Split verdict for fall sports, dates set in Ely

Some activities will go on, but football, volleyball will move to spring; Ely sign-ups this week

The landscape of high school fall sports has changed dramatically, in Ely and across the state.
While some activities will start as scheduled next week, both football and volleyball will be moved to the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, following action Tuesday by the Minnesota State High School League.
In a series of rulings that sent shockwaves across the high school sports community, the MSHSL board voted to allow boys and girls cross country, girls swimming and soccer to proceed during the fall season, with some restrictions.
But both football and volleyball, which are considered higher-risk activities than the sports allowed to proceed, will move to a condensed spring season tentatively set for mid-March through early-May.
The traditional spring sports, such as baseball, softball, track and golf, will slide back to a fourth activity season that will run from May, past the end of the school year and perhaps into July.
In Ely, plans for fall athletics have moved into high gear with the school set to hold its fall sign-up and registration meeting on consecutive days - aimed at spreading out attendance and allowing for social distancing.
The registration sessions are set for outdoors at Veterans Memorial Field as follows:
• Boys cross country, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 6 p.m.;
• Girls cross country, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 7 p.m.;
• Girls swimming and girls soccer (co-operatives with Northeast Range and Mesabi East, respectively), Thursday, Aug. 13, 6 p.m.;
The meetings and MSHSL action earlier in the week provide a jumpstart of sorts for activities that have been on hold since mid-March, when schools across the state were closed to in-person learning because of COVID-19.
But with a new school year approaching and students set to return to the classrooms and their campuses (see related story) in many parts of the state, the MSHSL has moved toward a resumption of activities, with task forces formed this summer to make recommendations.
That led to Tuesday’s board meeting and the series of decisions that have been a flashpoint for discussion.
“The MSHSL was in a no-win situation and regardless of what they did this week, some people weren’t going to be happy,” said Tom Coombe, athletic director at Ely High School. “Here in Ely, we have to make the best of the hand that’s been dealt to us, whether we like it or not.”
Ely’s cross country teams, led by longtime coach Jayne Dusich, will start practice Aug. 17 in a 2020 season that will be altered significantly.
While the cross country season will go on, meets will be limited to no more than three teams, which figures to force major changes to a schedule filled with meets with numerous teams.
A schedule is expected to be finalized in the next two weeks.
The swimming team, which is based in Babbitt out of Northeast Range High School, will no longer have meets with more than two teams, and practices will begin Aug. 17 as well. The team is dominated by Ely-based swimmers and Cheri Debeltz takes over this fall as head coach.
Ely also added a girls soccer cooperative with Mesabi East this year, while the high school dance team enters the new season with new leadership, as Desirae Cram has been hired to take over as head coach following the resignation of Amanda Vanderbeek. That season will be delayed until winter.
It’s a whole new world for Ely’s volleyball and football programs, with the seasons on hold until March.
Those moves prompted the most reaction as well as the most division among MSHSL board members.
An initial vote to move the volleyball season to the spring failed on a 9-9 tie vote, and a subsequent vote for a fall season failed 9-9.
Board members eventually reconsidered and selected a spring season for volleyball, approving it 11-7, with football following on a 12-6 split.
Discussion centered on safety considerations for both sports, as well as indoor restrictions that would prevent fans from attending volleyball games.
Minnesota is the only regional state to move football to the spring, as neighboring Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin are all proceeding with plans for fall seasons.
The moves pose a unique set of challenges for both the volleyball and football programs in Ely.
Volleyball moves to the spring and a time period dominated usually by non-school Junior Olympic competition, and a shortened season will be sandwiched between girls basketball in the winter and the traditional spring sports in May.
Football, meanwhile, also moves to March where practice is likely to begin indoors and the start of the season figures to be hampered by snow-covered or frozen fields.
Coombe said he believes it’s likely that northeastern Minnesota teams will be forced to play on artificial turf fields, such as those at Aurora, Mt. Iron and Duluth, in order to compete.
“There aren’t many years you’re going to be able to play football games at the end of March or much of April on grass fields in our part of the state,” said Coombe. “That’s a tremendous challenge to having high school football in that timeframe.”
Football and volleyball teams will be allowed to practice in the fall, but it’s not clear if Ely’s teams will do so.