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Six metro teams join early start

By David LaVaque, Star Tribune, 08/24/12, 5:22AM CDT


Most players and coaches welcome the schedule quirks of what's called Zero Week, because it allows them to play a full slate of games.

Minnetonka High School offense player Jack Bixler.

A broken foot will sideline Minnetonka standout wide receiver Malcolm Moore for at least three games, but his Skippers' teammates are off and running ahead of schedule.

Minnetonka is one of 17 teams throughout the state that start their seasons Friday and Saturday, a week before most teams. It's what the Minnesota State High School League calls Zero Week, approved before last season to ease football scheduling woes. Those teams, plus two from Wisconsin and one from Texas, will play a combined 10 games.

Teams playing Zero Week, including six from the metro area, started practice Aug. 6. A week later they were running full-contact drills while players on most of the state's 359 teams were getting started in just helmets and shorts. To compensate for their early start, teams must shorten a week of practice later in the season.

Zero Week encroaches on players' summer breaks and forces coaches to work an extra week without pay, but Moore said he "doesn't really hear anybody complaining."

"If you love football, who would complain about getting to start early?" Moore said. His team plays at 7 p.m. Friday against Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wis.

Coaches and administrators mostly share Moore's enthusiasm. The majority of Zero Week games these first two seasons have involved outstate programs needing to replace opponents lost to conference shuffling or the formation of co-ops.

Some metro-area programs, especially those in the five-team Lake Conference, are finding Zero Week to be their best -- or only -- option for securing a full slate of eight games. Three Zero Week teams reside in the Lake Conference: Edina, Hopkins and Minnetonka.

"There's no doubt that it has helped solve at least some of the scheduling problems," said Kevin Merkle, an MSHSL board member and head of the football task force that recommended Zero Week.

But it creates other problems:

• Seven Minnetonka players -- including two starters -- missed part or all of the first week because of academic, church or family commitments. Two of Edina's captains missed time while playing with Edina's American Legion baseball team at a regional tournament.

• Minnetonka and Edina traveled to Menomonie, Wis., to participate in preseason scrimmages because Minnesota teams scrimmage a week later.

• Hopkins plays host to a team from Texas at 1 p.m. Saturday, forcing activities director Dan Johnson to "piece together a band" while worrying about a smaller crowd.

"There are schools that have said, 'We will take a bye week instead of playing Zero Week,''' Johnson said. "But we would much rather play Zero Week than not have the game."

Not all the changes are worrisome. Holy Angels head coach Ray Betton said the teachers on his staff attended all their school workshops this week because the team was only practicing once per day. Edina coach Reed Boltmann said his team's mandatory shortened practice week later this season coincides with MEA weekend, freeing his players and their families to make college visits.

Minnetonka will play Zero Week games against Hudson, Wis., the next two seasons while Edina and Holy Angels will square off in a Zero Week game again next August.

Boltmann acknowledged the Zero Week-related quirks but said, "For all the hours these kids put in, I want them to have eight games. Especially the seniors."

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

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