Jake Bakken started football practice in the middle of last August.
The Wibaux senior then helped his football team to November’s state championship game, where the Longhorns lost to Ennis.
Two days later, Bakken and his teammates hit the hardwood to start basketball practice. That season ended with a third-place finish at the state tournament in March.
Bakken then jumped on the track and qualified for last weekend’s Class C state meet. He placed second in the high jump and fourth in the long jump.
And now he has a sore elbow.
Is it any wonder? Bakken — and countless other high school athletes across Montana — can probably count the days they didn’t practice or play at least one sport from mid-August to the end of May.
“It’s crazy right now,” said Dr. Jim Elliott, an orthopedic surgeon at Ortho Montana in Billings. “The kids who take the real big hit on it are the spring kids. They don’t get that break. I think that right now the demand on these kids is so big … if you’re a dual-sport or triple-sport kid, there are just no breaks.”
It was especially evident at the Class AA and C state track meets in Great Falls. From Bakken to Billings Senior’s Christina Aragon, who ran with a brace on her left arm after suffering a broken and dislocated elbow at a gymnastics meet earlier in the spring, to Billings Skyview’s Haley Gellner, who was unable to run at state after tearing her hamstring at the Eastern AA divisional meet, injuries were a major storyline.
And that doesn’t figure in Billings West’s Logan Laird and Skyview’s Drake Schafer, who were back at 100 percent — or close to it — after suffering torn ACLs during the football season, or Jordan’s Connor Murnion who won the Class C 200-meter dash after coming back from a broken leg he suffered in football.
“I think kids nowadays, there’s no time off in between seasons,” said Skyview track coach Larry Newell. “Even during a season, they are still a multi-sport kid. In the springtime, we’ve got kids that run track and they go immediately to a club volleyball practice. I think kids are worn out.”
Those breaks are getting fewer and farther between, too, while overlaps are becoming more and more common. This spring, the Montana High School Association approved moving the beginning of basketball practices up three days to align with the first practice date for swimming and wrestling.
All winter sports will start practice on Thursday, November 20. The football championships are scheduled for that Friday and Saturday.
MHSA executive director Mark Beckman said member schools asked the executive board to consider the change. When the MHSA proposed the new calendar, Beckman said the majority of schools were in favor.
“It gives the opportunity to schedule that first weekend (of basketball competition),” Beckman said. “You never know what may come up, be it illness or injuries, so it just gives them two extra days. It’s good for the teams and good for the kids, too, so they don’t have to practice if they’re ill or nursing a sprained ankle.”
Elliott countered, saying he thinks student-athletes would benefit from added time off between sports.
“I would have liked them to go the other way — have a mandatory time off after football where nobody could do anything to give these kids a chance to recover,” Elliott said. “I think kids need a break.”
Jeff Graham coaches football, girls basketball and track and field for Class C Belt. If his coaching duties happen to overlap in late November, Graham would take an it’s-a-good-problem-to-have approach.
“It’s all about coaches being smart,” Graham said, noting the extra two days of practice provide some “wiggle room” to work around Thanksgiving. “We don’t make kids go very hard at the start.
“It’s just about having a brain if you’re a coach. You know what your kids are capable of.”
But that’s a fine line to walk. Nine and a half consecutive months of practice and competition is hard on anybody, let alone high school athletes. Elliott said he didn’t think athletes are suffering more injuries now than they were a decade ago, but he did say, “I think we’re seeing more in the higher-level kids, the ones that are going so hard all year.”
“I think there are advantages to doing multiple sports still,” Elliott continued, “but it has to be within reason, and coaches have to be reasonable with the demands they’re putting on kids.”