By Nicole Kidder-Perry, Reporter
Joyous cheers rang out across South Stevens County in mid-February as pandemic restrictions were finally eased on local youth sports programs. While every little league to high school championship team is operating under firm Return to Play rules, simply stepping out to compete delivered a much-needed dose of normalcy.
Anecdotal accounts from players, parents and coaches say that the abrupt end to sports programs a year ago has had a devastating impact on the community’s young athletes. Even as COVID cases surged, Mick Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), urged the governor’s office and Dept. of Health (DOH) to figure out the logistics of practicing and competing while keeping students and staff safe. Citing several studies conducted in Washington, Wisconsin and New Jersey, he observed that only a fraction of COVID-19 cases among youth athletes have been traced back to sports contact.
“Education-based sports and activities have always been a key component of our school system,” Hoffman wrote in a Nov. 2020 call to action letter encouraging lawmakers to “focus on the values and interconnectivity of extracurricular activities. In a time where students have become disconnected from their education, we know athletics and activities can help them re-engage.”
High Schools Plan a Path Forward
With constantly changing regulations that required restricted practices and no competitions, coaches have struggled to keep strong connections with players. High school athletic directors got creative by offering optional workouts, and the WIAA released a series of Mind Gym seminars designed to help student athletes “cultivate motivation and master habits of excellence.”
Hopeful that youth sports would resume soon, leaders pressed forward with game plans, building in contingencies for delays. When competitions were finally greenlighted in mid-February, leagues were ready to roll immediately. Generally, seasons are being compressed into six-week sessions with only interleague play allowed. This means that regional tournaments and state championships are still paused.
Available activities vary based on whether the school competes under the Northeast 1A (NEA) or Northeast 1B (NEB) league. The sports traditionally held during the fall, including football, volleyball, cross country and girls soccer, launched first. NEB athletes in the Mary Walker, Wellpinit and Columbia #206 school districts have already moved on to spring sports, which will wrap up May 4 in time for winter sports to start.
In the NEA League, which covers the NMF and Deer Park school districts, the spring sports schedule covers golf, tennis, track and boys soccer as well as baseball and softball from April 5-May 15. Basketball and wrestling, deemed higher-risk sports, are scheduled for later in the season to provide more time for progression to Phase 3 regulations.
Creatively Managing Youth Sports Under Strict Regulations
Current state regulations have set strict interaction limits on players and spectators, forcing the area’s smaller schools to get creative. State mandates say all athletes must wear masks during the entire practice or competition. An exception is granted only to cross country runners. Additional rules prohibit concessions during events and require spectators to wear masks at all times.
While most administrators agree that family members have generally been cooperative, WIAA’s executive director recently shared a reminder about the “Importance of Following Masking Policies” in a 2-Minute Drill video.
“We waited almost a year to get permission from the governor’s office and Dept. of Health to commence our activities. In that time, it was very frustrating knowing that most everything involved was out of our control,” he shares. “Currently, the one thing we do have in our control is complying with their guidelines, especially following the masking policy. Please finish strong. If we show that we can handle this, then there is hope that we can bring more spectators into the stands.”
The empty stands have been a source of contention that schools are trying their best to manage. Events are presently limited to 200 people. With some matchups swelling to 100 people with players, coaches and officials, fitting in fans has been difficult. NEB schools were given more leeway in setting their own guidelines based on available space. However, the seven NEA schools only allow two supporters for each home athlete. Visiting fans are not permitted at away games. Spectators who are on the pre-approved pass list must agree to sign an attestation form and have their temperature taken.
To ensure families could still make memories with their teenage athletes, most of the NEA and NEB varsity and junior varsity games are live streamed through the NFHS network. Subscriptions, which can be canceled at any time, are available for $10.99 monthly or $69.99 annually. Some schools are able to broadcast matches for free on Facebook.
Little Leagues Get Active Again
Since area elementary schools do not fund sports programs, younger children usually join teams closer to town through the Spokane Youth Sports Association (SYSA). Typically serving more than 10,000 children annually, SYSA has managed to deliver just a few modified activities over the past year. Three-on-three basketball scrimmages ran this winter with the few participants wearing masks and the limited gym spectators spaced apart. SYSA is hoping that lifted restrictions and the shift to outdoor sports will drive spring interest in soccer, track and Quick Rip Rugby. Check www.SYSA.com for updates and program fess, which currently range from $70-$100.
Although youth sports options are limited in South Stevens County, kids in Deer Park, Clayton and Loon Lake can play baseball and softball through the Tri-County Little League. After a year-long hiatus, the 2021 season launches April 1. Kids living in Nine Mile Falls and surrounding communities can still sign up for the Lake Spokane Youth Sports (LSYS) baseball rec league until April 23.
With a mission that every kid should play, the LSYS co-ed program had more than 160 kids, ages 4-12, of all experience levels compete on T-ball, Coach Pitch and Player Pitch teams in 2019. The upcoming $50 season is expected to run from May 17-July 2, and all practices and games are held on weekday evenings at Nine Mile schools. LSYS also plans to resume its basketball program in 2022 with signups beginning in August. Registration details for both sports are available at clubs.bluesombrero.com/LakeSpokaneSports.
Another local option for fall sports is North County Youth Football and Cheer (formerly Pop Warner), which oversees the northern teams from Deer Park to Newport. Nine Mile coaches are also launching the Lakeside Youth Football and Cheer program this fall. Registration will soon open at www.northcountypw.org and www.msmyf.com with early bird discounted fees.