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Winter sports fire up in Carlton County

After the pandemic cut the fall season short, winter sports like basketball and hockey began practicing earlier this week.

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Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Coach Courtney Olin runs the season's first practice Monday, Jan. 4, at Pine Valley Ice Arena. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

Sneakers were squeaking in the gym and skates carved up the ice as Carlton County teams practiced for the first time this season Monday, Jan. 4.

The COVID-19 pandemic cut short the fall season as cases jumped in Minnesota, but with case numbers leveling off the Minnesota State High School League allowed teams to return to practice earlier this week.

The Cloquet boys basketball team has a little less than two weeks to practice before its season tips off Jan. 16 at Hermantown.

Cloquet athletic director Paul Riess said MSHSL guidance has shortened everyone’s season, with hockey and basketball teams limited to just 18 games. Teams are asked not to play back-to-back nights for the purposes of contact tracing and no more than two games in a week, making scheduling a collaborative process between schools across the area. The CEC wrestling team will have 10 meets and the Nordic ski team has just four events scheduled right now.

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“I had to kind of piece it together to make it work,” Riess said. “We were constantly calling another school saying, ‘Hey, I really got to get the game in this week. I need you to move your game, that's the only place we can get it fitted ... it was kind of a mess there.”

Spectators are prohibited at practice, and Riess said he's still waiting on guidance from the MSHSL regarding fans at games. Fans were initially prohibited at volleyball games when play was announced, but the MSHSL changed course and allowed two fans per player at each game.

Riess is preparing for no fans, but he said schools and families will have to be flexible.

“No matter what they decide, it could change at any given moment,” he said.

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Cloquet's Damian Diver makes a pass during the Lumberjacks' first practice of the season Monday, Jan. 4, at Cloquet Middle School. (Jamey Malcomb / jmalcomb@pinejournal.com)

In addition, Riess is working to organize a streaming service to make live feeds of the games available to fans whether some are allowed to attend or not. Fans should be able to purchase single games, a single sport package or access to all games, Riess said.

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The biggest change from fall to winter, however, is almost all participants will now be required to have masks. The only exceptions are for those sports where wearing a mask may cause additional safety concerns, including cheerleading and wrestling, according to the MSHSL website.

Players are getting used to having masks on, but mostly they're just glad to be back on the court, said Cloquet boys basketball coach Steve Battaglia.

“I think the kids are just happy to be doing something,” Battaglia said. “I think that's the same way we feel as coaches — it’s good to do something. It’s not ideal playing with a mask, and obviously, the reduced season and a late start, but it's better than the alternative.”

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Cloquet boys basketball coach Steve Battaglia (right) talks to his team on the first day of practice Monday, Jan. 4, while senior Tyler Issendorf listens. (Jamey Malcomb / jmalcomb@pinejournal.com)

CEC girls hockey coach Courtney Olin said the biggest challenge is player conditioning and preparation.

“Typically, players have captains’ practice prior to coming on the ice, so they are in shape and ready to start day one,” Olin said. “That is not the case this year. We also have the impact of not having ice available prior to tryouts. So we have to build that conditioning back up as well as get back into the swing of things.”

Battaglia said the condensed preseason practice schedule could lead to some “ugly” play to start the season, but other teams have also been limited in their preparation, too.

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“Ugly basketball is better than no basketball,” he said. “It’s not like the other teams we play have been in the gym either. It’s just a really weird deal.”

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Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Kennedy Wick skates through the season's first practice Monday, Jan. 4, at Pine Valley Ice Arena. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

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Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Kennedy Wick skates through the season's first practice Monday, Jan. 4, at Pine Valley Ice Arena. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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