Area teams ready to get rolling, tackle changes

At long last, the winter sports season is to begin. Practices for all sports began Monday with games set to start Thursday.

While lots of coaches and athletes are excited to get things underway finally, it hasn’t always been easy.

“It has been brutal waiting, but it’s the same boat every coach has been in and we were doing it for a reason – the health and safety of a lot of people,” Delano girls basketball coach Seth Potter said. “The fact that we’re giving it a shot though has the coaching staff and athletes thrilled.”

While the wait for the green light has been hard for most coaches and athletes, it’s been even harder for Dassel-Coakto’s Tony Dehler who is taking over the program for the first time this season.

“It has been extremely hard to play the wait and see game with our season,” Dehler said. “Especially for me, coming into my first year as the head coach at Dassel-Cokato, I wanted to get started ASAP. I am extremely excited about the athletes that we have in our program and the new systems we are implementing.  I think our style will be fun to play and watch.”

High school sports were put on pause back in November due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. After nearly 45 days of no sports, the Minnesota State High School League and the Minnesota Department of Health allowed teams to begin practice Monday with games beginning the following week. While official practices haven’t begun until this week, some area coaches have been doing all they could to help get the kids ready for action.

In his first year as head coach, Dehler has been doing all he can to make sure his guys are ready to roll and know what to expect when the season begins.

“We have done a lot in advance of the season,” Dehler said. “We did virtual practices three times a week where we talked through and diagramed the new offensive and defensive systems we are implementing this year.  Although it wasn’t ideal to not be in the gym practicing, it presented us with a rare opportunity to focus on the xs and os, so now we can hit the ground running a little faster than if we had to stop and completely explain everything in the gym.”

Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling coach Joe Puncochar has had his athletes working out on their own leading up to the season.

“We had several guys doing individual workouts and recording their results since Dec.1,” Puncochar said. “We met in small groups with our athletes for personal well checks and to help motivate each other to be ready. We had good turnouts for these virtual workouts and many of our guys are excited to get going in person.”

Wrestling is one sport where a mask will not be required when practicing or competing. That has some coaches hoping for a fairly normal-looking season.

“It’s going to look mostly normal,” Puncochar said. “There are a few protocols that we need to put in place but much of the sanitizing and hygiene stuff is what we have been doing forever anyway.  We can only have two dates a week and no tournaments so that will be a little different.  However, we have a strong schedule planned to face some of the top teams in Minnesota so our wrestlers will get plenty of competition.”

With Puncochar looking forward to a somewhat normal season, he knows there will be challenges. Conditioning will be a focus early on, but he also knows that several of his wrestlers participated in fall sports which is a plus.

“The challenges I think right away will be adjusting to some of the new routines,” Puncochar said. “After such a long layoff, we will have guys that are not ready to compete at a high level. Our training will have to focus on increasing our cardiovascular conditioning maybe now more than in the past.  However, we have a lot of multi-sport athletes who played a fall sport and have been staying moderately active during the shutdowns.”

While wrestling may appear to have a semi-normal season on paper, Watertown-Mayer wrestling coach Kurt Becker knows how fast things can change.

“We are hopeful it will be a complete season, but we all know everything can change in the blink of an eye,” Becker said. “We are just grateful for every minute we get together.  We know there may be hiccups and interruptions.”

The Royals return a veteran group of wrestlers from a season ago. With the late start and short time to get ready for competition, Becker sees that as a strength this year.

“I think we are fortunate to have a pretty veteran team,” Becker said. “Even though the majority of our team is underclassmen, most of them have pretty extensive varsity experience.  We have a great culture in place and I am confident the guys will come in ready to work hard.  The biggest challenge will be shaking off the rust and getting into shape for our first match which is against section rival Scott West.”

Other sports that won’t require a mask during competition this winter are gymnastics, swimming and diving, and cheerleading. Sports such as basketball and hockey will be required to wear masks during practices and games. States like California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin have already been playing most sports in masks.

The idea of playing in masks has raised some caution from players and parents across the state. While not ideal by any means, Potter knows it will take some time to get used to things.

“The mask portion is going to be an interesting one, but we will modify and adapt,” Potter said. “The safety of our players and staff will be our main priority. It will be a lot of trial and error and we’ll just take it one day at a time, but overall we’re just happy we’re getting the opportunity.”

Games are set to begin Jan. 14. That will give teams eight days of practice to get ready for their first games if they chose to play on the first available day.

“For the coaches and the athletes, having a season means so much to us,” Potter said. “While happy for all, extremely happy our seniors will get a shot at having a season.”


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