throughout the regular season and playoffs. This is done for two reasons: 1) to reduce the amount of exposure and potential spread of the virus in the event of a positive test result and 2) to reduce the amount of time missed by the athlete/team in the event that a team were to have to quarantine due to an outbreak or positive test as the current guidelines suggest 14 days to quarantine after the onset of symptoms. This would hopefully limit the amount of missed games for a player to one in the event of a potential positive test diagnosis, but also allow for teams and communities to deal with the healing of the infected individuals while reducing the inclination of rushing them back to play. With that in mind, my proposal for the upcoming season is as follows:
1) Section football for regular season scheduling with a maximum of 3 regular season games. In order to accomplish this, all sections must be redesigned to have either 4, 5, 6, or 8 teams in it. This would require a reconfiguring of sections for one season, which I would leave up to the MSHSL.
-For sections with 4 teams, each team will play all 3 teams in their section for their schedule and the top 2 teams would then play at the end for the right to go to state. The remaining two teams in the section would then play one another for their final game of the season (i.e. like a bowl game of sorts).
-In sections with 5 teams, teams will play a total of 4 games with no section final game and 1 champion determined by criteria chosen by the section coaches (i.e. record and then any tiebreaking criteria if necessary). Being that there is an odd number of teams, there would need to be a Week 0 game in order to meet the scheduling requirements and include a bye for each team.
-In a section of 6 teams, the section would be divided into 2 divisions of 3 based on geography (established by the MSHSL or section reps) and each team would play their 2 divisional opponents and 1 crossover at random draw for their 3 regular season games. Afterwards, the top 2 teams would play for the right to go to state while the remaining teams match with another team from the opposite division for their final game.
-In a section of 8, the section would be divided into two 4 team divisions and play all 3 teams in their division for their 3 games. Afterwards, the top 2 teams (1 from each division) would play for the right to go to state and the rest of the teams would match with an opponent from the opposite division for their final game.
2) All games would be spaced 2 weeks apart beginning on Aug. 22. This is done in order to be able to identify those who were infected within the 2 weeks between games, lessen the need for more frequent testing (as teams would only need to be tested directly before games and a few days afterwards), to allow for full/adequate time for recovery of those who test positive, or hopefully to limit players testing positive to only missing 1 game if testing positive in between games and recovering within a 2-3 week time frame.
The regular season would then be (Note: the games are scheduled for Saturdays to maximize the testing window of available normal “business days” during the work week, but could certainly play on Fridays instead):
Week 0: Aug 15
Week 1: Aug 22
Week 2: Sept. 5
Week 3: Sept 19
Week 4/Championship week: Oct. 3.
State Rd 1: Oct. 17
State Semi-finals: Oct 31
State Finals Nov. 14.
Potential Example of Adjustments to Sections for 2020 Season Only
Section 5 Floodwood to Section 7
Section 5 would then have 5 teams and Section 7 would have 8 teams
Alden Conger to Section 1; Section 1=8 teams
MCW to Section 2; Section 2=8 teams
Lake Park Audubon to Section 8; Section 8=8 teams
Browerville to Section 6; Section 6=8 teams
MACCRAY to Section 4; Section 4=8 teams
RTR to Section 5; Section 5=8 teams
Section 3 would then become 5 teams
Maple Lake and Howard Lake/Waverly/Winsted to Section 5; Section 5=8 teams
Section 5 is now at 8 teams and Section 4 is now at 5 teams
Buffalo down to Section 7 in Class 5A; Section 7= 6 teams
Section 6 in 6A would now have 6 teams with the loss of Buffalo. Class 6A would now have 30 teams instead of 31 for their Post-Season which could be reconfigured however they would like for a state tournament. One suggestion would be to have each section champion from the regular season earn a state bid with two “at-large” teams qualifying for the tournament based on some pre-determined criteria or having a state tournament of 6 teams with the top two ranked teams getting byes into the semi-finals and the other 4 teams playing a quaterfinal round game.
Written by Brian Wille