Football helmets were handed out a week earlier to players at Duluth East. Pads popped a week ahead of schedule at Deer River and Minnewaska.
These three schools are among the 12 from greater Minnesota participating in Zero Week, a concept the Minnesota State High School League approved this season to ease football scheduling woes. From Thursday through Saturday, the 12 teams (and two from Wisconsin) will play a combined seven games — a week before the other 370 teams in the state.
To prepare, those schools started practice Aug. 8. A week later they were running full contact drills while most of the state’s players were in helmets and shorts. To compensate for their early start, teams must shorten a week of practice later in the season — one of several nuisances leaving coaches with mixed feelings on Zero Week.
“The advantage is we get a full schedule,” Deer River coach Brent Schimek said. “The disadvantage is you have to start practice a week earlier. As far as kids who have jobs and rural kids, that’s another week out of their summer.”
Kevin Merkle, a MSHSL board member and head of the football task force that recommended Zero Week, expects the number of schools involved to remain small because “it’s not a preferred way to deal with” scheduling issues but “it’s an option if you just can’t find anything else.”
Teams shuffling conferences left Deer River, Duluth East and Minnewaska with holes in their schedules. Coaches from all three schools said playing a Zero Week game became the best — or only — option.
Duluth East opens its season against nearby rival Superior, Wis., in a game that will pack the stadium. In past seasons, the Greyhounds traveled to North Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Deer River will play nearby Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin. Schimek said a Michigan school had an opening later in the season but the cost of travel was a deal-breaker.
Minnewaska will travel about 150 miles south to St. Peter for a game coach Steve Hill called the least of three evils.
“One option was playing a Class 4A school from the metro area which would have been a long trip to get [beat],” Hill said. “The other option was to not play eight games.”
While coaches are grateful to play a full schedule, using Zero Week to make it work required sacrifice. Duluth East could not find an opponent to scrimmage. Players and coaches in Deer River and Minnewaska found everything from summer vacations to jobs to Driver’s Education classes disrupted.
Wayzata, which for years traveled great distances for games with outstate opponents, got no relief from Zero Week. Last season’s Class 5A state champions played just six regular season games a year ago. Unable to find an in-state opponent, the Trojans will meet Carmel (Illinois) Catholic on Sept. 23 in Dubuque, Iowa.
“The issue is still there,” Wayzata coach Brad Anderson said of scheduling woes. He called Zero Week “a Band-Aid approach that doesn’t solve the bigger issue. At some point, the [MSHSL] has to step in and solve the problem because they can’t rely on schools to solve it.”
Merkle and the football task force spent months researching a MSHSL-driven section scheduling plan. However, more support was shown for adding a seventh class (6A) in 2012. Merkle said support for section scheduling has risen to “close to a 50-50 split.”
“It’s too early to tell whether some of the things we’ve done will make the scheduling issues any better or not,” Merkle said. “If they don’t, we can go to a section football plan. It’s ready to go.”