A Year With COVID: Pandemic has been a minefield for high school athletes

Pat Ruff, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
·9 min read

Mar. 13—Brett Knutson made his way into the Caledonia High School gymnasium early one morning this past fall, as is his habit.

It was really early — 4:30 a.m. That's when Knutson gets his daily workouts in.

Knutson is a Warriors assistant football coach and owns and works as a behavior therapist at Driftless Recovery Services, in La Crosse, Wis., 23 miles from Caledonia.

READ MORE FROM THE SERIES: A Year With COVID

What Knutson first witnessed that morning was rare, as another car had beaten him into what is normally an empty parking lot at that wee hour.

But his next witnessing, he's sorry to say, was no rarity. Instead, it had become a common sight since last March for the behavior therapist, when the country and world began shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When things began shutting down on March 13, I talked to our team of therapists and said that (Driftless Recovery Services) needed to stay open," Knutson said. "We had to keep working because I knew that this would turn into a mental-health pandemic as much as a (physical) health pandemic."

In front of Knutson that morning was more evidence of that. It was a hulking young man — a Caledonia football player — standing in the gym by himself, sobbing, at 4:30 in the morning.

Welcome to a world wrought by a pandemic, with all of its isolation and uncertainty and the mess it has made of so many teenagers.

That certainly includes its teenage athletes, who as much as any group has had so much taken away from them and left to wonder about.

That 6-foot-5, chiseled football player in front of Knutson said it all. He'd found out the evening before that the remainder of Caledonia's football season had been cancelled, a precaution being taken by his school district against the spread of COVID-19. The Warriors had been allowed just three games before things were shut down.

Caledonia owns the top football program around, complete with its nation-leading 71-game winning streak. But what this player was excruciatingly anticipating had as much to do with the expected loss of togetherness, bonding and purpose as it did winning more games and likely another state championship.

"As far as the pandemic, it is the emotional and social loss that is so devastating for these kids, because of the disconnect that's happened," said Knutson, whose speciality is working with young athletes' mental performance. "So much of what athletes learn from being on a team are social and emotional things, learning how to deal with ups and downs, winning and losing, and being able to lean on friends in a positive team environment."

The statistics that Knutson can cite from his work experience bear out the toll all of this isolation has had on teenagers, including its athletes.

"We've always been very busy, but we've had a 50% increase in our workload (at Driftless Recovery Services) during the pandemic," Knutson said. "Drugs and alcohol have become a huge problem for adolescents. And the saddest statistics we have is that our group had lost just three kids to suicide from April 14, 2014 until March 13, 2020. But since then, we've lost 11 school-aged kids to suicide."

— — —

With all of the investment Mia Pierre had made in soccer, the St. Charles senior was willing to do whatever it took to make her final season happen.

If it meant being a 24/7 walking/talking warning sign to her teammates about doing everything possible to avoid COVID-19 in hopes of their St. Charles/Lewiston-Altura team having a complete season, so be it. She was going to do it.

And she did.

"I'd end every practice we had giving a speech about needing to stay safe from Covid," Pierre said. "I kept saying, 'Ok, girls, we have to be smart, that if one person gets Covid, the entire team is out.' "

Pierre got started with that in June with the captains practices she organized and never stopped until the Saints had played their final game this fall season, Oct. 14.

She'd never felt so invested. Not only is she a senior, but her father, Paul Pierre, is the Saints' head coach. He'd been directing so many of these girls since they were in kindergarten.

"I wanted to be on the field that one last season with my dad," Mia said. "It was such a big moment in my life."

Yes, St. Charles/L-A did manage to play every last game on its schedule. But the Saints operated like every other high school sports team in southeastern Minnesota has been this school year, holding their breath. It was as if they were playing on a minefield, never knowing if or when someone on their team might contact the virus, which would pause or possibly end their season for good.

For Mia, all of the warnings she issued and all of the precautions she and her team took, were worth it. But it was also exhausting, as an entire school year spent in a pandemic has been for teenagers, with all of the waiting, wondering and worrying.

"(This past summer), we never even knew if we were going to have a season (the Minnesota State High School League didn't finalize going forward with fall sports until Aug. 4, pandemic in mind)," Mia said. "When I finally got word that we were going to be able to play, it wasn't even a feeling of excitement for me, it was more just relief. All of this worry and stress about wondering if we were going to play could go away. Our life could be a little bit more normal."

But just a little bit.

— — —

Scott McCready had been taking note of how one of his St. Charles High School students hadn't seemed himself. This was in December while St. Charles was in the midst of what would turn into a four-month stretch of complete distance learning due to the pandemic, one that only ended last week.

McCready is a long-time math teacher, athletic director and baseball coach at the high school. He'd also been supervising an online study hall this school year. It was during those sessions that he'd become concerned about the aforementioned student.

McCready says it has been the mission of all of the St. Charles High School teachers and coaches during the pandemic — with all of its inherent isolation — to keep an eye out for students and athletes who might need a hand.

McCready had seen enough evidence of that to seek out that seemingly troubled young man.

So he talked to him.

"He told me that he just wanted to get back in school," McCready said. "So I told him that I had something for him."

Ten minutes later, McCready had met the young man outdoors, having brought two baseball gloves and a ball with him that December day. They played catch for 10 minutes together, seeing their breath in that cold air and sorting things out between throws.

"We've got teachers and coaches here who are doing all kinds of things like that," McCready said. "We've got teachers giving kids online help with their homework late at night. We are telling kids, 'Let us help you out.' "

There's been ample call for that help during this pandemic, and that's sure applied to the athletic realm when it comes to teenagers.

Entire seasons were cancelled by the pandemic in the spring. In the fall, football, cross country, volleyball, tennis and swimming seasons happened, but they were often stopped and started as individual teams took turns being hit by the pandemic. And even when there were games, there were fewer scheduled, no state tournaments and just handfuls of fans allowed in the stands, if at all.

There were also those athletes who completely bowed out of joining high school sports teams, fears of COVID-19 in mind or simply due to a lack of motivation. An elevated level of hesitation to get off the couch, the computer and the phone was happening — a deep lethargy — after such an isolated and sedentary lifestyle had been wired into them in the spring and summer, with all of the stay-at-home precautions taken against the pandemic.

But at St. Charles, as well as all kinds of other schools in southeastern Minnesota, coaches did all they could to make things right for their athletes during such a troubled and isolated time.

The St. Charles coaches got started on that immediately last March, engaging their spring athletes with Zoom meetings. McCready called them "coaching classrooms."

"We all met with our athletes weekly," McCready said. "We'd send them workouts that were not necessarily sports specific but that kept them engaged. I met with the baseball players, also giving them articles to read, or we'd just shoot the breeze, getting into conversations that we wouldn't have had otherwise."

What McCready and the rest of the St. Charles coaches agreed to stress most was a positive approach.

"From Day 1 of this, our coaches have told our athletes that we could be hit with Covid and our season might be done," McCready said. "But what we also said was that we weren't going to blame anyone. We were just going to be happy and enjoy every day and moment that we got. We told our kids that they can do this. The more you say it out loud, the more you can actually do it. I'm really proud of all the people who contributed to this and continue to do so."

Rochester John Marshall girls basketball coach Phil Schroeder is another one who has taken on new approaches during the pandemic. JM's season has stopped and started more than once due to virus outbreaks by his team or his opponent's teams. Already, three JM games have been postponed and Schroeder had to cancel one entire week of practice due to Covid.

All of that in mind, the JM coach has taken more time than ever to simply have conversations with his players this season, knowing the stresses they're feeling, all of it brought on by the virus' impact.

"Our players are disappointed when things come up, like we all are," Schroeder said. "Some are handling it extremely well and others don't show much, so it's hard to read. But we do talk about it a lot. We talk about what we can control, one of those things being our emotions. We talk about taking care of ourselves and having the right attitude. We do this every day."