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Spokane area high school sports try to navigate haze of smoke

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 6, 2017, 3:05 p.m.

When the experts suggest that air quality is such that, for your own safety, you should stay indoors, it holds equally true for young athletes trying to play sports outdoors.

Area high school athletics directors, from as far north as Colville and Newport to as far south as Clarkston and throughout the Spokane area, keep a close watch on the rating index produced by the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency. While casual observers are content to know that the area’s air is rated Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy or Hazardous, ADs are watching the numbers.

If air quality goes above 150, the line air categorized as “Unhealthy for Some Groups” and “Unhealthy,” they go into action.

Outdoor games get canceled and outdoor practices shift indoors for health reasons.

“That’s the line for everyone in the area,” West Valley AD Jamie Nilles said Tuesday after canceling a scheduled girls soccer match at home against visiting Mt. Spokane. “In the Great Northern League, we don’t have a leaguewide policy in place because of how spread out we are. The air in Spokane could be totally different than the air in Clarkston or Pullman.”

“We got together a few years ago and we set a policy on air quality,” University AD Ken Van Sickle said. “We all go by the same reading. And we all abide by it.

“In that way it’s a lot like the spring and having to move practices indoors because of weather.”

Tuesday saw a slate of girls soccer matches canceled and by the afternoon coaches were already planning for Wednesday’s games to follow suit.

“We’re scheduled to play at Lake City on Friday and I’m just hoping that we can get that game in,” Central Valley girls soccer coach Andres Monrroy said. “To be honest, I’m not that hopeful.”

The Bears shifted gears quickly and Monrroy arranged for his team to practice at the Spokane Soccer Center, an indoor facility in Spokane Valley.

“We can go full-speed and get touches on the artificial turf,” he explained. “In the long run, this will help us. When we get to the postseason, we’ll have experience playing on it. It will be a good thing.”

Playing on an artificial turf field is a decidedly better option than trying to practice in a high school gymnasium – something Monrroy had to do last spring, when he had only gym-based practices to rely on when it came time to make cuts and set his roster.

The immediate good thing, he said, is that his players can get their work in without risking health.

“I have several girls who have trouble with the air like this,” Monnroy said. “They have asthma and have trouble breathing. I have trouble breathing in air like this, and I’m supposedly a healthy person. Keeping them safe is the priority right now.

“We played our first game at Wenatchee Saturday, and there were several girls that didn’t play as much as I had planned because the air wasn’t that good.”

There will be time to make up some nonleague games, especially soccer games. The Greater Spokane League had nonleague games scheduled for all teams this week and next.

The GSL league girls soccer season opens Sept. 20. The Great Northern League, however, has league games scheduled beginning next week.

Football options

When it comes to football, things can get trickier.

University is scheduled to play host to Post Falls Friday, but the schools have made inquiries about the availability of the Kibbie Dome at the University of Idaho as a possible destination if air quality makes playing the game at either school impossible.

Aside from that, Van Sickle said, there could be other options if league games become affected.

“We could see a situation where we would go back into the schedule and just make sure that the 3A GSL teams play each other and the 4A GSL teams play each other,” he said. “We have two games against 3A teams and we could reconfigure things with those dates.”

East Valley’s new athletics director, Alec Vermaire, is busy getting up to speed with the process.

“What I do know is that there has to be a 48-hour break between high school football games,” he said.

Effectively, he said, that means games canceled on Friday can be made up on Monday or Tuesday.

That works with varsity games, Nilles explained. Rescheduling junior varsity games can get tricky.

“If you move a game by more than a day, you can get into a situation where teams start worrying about having JV kids eligible to participate in a varsity game,” he said. “Varsity games will get rescheduled. It may not be possible to reschedule JV games. We’ll have to wait and see.

“We’ve had some strange things interfere with our schedules. We had a transformer blow up at East Valley a couple years ago and we ended up moving midgame from East Valley to West Valley.”

Nilles said there is a spirit of cooperation among his fellow athletics directors.

“We’re scheduled to host Colville here Friday night for football,” he said. “We’ve been talking with them, and they’re perfectly willing to move that game if they have to if we can find good conditions. Move it up there, move it to a neutral site, whatever it takes.”

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that smoke from area wildfires interfered with area sports.

“This happened a couple years ago and we learned then that you have to be patient,” Nilles said. “The air quality would be bad in the morning, but the wind would change in the afternoon and blow things out enough so that we could get games in. As long as you have some time, it pays to be patient.”

Parents and fans can keep track of changes to their school’s schedule online at the various league websites: www.greaterspokaneleague.org, www.greatnorthernleague.com and www.nealeague.com.

“We try to get our parents to subscribe to those websites,” Nilles said. “When I make a change to our schedule, it automatically updates on the league website and subscribers get a text message about the change.”


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