Back on track: Devils Lake teams return to practice halfway through winter sports pause
Before Nov. 13, around 20 area winter high school teams were preparing to kick off their season as fall sports wrap up. Then, like most things in 2020, everything just stopped.
In response to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 cases in the state, Governor Doug Burgum announced on Nov. 13 that winter sports would be put on pause until Dec. 14. Some teams had had their first practices that day before the plug was pulled on the start of winter sports.
The executive order originally had practices starting Dec. 14 and competitive play starting Dec. 28, but due to public protest, Burgum announced that practices would start Nov. 30 and competitive play would start Dec. 14. At Devils Lake High School, with the gym and rinks opening up again, there were mixed feelings among players and coaches.
For Devils Lake girls basketball, there was excitement to return to the court, but at the same time, it felt weird according to head coach Justin Klein. The Firebirds haven't received much practice since their last game against Fargo Davies, which would send them to the Class A state championship game. After moving past the emotions of losing the opportunity to play for a state championship, hitting the reset button felt odd in ways.
"It was a good feeling for us to get back out there, but it felt weird because it's been so long since we've all been together," Klein said. "It was more about seeing everyone again and getting everyone back together, because of the way it ended last year and we had limited contact with them this summer. It was odd, but it was refreshing to get back into a normal routine."
In another session in the gym at Devils Lake, the chaos and unpredictability of the first practice over a long period brought a sense of normalcy to the court. A youthful Devils Lake boys basketball squad was excited to get back on the court.
"That first day I kind of take with a grain of salt because I know any good or bad I see in practice is just day one stuff," Firebirds head coach Derek Gathman said. "We've got a really good, young group, so we're going to be very inexperienced, but I'm very excited about this group and they're going to be fun to work with."
Across the parking lot, the boy's hockey team was hitting the ice as an entire team for the first time. The Firebirds only had a captain's practice before the pause, unable to get a feel for the team as a whole. Head coach Jens Stokke said these practices are about getting the players back on the ice and adjusted back to playing consistently.
"Hockey is a game where it hurts to be off the ice for two weeks where you lose a lot of your edge you were working on," Stokke said. "We're starting back at day one in getting back into hockey shape and working on the little things people might not think much about."
Devils Lake boys hockey has taken a cautious approach in returning to the ice, wearing a face mask not only in the locker rooms but on the ice as well. Stokke said it's an approach that the Firebirds are taking to protect their season.
"We're trying to protect our student-athletes and trying to protect our season," Stokke said. "We're wearing masks out on the ice during practice and in the locker rooms. Players are in and out of the locker rooms in 15 minutes. We're taking it as seriously as we can, so we can enjoy the hockey season."
Outside of the aspect of COVID-19, teams are preparing for the regular changes that come with each new season. The boy's basketball team is making adjustments after graduating its 2020 Mr. Basketball winner and top scorer Grant Nelson. The Firebirds are aware they aren't what they were last year and taking pride in being a new team.
The boy's team is also taking advantage of the two weeks of practice, without a regular holiday disruption, to continue to adjust a younger core to the varsity pace of play. In having a underclassmen heavy roster, a lot of players are coming onto the varsity roster for the first time.
"What we've been talking about is that we're not last year's team and there's nothing that we should do to compare to that," Gathman said. "We're a brand new group with different strengths and different weaknesses, and we've got to figure out how we can be the best 2021-22 team that we can be."
For the girl's team, these first few days are focused on getting back into a groove and basketball shape, but as further down the road, the Firebirds are working off the motivation of where they ended last season. A nearly perfect season fell a game short for the Firebirds and they want that back.
Klein said the Firebirds are playing off a mentality of treating every game as their last, which became a reality last season and could become even more of a reality this season.
"I think we need to focus again on playing every game as your last," Klein said. "It happened to us last year and we have to go into this season with that mentality because of how crazy things can get. We want to play hard every night because it could be your last game."
First games out of winter sports pause
*These dates are according to schedules available
boys Basketball - Dec. 15 at Grand Forks Central
girls basketball - Dec. 15 vs. Grand Forks Central
boys hockey - Dec. 15 at West Fargo Sheyenne
girls hockey - Dec. 15 at Fargo Davies
wrestling - Dec. 19 - Triangular meet at Valley City
boys basketball - Dec. 18 vs. Buelah
girls basketball - Dec. 15 at North Star
boys basketball - Dec. 17 at North Star
girls basketball - Dec. 14 vs. L/E/M (at Leeds)
girls basketball - Dec. 17 at Barnes County North
boys basketball - Dec. 14 vs. Barnes County North
boys basketball - Dec. 19 at Larimore
boys basketball - Dec. 14 vs. Drayton/Valley-Edinburg (at Starkweather)
girls basketball - Dec. 15 vs. Four Winds/Minnewaukan
boys basketball - Dec. 14 vs. Carrington
girls basketball - Dec. 15 at Carrington
boys basketball - Dec. 15 vs. Midway/Minto
girls basketball - Dec. 14 at Benson County (at Leeds)