The “abnormal” fall season

Practices get underway for cross country, girls swimming teams

by Tom Coombe
Ely high school athletes mixed typical with atypical, the usual with a few new twists, normal and abnormal this week.
Mid-August brings the start of fall sports practices and an early sign that summer is nearing its end, and that played out Monday morning across the state including near the U.S. Forest Service headquarters, where Ely’s boys and girls cross country teams gathered officially for the first time this season.
Down the road in Babbitt, members of the combined Northeast Range/Ely girls swimming team dove into the pool to open the 2020-21 campaign.
One Ely athlete also ventured off to Aurora, where the girls soccer team hosted by Mesabi East began its workouts.
But one of the few things typical about the workouts was the calendar, as high school sports began on time but amid strange circumstances, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was only two weeks earlier that Minnesota athletes learned there would be a fall season at all, with some sports starting on time while two others - football and volleyball - were moved to the spring.
The fall sports that did begin on time are subject to numerous restrictions, ranging from shortened seasons to daily health screenings, and mandates related to mask usage indoors.
The result was an unusual start to the fall season.
“It’s an adjustment,” said Cheri DeBeltz, head coach of the NRE swim team. “There are obviously different restrictions in the pool as far as social distancing and how we operate on a daily basis.”
It was a similar scenario outside this week as longtime head coach Jayne Dusich welcomed about 45 participants on the cross country teams.
One constant prior to each workout are daily temperature checks and health screenings, while the boys and girls teams are split into smaller “pods” during practice to limit interaction.
“We’ve been spread out more,” said Dusich, who has led the cross country program since its inception in the mid-1990s. “We are in different groups, and even besides running, coming back we stay in smaller groups where before we would be in one big circle.”
Dusich and assistant Megan Devine have been aided by several volunteers in keeping the groups separated and allowing for more distancing.
Both Ely teams enter with high hopes and seem excited to be back on the trails.
“These kids trained all summer so they’re ready to race,” said Dusich. “It will be different, but they’re still going to race.”
Cross country teams are limited to seven regular season meets and Ely’s schedule is still a work in progress.
The first meet is likely Sept. 10, according to Dusich, and Ely is expected to host a meet Oct. 2 at the golf course. Meets are limited to three teams because of the pandemic and it’s not yet clear if there will be postseason competition.
Similar restrictions are in place in swimming, with the number of regular season meets reduced, triangulars and large meets scrapped and only dual events allowed.
The season will also end in mid-October rather than extend into November.
Mask rules also have been a major adjustment for the swimmers, with face coverings required except when the girls are in the water.
“Movements around the pool deck are different and we are keeping the girls apart and in masks,” said DeBeltz. “The girls are understanding. It’s an adjustment but once they’re in the water, once we’re moving it’s pretty similar. The girls are excited and happy to have a season.”
NRE is set to open its season Sept. 1 with a home meet against International Falls, but at least for now, meets will have an unfamiliar feel.
Restrictions on visitors to school buildings mean that spectators will not be allowed, and attendance will be limited to teams, officials and school personnel.