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John’s Journal: Memories And Lessons In A Strange Year

Relationships, Bonds And Hard Realities

Posted: Thursday, April 1, 2021 - 1:50 PM

The girls basketball team from Houston High School had a history-making year. The Hurricanes were undefeated in the regular season and swept four opponents to win the Class A Section 1 championship and advance to the state tournament for the first time in school history.

The season came to a close Tuesday at Mankato East with a 67-34 loss to perennial power Minneota in the state quarterfinals. But that didn’t diminish the Hurricanes’ accomplishments in this strange season of Covid-19. They were champions of the Southeast Conference and outscored their opponents by an average of 64-39.

The memories of the season, however, will extend far beyond the games and the success. I phoned Houston coach Dale Moga after he arrived home from the game in Mankato (in-person interviews are not allowed at postseason events due to Covid protocols) and asked what he will remember about this season in 20 years.

“Twenty years from now? I think just appreciation and the relationships that were built,” he said. “You kind of take it for granted when you see the kids every day. But when they’re at home working, you’re at home working, it’s not the same. In 20 years I’ll think about the relationships and the bonds that were created.”

That’s a common thread across Minnesota, for every team at every school in every sport and activity, going back to when activities resumed last fall.  … after spring sports were canceled in 2020. The bonds that have been built, the relationships forged, despite distance learning, Covid protocols and everything else that’s strange about this experience.

When Minneota traveled to Mankato to face Houston, the team rode a bus together for the first time all season. Imagine that; something so mundane as a bus ride seemed out of the ordinary during a season in which most players rode with parents to road games after health officials warned that gathering closely for extended periods in a bus was not optimal in the fight against Covid.

Minneota coach Chad Johnston was on the bus for the trip to Mankato, then joined his wife and kids in the family vehicle for the ride home. He also chatted with me on the phone after the game. Chad has a unique perspective on this year of Covid because he’s also the head football coach at Minneota.

The last time I talked with Chad in person was on Oct. 9, when Minneota opened the football season against MACCRAY in Maynard. I wrote this about that evening: The game was the same, and that says a lot because other things are not the same. Minneota had 36 players in uniform; four took the bus for the 48-mile trip and the other 32 rode with parents. That’s the norm for lots of teams in lots of sports this fall, and probably will remain routine for winter sports; it’s a way to limit exposure in tight spaces.

The Minneota girls basketball team will meet Mountain Iron-Buhl in the state semifinals on Tuesday at noon at Target Center. That experience will certainly spark memories of a year ago, when Minneota was preparing for a semifinal game with Waterville-Elysian-Morristown before virus concerns caused the tournament to be canceled. Shortly after, there was a Covid outbreak in the Minneota area.

“When we left the state tournament last year, we would never have known that by that Monday we wouldn’t be in school,” Johnston said. “It was June before we saw each other again. We’re just happy that these girls are getting this opportunity.”

Indeed, it’s the opportunity that matters most. And it’s terribly sad and undeniably unfair that many teams across the state, throughout the winter season, have had to shut down because of Covid exposure and positive tests. A dance team was unable to compete at the state tournament, and the same thing happened to teams in the girls and boys state hockey tournaments (fingers crossed for next week’s girls and boys state basketball tourney games at Target Center). All schools and teams taking part in activities, from last fall through this spring – and hopefully not beyond – know the risks of competing and have agreed to follow the protocols.

If a basketball team comes down with a squad-wide case of influenza next week and is unable to play on its scheduled day and time, there may be questions about rescheduling that game. They may even ask if they can be allowed to play at a site other than Target Center, so as to not disrupt the tournament schedule. Unfortunately, the tournament TV contract mandates that all televised games must be played at the same site. And for a game to be moved to a different day and time, is that fair to the teams whose planned-for slot is being taken? Of course not.

It’s rotten timing when teams doing the right thing -- following protocols developed by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control – are unable to compete, whether it’s the regular season or the state tournament.  

Dan Westby, head coach of the volleyball and girls basketball teams at Marshall, watched his basketball team defeat St. Croix Lutheran 63-32 in the Class 3A quarterfinals Tuesday at Mankato East. The Tigers will meet Holy Angels in the semifinals at Target Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Like Johnston, Westby has the perspective of coaching in the fall as well as the winter. He’s appreciative of the many tough decisions that have been made to ensure these opportunities are possible.

“So many people have put in so much time and effort in trying their best to see these things through,” Westby said over the phone while on the bus ride back to Marshall. “A lot of people have made a lot of decisions; I’m glad I don’t have to make them. I look at our boys basketball program, last year they qualified for state on Thursday and the state tournament was cancelled on Friday. It certainly made us appreciate the opportunity we have this year. Overall, looking back, I think anybody that’s been involved in this stuff and had an opportunity to go to a state tournament will appreciate it.

“Whatever decisions you make, not everybody will be pleased. I know the League is doing everything they can. Our AD (Bruce Remme) has had to reschedule games and it’s difficult enough to do it once, much less several times.”

Moga, who is in his first year as Houston’s activities director, knows all about rescheduling things.

“It was quite the experience,” he said of the last year. “You learn how to schedule real fast when you have to do the same schedule three times.”

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

“Twenty years from now? I think just appreciation and the relationships that were built. You kind of take it for granted when you see the kids every day. But when they’re at home working, you’re at home working, it’s not the same. In 20 years I’ll think about the relationships and the bonds that were created.”
Houston girls basketball coach Dale Moga

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