Benson County co-op to move forward with volleyball season following Leeds quarantine

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Benson County players celebrate after scoring a point in a game against St. John on Sept. 24 at Leeds High School. The Wildcats won 3-0.

Following the re-opening of Leeds High School on Oct. 26, after COVID-19 exposure was reported at the school on Oct. 12, the Benson County Wildcats co-op board has decided it will continue its athletic season, specifically volleyball, upon return to in person classes on Monday. 

Benson County, a co-op of Leeds High School and Maddock High School, will be following guidelines "in relation to their county's COVID-19 Smart Restart risk level issued by the North Dakota Department of Health, which is currently at high risk (orange). What this means for athletic events is that no fans will be allowed in attendance and face masks will be required at athletic events at Benson County venues. 

"My opinion is that I completely agree with everyone, but I've witnessed how careful April and her volleyball program have been throughout the whole year," Leeds Public Schools Superintendent Robert Thom said. "The fact that was going to limit who is going to be in the gyms for the contests is a precautionary measure...I think with all the precautions we're putting in place for everyone, I think this is a risk worth taking." 

In response to the attendance rule, Benson County athletics will continue to stream its games via Zoom. Both schools have installed NFHS streaming cameras in their gyms, but they want to give fans time to create accounts before they make the switch to the platform. 

The rest of Benson County's volleyball games are all regional games, with two at home and four on the road. The Wildcats return on the road at Rolla on Oct. 27. They then host Rolette/Wolford at Leeds starting at 3:30 p.m. and ending around 6 p.m. due to it being a church night. Thursday the Wildcats host Nelson County at Maddock, with the junior high team playing its game at Dakota Prairie to control the number of players in the gym.  

Friday, Benson County will be at New Rockford Sheyenne, Saturday they will face No. 4 Langdon/Edmore/Munich at Langdon, and Monday they will close out the regular season at Dunseith.  

There was a push back at the Benson County Wildcats co-op board meeting on Wednesday night from heath officials advising for the program to continue to halt athletic activities. Benson County public health nurse Shelly Aabrekke said from a public health standpoint that she had wished sports wouldn't have started. 

"Education was my big point starting the school year and I wish our high school association would've pushed it back a few months and seen where we were at," Aabrekke said. "They didn't and allowed things to happen, which brings us to this predicament right now and I'm between a rock and a hard place for guidance to give. There isn't much coming down from the top." 

Aabrekke expressed that contact tracing has become more and worries about who athletes may come in contact with if they do have the virus. Benson County of one of 16 counties in the state that had been placed in the high-risk classification by NDDOH. Benson County is currently at a 10.3 positivity rate and currently has 67 active cases in the county. 

"I'm not just concerned about the volleyball girls, but also who they're in contact with outside of the sport," Aabrekke said. "I'm seeing more and more cases where people my age and older are very sick. The young kids are not sick. I have to be a voice for all of the community in Benson County and not just worry about the volleyball plan of a couple of schools."  

Aabrekke did mention that an individual who was at a Benson County game at Leeds High School a few weeks ago tested positive for COVID-19 and listed that she was a close contact at the game. Another volleyball case, not in Benson County, was also brought up where an individual spread COVID-19 to 14 other individuals within the program. 

"I want this to go away and I don't want any more deaths in Benson County," Aabrekke said. "I'm just kind of afraid if we have people coming into the games, it's going to continue spread. I know some people think the survival of the fittest, but I can't think that way. I have to think of everyone in this county." 

Benson County volleyball head coach April Duchscher spoke to the board for the second straight night advocating for the continuation of the season. Duchscher said that canceling the rest of the season would have an impact on players' mental health and motivation outside of volleyball. 

"We have mental health issues on our team already and this is the only thing that our kids go for," Duchscher said. "I've touch base with my girls every day for a daily workout, we sanitize every day and we're all masked up on the busses. I can't say what they do when they're not with me, but there's more to sports than just competing." 

Another point that Duchscher and those pushing for the restart was that parents and coaches were made aware of the risk of playing at the beginning of the year, along with the option that parents and kids still have the option to back out.  

"I get it. We have players that didn't play because of COVID, but we also take a risk in sending our kids to school," Duchscher said. "There's a risk of doing anything. We can't guarantee anyone we played was asymptomatic unless they were tested. It's hard and I feel this will affect the girls, not just with disappointment, but motivation for school." 

The board made it aware that they know of the risk of returning to play following Leeds' shutdown, but they are moving forward with caution and following closely with state and local guidelines. The board has also been consulting with Nelson County athletics, a co-op of Dakota Prairie High School and Lakota High School, who had to deal with an athletic shutdown in September. Similar to Benson County, there were two differing opinions of when to start as officials at Lakota didn't want to continue the athletic season. 

"I just wanted to have this conversation because we were the school that had this going on," Benson County athletic director and Leeds principal Robyn Eberle said. "I wanted to make sure everyone is comfortable going forward as a co-op and I think this will continue throughout the year." 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for The Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.

Devils Lake Journal

North Dakota Department of Health Smart Restart gathering guidelines

Orange/High Risk Level:

• Gatherings in facilities can be up to 25% certificate of rate room capacity but no more than 50 people in a confined space (indoor or outdoor). Max of 10-person party or one family group per table.

• All other public gatherings should be canceled or postponed.

• Allow for proper spacing between groups by keeping at least two empty seats or 6 feet between parties in any area, in seating areas.

• Tables or seating in common areas should comply with maximum occupancy guidelines or furniture spaced to discourage larger groups from congregating.

• Alternate rows of chairs/bleachers between customers by marking every other row ‘closed’.

• All booths, activities, entertainment, tables, etc., should be placed with 10 feet between each in all directions to allow for social distancing and attendee flow.

• Mark or post directions for lines and waiting areas to maintain social distancing standards.

• Post signs directing one-way movement of ingress and egress for participants when possible.

• Keep records of guests for contact tracing purposes if needed.

• Foodservice should follow the Restaurant/Bar/Food Truck Smart Restart Protocols.

Source: North Dakota Department of Health