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Excited to make the most of it: Gator athletics responds to winter sports beginning

Kinsley Hanson (right) prepares to pass the ball off to senior teammate Anissah Novacek during a drill at a January 8 Gator girls’ basketball practice. The team opens the season at home versus Pelican Rapids on January 14. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Cassie Dahl dribbles the ball during a drill at the Gator girls’ basketball practice in Badger on January 8, a day concluding the team’s first week of practice. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Brandon Brazier holds the ball during a drill at a Gator boys’ basketball practice on January 8— the final day of the team’s first week of practice. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Adam Benke drives to the basket against fellow senior Conner Wojchowski during a drill at Gator boys’ basketball practice on January 8. The team opens the season on January 15 at home versus the Freeze, a game available for viewing on YouTube Live. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Caleb Vacura works to break down Gator teammate Ethan Waage during some live wrestling at a morning practice on January 8— concluding the first week of practice. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Gator wrestlers Garrett Undeberg and Brogan Beito tie up during a drill at morning wrestling practice on January 8. The two-time defending Section 8A Champion Gators begin the season in Aitkin with triangular dual action versus Aitkin and Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale/Parkers Prairie on January 15. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Two-sport Gator senior student-athlete Mariah Christian explained how recent months had been hard with activities being pushed back, especially after losing her entire 2020 spring softball season due to COVID-19 and the Gator softball team coming up just one win short of its first state title the season before.

Besides some summer softball, the last time she had “real” high school season action came on March 6, when she and her Gator teammates fell to the Red Lake Warriors in the Section 8A Girls’ Basketball Championship game on the Ralph Engelstad Arena floor in Thief River Falls— one win short of a state berth. Not long after, life would change due to the COVID pandemic.

Nearly 10 months later, she and the Gator girls’ basketball would hit the hardwood again. With the okay from the state, Gator winter sports (girls’ basketball, boys’ basketball, and wrestling) kicked off their seasons with practice on January 4 and are each slated to begin their regular seasons this week.

How is Christian these days following the announcement that winter sports were a go?

“I was very, very excited about all that,” Christian said. “And especially since I know all the rest of the seniors, this will be my last opportunity to play with them.”

Gator winter senior student-athletes and the three Gator winter head coaches (Kent Christian in Boys’ Basketball, Brad Dahl in Girls’ Basketball, and Isaac Novacek in Wrestling) discussed this announcement, precautions in place for this season, practices so far, team expectations, and their hopes and messages for this season.

All three head coaches were excited with the winter sports announcement, —to hear their student-athletes would get to begin action— after a couple prior delays to the season. Coach Novacek was thankful his athletes would get another chance, highlighting how things have not been the same soon after his team participated in the state wrestling tournament. Coach Christian said with a laugh that he almost started crying with this announcement.

“I was excited for the kids. It was just a relief. My personal opinion was that it’s about time. The kids need to be involved in activities,” Coach Christian said. “I know there’s a lot of circumstances out there that the government had to do what they thought was best, but again just for the kids’ sake, taking them out there and being able to compete again, was great news.”

Like Mariah Christian, the athletes are also excited and happy.

“Kind of like football this year—how we got to play— it was pretty much a blessing for us to play with all my buddies after a pretty good season that we had last year,” Gator senior basketball player Kasen Swenson said. “And I’m glad we get to come back this year and show people what we got. We got a really good team this year. And I’m glad we get to showcase it for everyone.”

Some did express how they understand this season would be different. Senior Gator wrestler Garrett Undeberg was shocked right away that the start of wrestling season actually came to fruition.

“I honestly didn’t think wrestling was going to happen because of all the football stuff. We didn’t have our (football) championships in the (Fargo)Dome,” Undeberg said. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, well, then I don’t think we’re going to have wrestling.’ But after that, I was really excited.”

This season is happening, but will include some COVID-related precautions. Coach Dahl pointed out how the girls’ basketball team is splitting the junior high and high school athletes into pods. While practicing in Badger, they’ve been utilizing the school’s cafeteria to do this. They also have various spaces that the athletes take their water breaks.

The wrestling team, Coach Novacek said, is working in pods of three at practice, will not be shaking hands after matches, and is participating in just dual-type action. As an assistant wrestling coach also pointed out, the team is also sanitizing the practice mats.

Coach Christian said the boys’ basketball team would be following Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, such as sanitizing basketballs before practice, social distancing as much as possible, and having seating charts on the bus.

Basketball, unlike wrestling, also has to abide by another precaution: wearing masks for practice and game action. Overall, the basketball players have experienced some difficulties, including breathing while running.

“We have taken more water breaks. The girls, some of them— it’s like I think with anything different— have been adjusting a little quicker than others (to the masks),” Coach Dahl said. “And for some, it’s really tough to play and keep that mask up all the time without needing to pull it down at least to get some air in before they put it back on their face.”

Overall, the athletes are getting more used to them. Gator girls’ basketball senior Anissah Novacek mentioned how once they get into it and are playing, it’s not as noticeable. Some basketball seniors expressed understanding that masks are something they and other teams all will have to work through. As Gator senior boys’ basketball player Noah Warne mentioned, in a joking fashion, it’s even harder to breath in them thanks to the way Coach Christian pushes them in practice.

“It’s a big change, and it makes it harder to breathe, as everybody knows, and I mean… it’s hard to breathe with them (on) just regularly,” Warne said. “I think we’re already kind of starting to get used to it right now, even on the third day, fourth day of practice… If we want to play, we got to follow the rules, so I guess I can understand that.”

Several of these seniors, such as Mariah Christian, felt the emotions of losing a season, but look to go into this season with the best possible attitude.

“I want to make it memorable for everyone. And I’m just looking forward to (having)… a successful year too also,” Anissah Novacek said. “I just want to make it good for everyone, not like, ‘Oh, COVID’s here. Let’s just all be sad about it.’ No, I just want to hype everyone up and make it the best year possible.”

To see the complete story, read the January 13 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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