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Athletics: A raise of a glass to lakes area ADs

What a year it's been to be a high school activities director. From changing schedules to safety guidelines to now weather-related issues, the job of an AD has never been more difficult.

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Brainerd's Kate Stadum hits the ball past Rocori defenders Thursday, Oct. 15, at Brainerd High School. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

It’s time to give credit where credit is due.

The amount of flexibility, creativity and mental gymnastics displayed by area high school activities directors, and ADs across the state, this short, but chaotic fall season is indeed deserving of praise, and in most cases a trip to the liquor store.

So why not throw an early-season snowstorm or two at them. Bring on the locust next. They’ll find a way, within the constricting parameters of a pandemic, to squeeze in a junior varsity football game between section soccer championships while making sure the janitorial staff doesn’t go into overtime and the rosters, while still not on the new Minnesota State High School League website, get printed out for the 250 fans that are allowed into the venue.

And because there are only 250 fans allowed, our area ADs have to figure out how to pay the officials, coaches and workers with a limited budget.

So stand up and praise the work your school’s AD is doing this fall. They are earning their money, but because of all the rescheduling, postponements and new state safety guidelines, they haven’t had time to enjoy any of it.

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I tweeted the other night that it’s a full-time job keeping up with all the schedule changes our area sports teams are enduring. But that’s not the only frustrating part of the AD’s job this fall.

“The timeliness of information has been challenging to manage,” Brainerd activities director Charlie Campbell said after calling this season a mixture of optimism, joy, excitement and frustration.

“We didn't learn until Aug. 5 that we'd even have a season,” he added. “Then we received sport-specific guidance on COVID-19 protocols the afternoon of Aug. 14, exactly three days before the seasons started. The guidance continued to change and evolve for each sport over the course of the entire fall season, too. Interpreting and executing ever-changing guidelines has been exhausting, to say the least.

“Our girls swim and dive team was not able to access our pool until Week 4 due to our ongoing construction project. Football and volleyball were scheduled in the spring and then moved back to fall. All of our scheduling work (games, facilities, officials, transportation) that was done a year ago in preparation for this year has been scrapped and redone. A two-week shutdown that happened just prior to our section tournaments for the sports that started on time and at the very start of our reinstated football and volleyball seasons was a very emotional and challenging time.

“Managing spectators — who gets to come in and who has to stay out of our facility — is my new least favorite activity. We're learning, adapting, and creating entirely new systems in real-time. It's difficult, really, to articulate just how frustrating and stressful this season has been. It's important to be grounded in the larger purpose of our vocation during times like these, however.”

Related: Minnesota high school league moves football, volleyball seasons to spring

Campbell has been contacted by eight different school districts this week to use the turf field at Adamson Field on the campus of Brainerd High School. The uptick in requests is because of the recent snowstorms, which was one of the biggest arguments for moving football back into the fall. Staples-Motley moved its football game to Alexandria High School to use its turf field.

“What makes this challenging is that we still need that space for our own practices and contests for all levels of football,” Campbell said. “We're having to get creative to potentially make it work. Hindsight is 20/20, right? In a normal year, we'd be playing section semifinal games right now. It sure makes a person wonder.”

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Charlie Campbell

Adapting to frequent changes

Tim Tungseth might be wondering why he chose to change school districts in the middle of a pandemic. The new Pine River-Backus AD called the fall a challenging time.

“It has been different this year starting out at a new school and not having as many students in the building on a regular basis,” Tungseth said. “When we have hosted events, it has been refreshing to see students back participating and competing in the activities that they love.”

Tungseth’s last day as AD at Maple Lake was Aug. 27. He started at PR-B Aug. 31. Thankfully, Tungseth knew the area from his days as AD at Crosby-Ironton, but the lack of time to acclimate himself to the new school made things doubly difficult.

“I think the most frustrating component of the fall is all of the frequent changes and figuring out how to adapt to the changes while also being able to follow all of the proper COVID protocols and guidelines,” Tungseth said. “This fall started out slower with fewer activities but when the MSHSL voted to bring back football and volleyball in September that changed in a hurry.

“Life as an AD is usually busy but normally completing schedules and hiring of judges/officials are done way in advance so it has been a bit of a whirlwind getting that sorted out and then moving into looking at winter activities as well. Additionally, it is frustrating knowing that while we are planning for the future there is still much uncertainty about how things will look throughout the rest of the school year. We have been able to adapt to the changes on the fly and make things happen on short notice. When the spectator guidance was changed on Oct. 8, I was thankful for the help from our great staff at PRB that worked together to allow us to adjust to this change in short order.”

Related: Football and Volleyball are back to fall schedule The MSHSL reverses original decision to play football and volleyball in the spring.
The change Tungseth talked about was the decision by the Minnesota Department of Health to allow a certain number of fans back into schools. Since August, it was thought nobody but essential employees and students would be allowed into school buildings. The decision was made the same morning many volleyball matches were scheduled.

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Tim Tungseth.

Change is fast

Norm Gallant at Wadena-Deer Creek wears two hats in the fall as he’s an assistant football coach.

“Frustrating is a good word, challenging is better,” he said about this fall. “There have been so many challenges this fall; reversing the course and starting everything late and having to redo all the schedules, officials and bus times have been a challenge.

“Typically we have everything done a year ahead, so having to scramble to get everything going in a couple weeks or less was a challenge. Reworking cross-country and tennis to fit the parameters was a challenge. The lack of flexibility in the scheduling made it hard. We get new guidance nearly every day that is challenging. Adding spectators and the need for pre-registration and checking everyone in has been a real challenge.

“It's hard to find enough staffing to make it work. The COVID numbers and quarantines have now started to mushroom in the area and that has added additional challenges. Now, when you add weather on top of everything else, it makes things even more challenging. I think as a group, ADs are exhausted. It's been impossible to keep up with everything. It's what we do, though. We solve problems and we move on. I'm proud of the people I work with, they've been great and supportive. Our number one goal has been to give our students the best experience possible. I know we've been working hard to get that done. I understand people's frustrations, but we really have done a remarkable job of making as much work as possible.”

As is the case in most places communication is key and that’s led to one of Gallant’s biggest frustrations. He said most of the time information is on Twitter before ADs even hear about the changes.

“We get questioned on things we don't even know happened or we found out at the same time as everyone else in the world,” he added. “We don't get time to digest, we just have to react and adapt. The change to allow spectators with all the limitations the day of our first volleyball contest almost put me over the edge. I'm not saying I disagree with it, I have a daughter of my own playing, but to kind of put it out there at 10 a.m. with games starting at 4:30 p.m. and have pre-registration and everything else was overwhelming.”

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Related: Limited number of fans now allowed to attend indoor MSHSL activities

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Norm Gallant

This isn’t normal

Pillager’s Matt Moen might be handling this fall the best of any AD.

“I feel if I had been doing this job for longer, it may be more frustrating,” he said. “ I don't have anything to compare it to, so to me, this seems normal.

“The biggest frustration has been the short notices we have received about guidelines, seasons and everything else. We found out the day of the first volleyball game that we can have fans, so it was pretty hectic to get that ready to go and make sure all rules and guidelines are being followed to keep everyone safe.”

This is Moen’s first year as AD at Pillager. He’s been helped by having former AD Wade Mortenson still on staff. He’s also said his coaching staff has been flexible and understanding which has made his job easier.

“Not having anything to compare it to, it just feels normal,” Moen said. “The most difficult part of the job is when we have had to quarantine kids this fall and they have lost out on the opportunity to participate in their activities. That is not something that has been done before, or ever, and it seems like it is a ‘normal’ part of the job in 2020. I absolutely do not enjoy any aspect of that and it was not something that was part of the job description.

“A positive side of dealing with all of the changes, as I have had to quickly learn how to schedule games, arrange bus transportation and hire officials more than in a normal first year. Wade had the entire schedule done for the year and I have basically had to throw all of those schedules away and start over.”

Now imagine doing all of that while in the middle of a move or life-changing event. Tungseth is living in a cabin this fall while his wife continues to work in the metro area.

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“It always takes some time to adjust to a new job, but I’m thankful that the people at PR-B have been great to work with to help ease the transition,” he said. “Having extra time leading up to the school year obviously would have been great as it would have given me time to prepare for the year, have more time to get to know people in the school and community and get relocated up to the area but things are coming together.”

Tungseth and his wife Molly hoped to be moved into the area by Thanksgiving.

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Matt Moen

Staying positive

At Wadena-Deer Creek, Gallant is just trying to stay positive and be a consistent example for the student-athletes.

“It's really day-by-day,” Gallant said. “The thing I have stressed to our staff is to enjoy every opportunity we get to be with the kids and make each day the best it can be because this year nothing is promised. I am normally upbeat and positive. This year, it has been very easy to be anxious and negative. It seems like every day we get more thrown at us. I try to just do my best to keep the ship heading in the right direction and do the best we can for our kids.”

In Brainerd, Campbell said it’s taken an entire department of people to make this fall come together. And lucky for him he still has the winter and spring seasons to look forward to.

“I have an incredible assistant, a supportive admin team, and caring coaches who understand their role in creating the best life-changing and personal growth experiences possible for their student-athletes,” Campbell said. “Being surrounded by such outstanding people and seeing the joy in our kids and coaches are super powerful coping mechanisms.”

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JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or jeremy.millsop@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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