CALEDONIA, Minn. — The news hit Caledonia football coach Carl Fruechte hard.
It might have hit his players even harder.
Fruechte, who guides the winningest football program in the state and whose team's 71-game winning streak is tops in the nation, was informed late Tuesday that the Warriors’ season is over.
The Warriors were scheduled to have one more regular-season game this week, followed by the Section 1AA playoffs.
Their season is prematurely done in by COVID-19, a pandemic that has swept the world and in recent days has hit Caledonia and all of Houston County particularly hard.
By late Tuesday, Caledonia schools superintendent Craig Ihrke had seen enough. With COVID-19 cases rising dramatically over the weekend in Houston County, as well as two Caledonia school staff members testing positive on Tuesday for it and several other staff and students showing symptoms, Ihrke made the call. Caledonia schools would go to full-time distance learning beginning today and all extra-curricular activities would be halted until further notice.
What that means to the Caledonia football team is that its season is done. The five-time defending state champion and six-time defending section champion Warriors finished this season 3-0. They would have had at least two more games had scheduled contests with Stewartville and St. Charles not been cancelled earlier in the year due to COVID-19 outbreaks at those schools.
“I started calling our seniors (football players) today,” Fruechte said. “They were pretty shook by the decision. This year, we’ve just been trying to reinforce to our kids how proud of them we are. They are a resilient group. They just keep coming.”
They were feeling less resilient Wednesday.
Among that group was Caledonia star linebacker Casey Schultz, who will play football at Division I University of North Dakota next fall.
Seeing his career end prematurely at Caledonia hit Schultz hard.
“I asked Casey on the phone how he was doing and he said, ‘I’m not doing well, coach,’” Fruechte said. “That was quite a statement.”
Fruechte says he worries about the emotional well-being of all students, certainly including his players, with the shift to distance learning and their inability now to connect without extra-curriculars.
Fruechte believes the decision to switch to distance learning and discontinue sports in Caledonia falls in part on Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. He says that Walz's cautious approach with the pandemic has forced the hands of many school administrators.
"In my humble opinion, a lot of this falls on our governor," Fruechte said. "He has made people so scared and paranoid (of the pandemic) that they hesitate to step out. I feel bad for our athletic directors and superintendents because the governor has put undue pressure on these guys. Nobody is saying that COVID is not real; it is real. But I see the mental side of this thing and it scares me.”
Ihrke’s decision was made in consultation with state and local health officials. After listening to them and knowing how local and regional hospitals are reaching bed capacity with COVID-19 patients, he says he couldn’t in good conscience let things go on as they were.
The COVID-19 guidelines that he and the Caledonia school board had been following for a switch to distance learning were threefold:
• Not having enough teachers to adequately staff the school buildings.
• An outbreak of cases with students and/or staff.
• The 14-day case rate remaining above 50 for several consecutive weeks and the Minnesota Department of Health then recommending a shift to distance learning.
Ihrke said that all three of those marks were hit starting on Nov. 4. He also noted that the projected Houston County COVID-19 case rate to be reported Thursday will be well above 50, and for Nov. 19, above 85.
As for allowing athletics to continue despite now going to distance learning, Irhke said he wasn’t going to let that happen.
“I’ve said all along that if we can’t be (in school) for education that we shouldn’t be here participating in sports,” Ihrke said. “We held out as long as we could. But it got to the point where we were in dire straits academically. It would have been irresponsible of me to allow sports to continue with what is going on now.”
That said, pulling the plug was devastating for him.
“It absolutely crushed me to say we were discontinuing athletics,” Ihrke said. “But ultimately, it is our community that makes us great. And it is incumbent on us to protect our entire community.”