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Gator athletes, coaches look forward to different season: Both teams begin regular season action this week

Aulona Jasiqi prepares to bump the ball during a drill at a Gator Volleyball practice session at the Greenbush-Middle River School back on September 14. The Gator Volleyball team opens its regular season at home versus the Stephen-Argyle Central Storm on October 8— in a gym without fans. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Some Gator Football players line up in their three-point stances during a practice session drill at the practice fields behind the Greenbush-Middle River School in Greenbush back on September 14. The team opens its regular season on the road in Fertile versus the Fertile-Beltrami Falcons on October 9. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Gator Volleyball seniors and twin sisters Ella and Emma Heggedal look forward to the chance to play volleyball this fall, but did admit that it is disappointing not having fans at their matches. The team will have to adjust to not just to this, but other aspects of a fall season that will prove different.

“We always look forward to big crowds,” Ella said, “… so they can cheer really loud, cheer us on. Now, we’ll just have to be louder as a team and cheer each other on more.”

According to state guidance, volleyball will not be allowed to have any fans at their games this fall due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Football will be allowed up to 250 fans, according to state guidance. These won’t be the only adjustments volleyball and football teams across the state will encounter.

Having to abide by specific practice and game safety precautions, Gator fall head coaches and Gator fall student- athletes will both open their regular seasons this week. Gator Volleyball opens the season in the Swamp on Thursday, October 8 versus Stephen-Argyle Central and Gator Football opens on the road in Fertile versus Fertile-Beltrami on Friday, October 9. Both teams discussed their expectations heading into the season.

As review, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) initially pushed the football and volleyball seasons to the spring and allowed teams to participate in a fall training season— a period in which teams could practice 12 times between September 14 and October 3. At the start of the second week of this training season—on September 21— the MSHSL decided to restart the actual football and volleyball seasons in the fall.

The official volleyball season will run 11 weeks, including postseason play. The season officially began on September 28 and the first possible competition date falls on October 8. The last day of the regular season is on November 28, the first day of postseason play is on November 30, and the last day of the season is on December 12. During this volleyball season, teams can play up to 14 matches, but only two per week and only participate in dual matches— not invitationals or tournaments. Their matches must be against conference, section, or local opponents only. Both the volleyball and football seasons include postseason play, but not beyond the section level.

Regardless of the changes, Gator Head Volleyball Coach Stacy Dahl has high expectations for her team heading into this season, a group that is coming off a 19-11 campaign and section semifinal run last fall and lost two senior players. On this year’s roster, Coach Dahl has 14 players in seventh and eighth grade and 23 players in ninth to twelfth grade for a total of 37.

Coach Dahl looks forward to the competition her team will see this season— albeit a shorter one.

“We were able to reach out to some teams that we normally don’t play during our regular season,” Coach Dahl said. “We might see them in a tournament. But we were able to get some great competition built into our schedule, so that’s super exciting.”

The goal now becomes keeping everyone healthy to play these matches. This new schedule includes games versus the two teams who appeared in last season’s Section 8A championship match— the section champion Fosston Greyhounds (the team who ended the Gators’ run last season) and the section runner-up Ada-Borup Cougars.

Some of the Gator Volleyball seniors see this as a team with great potential, and now it has the opportunity to get to, what senior Erika Howell calls, that “next level.” Emma and Ella Heggedal believe this year’s Gator team could be one of the top ones.

“This is our year,” Ella said. “I feel like we have been doing pretty good in practice, and we know how to perform and work together as one. We communicate really well.”

As for football, the season will run nine weeks, including postseason play. It officially began on September 28 and ends on November 28. The first possible competition date is on October 9 and the last day of regular season competition is on November 11 or 12. Teams can have up to six games during the regular season and just one game per week.

Last season, Gator Head Football Coach John Lee saw his team fall in double overtime to the North Central Stars in the Section 8 Nine-Man semifinals, but make recent history. The team finished the 2019 season with the program’s first winning record, at 6-4, since 2007 and secured its first home playoff game and first playoff game win since 2011.

The team lost 10 senior players last season, and this season it has approximately 28 players in ninth to twelfth grade, including 12 seniors. Like the season itself, this team is different than last season, but Coach Lee sees much potential.

“The sky’s the limit for this group. And we’re not going to be quite as big as we were last year,” Coach Lee said. “But I really feel like we have some very good athletes and kids that have just played football, they understand the game, (and) they understand the terminology.”

Asked about his expectations for the team this season, Gator Football senior Garrett Undeberg, without much hesitation, said, “Go undefeated.”

Gator Football senior quarterback Kasen Swenson echoes a similar expectation, highlighting the importance of mentality.

“My expectations are… we’re going to be able to beat every team. We need to have that mentality where we go into a game (and believe) we’re going to be the better team,” Swenson said. “And I feel like we can do that with these group of guys. We’re going to be mentally focused throughout. We’re physically stronger than every team that we’re going to play this year.”

To see the complete story, read the October 7 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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