Fall always comes a little early in northern Minnesota, but typically leaves aren’t turning when football practice starts.
But 2020 is a year unlike any other. In August, the Minnesota State High School League announced it was postponing its football season until the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, but late last month reversed course and approved a six game schedule with a four team section tournament in November.
“They kind of turned everything around said, ‘OK, it's back on,’” Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz said. “There was a lot of scrambling by the coaches and administration to get things in place with the new rules and regulations with the COVID safety stuff ... We're all super excited that we're going to have football in the fall, I think everyone preferred that to anything that was going to try and happen in the spring.”
Practice started Sept. 28, and Lenarz said even with the COVID restrictions, the Lumberjacks have been savoring the chance to play and have been having a lot of fun. The late start is different for the players, but every team in the state is dealing with the same situation.
“It’s just a late start to the season,” senior offensive lineman Reese Kolodge said. “It’s different for everybody, usually starting at the end of summer when it’s a little warmer. Now we’re probably going to be playing multiple games with snow on the ground.”
Cloquet tore through the regular season in 2019 with a 7-1 record, but injuries to Cole Ketola and all-state running back Markus Pokornowski cost the Lumberjacks late in the year. Cloquet fell to Chisago Lakes 14-0 in its playoff opener.
This season, the strength and experience of the team rests with its offensive and defensive lines, Lenarz said, but skilled position players will have relatively little experience. Kolodge and fellow senior Mason Erickson will anchor an experienced and talented line, while junior Alec Turnbull will take over at quarterback. Marshall Hayes, Deeken Fjeld and Damian Diver will be the primary running backs for the Lumberjacks.
Lenarz said the team had a great strength and conditioning program over the summer, which will help as the team plays itself into shape.
Another challenge for the team is the limitations on contact in practice. The season kicks off Friday, Oct. 9, at North Branch, and it will be the first time either team has tackled in 2020.
“It's a struggle because we don't get to really pop each other and learn how to feel the hit,” Kolodge said. “So it’s going to be the first of the year hitting for us ... but I think we’ll be ready for it, for sure — everybody’s ready for it.”
The season will be very different on a number of different levels, but Lenarz thinks the kids will adapt to the new rules and have a successful season.
“We’re not going to be able to do all the breakdowns and things like that — some of the fun traditions we’ve had,” Lenarz said. “But the kids are smart, they’re creative and they’ll come up with a socially distant alternative.”