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'The Great Sports Overlap'

It may not be as well publicized — in fact, some weeks it's hardly publicized at all — but this is the time of year when young athletes are preparing for the school year to come.

It's a quiet time. The spring tournaments are over, summer leagues are getting ready for playoffs, and the months of July and August are a time when students can relax with their families.

At least, that's the way it used to be.

Now, it seems like the high school off-season has become a glorified training session for the coming year.

I've covered high school sports in northeastern Minnesota and the Twin Cities for 29 years. Over those years, I've seen a lot of changes.

American Legion and VFW baseball has always been a happening, but summer softball never used to be played. Now all-star teams travel the country in search of the best opposition at regional and national events.

Summer soccer is now a very big thing. According to the national governing body, Minnesota has almost as many registered players as Illinois — a big thing when you consider that Chicago is the only major population center in the region both states share.

A few local players head south each year to take part in summer lacrosse leagues in the Twin Cities. That sport is growing by leaps and bounds, and at least on the boys' side, making dents in baseball programs all around the Cities.

And, of course, football coaches encourage players to spend at least a little time in the weight room bulking up for the long fall season ahead, when they aren't taking part in dryland training for the coming hockey season or doing road runs for cross-country.

At one point in time it was called "The Great Sports Overlap." Now, it's just the cost of doing business.

Some of it is needed for smaller schools to remain competitive. Even a school like Cloquet, which relies heavily on two and three-sport athletes despite being the largest school in Carlton County, needs its players to keep playing if they want to be competitive in the coming year.

And, of course, the students themselves wouldn't do it if they didn't want to. That goes without saying.

Coaches themselves have to be prepared for fielding an alternate lineup if a family vacation takes away a player or two on a given night. You don't see the pressure in summer that you see during the fall and winter seasons.

Over all the time I've covered high school sports, there's only one thing that hasn't changed — the Minnesota State High School League still refuses to play a state tournament game in any sport in Duluth. They ski at Giants' Ridge, but that's it.

But that's as may be. The only thing that concerns me about all the overlap is this: are athletes getting the time they want, and need, to also be kids?

Things will quiet down for a bit in August, until the start of captains' practices for fall sports later in the month. Is that enough time? Do the kids even want time away? Or do they need time to simply rest and spend time with friends?

The answer lies with each individual. But you're only young once.

Maybe I'm too old-school, and that part of the modern student-athlete has passed me by. But maybe there's enough of a parent still left in me to want to know whether my kids would rather take a walk in the woods with Dad than make yet another summer practice.

I've coached summer youth soccer. It was an amazing experience. But for me, my favorite part was always the ice cream after the game. Call me old-fashioned. But I hope those memories last longer than who won or lost.

Some things are more important than that.

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