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John’s Journal: Football Makes A Quiet Return

Four Saturday Games Kick Off The 2020 Season

Posted: Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 2:42 PM

CANNON FALLS – The final score on a sunny Saturday afternoon was Cannon Falls 27, Pine Island 18. It was quiet. But it was football and that was enough.

The matchup between the Bombers and Panthers was one of four games Saturday that kicked off a Minnesota high school football season like no other. For a time, there was to be no football or volleyball until sometime next winter/spring. But on Sept. 21 the MSHSL board of directors reversed itself and revived those sports, with a six-game football regular season. The four games Saturday were essentially Zero Week contests involving teams that needed to start early to fill their six games.

Original expectations were for the first games to be held Oct. 9, and that’s when teams across the state will indeed play. But almost everything is upside down and inside out during the age of Covid-19, so why not this?

The Pine Island-Cannon Falls game was booked only six days before kickoff. Before the 2020 season came back to life, all football teams were given the option to practice this fall. So the Zero Week teams had filled the required three weeks of practice and were cleared to play Saturday.

“We were taking advantage of our fall practices and had been working towards being ready for this opportunity,” Pine Island coach John Stapleton told me during a postgame phone conversation (I'm doing my best to avoid in-person interviews during the pandemic). “We’re very lucky and very fortunate to have that. I’m glad to be out there. I’m excited and the kids were excited, too.”

Saturday’s other scores were …

--West Central Area/Ashby 30, Otter Tail Central 18

--Crookston 14, Roseau 10

--Barnesville 36, Pillager 6

For Covid-19 reasons, the Pillager-Barnesville game was in danger of being called off as late as 10 p.m. Friday. A Barnesville senior captain had been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus and missed the game despite having no symptoms. Pillager faced similar issues and had several players who didn’t make the trip to Barnesville.

At all four games, the atmosphere was not what anyone is used to. With a state-mandated outdoor limit of 250 spectators, the noise level was way down. Schools are issuing tickets in various ways. Cannon Falls and Pine Island split the 250 tickets in half; Cannon Falls’ tickets went to parents of football players and cheerleaders, with the remaining 23 tickets going to members of the senior class via a lottery. 

One-hundred-eighty ticket holders came through the gate at Cannon Falls (everyone was required to wear a facemask), using lawn chairs or standing because there were no bleachers on site. Others who had tickets (and some who didn’t) watched from behind a fence surrounding John Burch Park, many in an elevated spot with a nice view of the action.

Barnesville, where a thousand people or more normally watch home games, provided two tickets to every player and coach. Pillager was allotted 120 tickets, but with their reduced roster and travel time of almost two hours, only 56 tickets were used by Huskies fans. Barnesville followed protocols, including separate entrances for fans from each school and separate restroom facilities. But it was so quiet.

“To say a football stadium can only have 250 people is borderline ridiculous,” said Barnesville coach Bryan Strand, who also is the high school principal.

In Cannon Falls, three elevated deer stands were placed behind the Bombers bench – in spots normally occupied by bleachers -- for use by coaches on headsets and video cameras. The football field is also the outfield for local baseball, and on the game’s first touchdown (a 4-yard run by Cannon Falls senior Marcus Banks), dust flew from behind third base.

Public-address announce Rod Johnson, a Cannon Falls resident who was the PA voice of the Timberwolves at Target Center from 1996-2017, repeatedly reminded the fans about socially distancing. As the end of the game neared, he informed the crowd of the postgame procedures: the fans would have to exit immediately, go to their vehicles and not stand around expecting hugs and high fives from the teams. Once the field was clear of spectators, both teams walked quietly to their buses. The Bombers and Panthers players and coaches all wore masks, as they had done upon arrival.  

There were no loud noises after the game, which pretty much matched the sound level during the game.

“It was almost like a seventh- and eighth-grade game or a JV game more than a varsity game,” Stapleton said. “But that’s kind of fun, too. It allows you as a coach to focus more on the kids and not all the other hoopla that sometimes goes on.”

Cannon Falls coach Dan Meyers said the players can work on raising the noise level.

“It was quiet. We need to talk to our boys; we have 50 kids on the sidelines and they need to bring that atmosphere themselves," he said. "We’ll discuss that, ‘You guys need to create that atmosphere.’ ”

The Bombers finished 8-2 last season, which ended in the Class 3A state quarterfinals. They have seven new starters on each side of the ball this year.

“We’d been telling the boys to be ready because you never know what’s going to happen in 2020,” Meyers said. “I was thinking last week that this was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had and we hadn’t even played a game yet. It was the roller-coaster of what will happen next. Until we finally kicked off.”

Several hours before kickoff Saturday, Stapleton arrived at school to begin game-day preparations. He ran into a friend, out for a bike ride, who used to be on the Panthers coaching staff.

“He asked how things were going. I said, ‘We have a game today.’ He was not aware of that.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts.

“We’d been telling the boys to be ready because you never know what’s going to happen in 2020. I was thinking last week that this was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had and we hadn’t even played a game yet. It was the roller-coaster of what will happen next. Until we finally kicked off.”
Cannon Falls football coach Dan Meyers

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MSHSL Connect, Oct. 2020