Blanchette: Northwest Yeshiva adds diversity to State 1B

Even as the littlest tournament becomes smaller – fewer teams, lower enrollments – it gets bigger all the time.

Sometimes that growth is attended by resistance and heartache. Sometimes that makes the ensuant twists and tweaks even more joyous.

In the halls at Northwest Yeshiva High School this week, the school’s athletic director and girls basketball coach encountered one of his players, who told him, “I’ve never been happier in my life.”

“How,” Jed Davis wondered, “do you argue with that?”

You don’t. You shouldn’t.

It’s a big week for all the teams headed for the State 1B basketball tournament at the Spokane Arena, but especially so for the 613s of Northwest Yeshiva whose participation this year comes with all the usual rights and privileges, and not just the worthy consolation of adhering to a principle.

The 613s? Yes, it’s an unusual nickname.

It’s the number of mitzvot, or commandments, contained in the Torah, and the marrow of education – and life – at the Orthodox Jewish school of 90 students. Even this week, with the girls team off to state.

“But some of the teachers have taken time out of class so we can talk about going to the tournament and how excited everyone is,” senior Julia Owen said.

Hey, that has to be a welcome breather from Intermediate Talmud, no?

It is not the first time the 613s have reached state – they were in Yakima two years ago. But that was an appearance consumed by controversy and disappointment, their second-round game falling during the dawn-to-dusk Fast of Esther when consumption of food and water is not allowed. Unwilling to let the players risk dehydration and unable to persuade the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to adjust game times, the school opted to forfeit – the team showing up to shake hands with the girls from St. John-Endicott and then be eliminated from the tournament.

Someone at the WIAA called that a teachable moment. It was, though it’s unclear whether the WIAA learned anything.

But there will be no such issue this year. The fast will not conflict with the tournament again until 2020. And because of a WIAA amendment pushed through a decade ago, if potential games for the 613s fall within their Sabbath between sunsets Friday and Saturday, the start times must be changed to accommodate their beliefs.

The amendment isn’t a cure-all. Yeshiva’s volleyball team qualified for state this year, but the Friday-Saturday tournament and pool structure made it impossible for it to compete, so it stayed home.

“That was crushing for our school,” junior Grace Almo said.

As it would be for any small school. Maybe even more so than any other private school, being the only Jewish high school in the state makes Yeshiva a community in an almost 1950ish sense of the word. So it’s not unlike the more isolated ruralities traditional to the B makeup, even if campus is an old Baptist church on Mercer Island.

The academics are rigorous – the school days are 8-4, with the mornings devoted to Judaic studies. Students often spend a post-graduate year in Israel – Owen will attend Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv – before returning to the states. And much of school life revolves around rites and observances of their religion.

Which, for the longest time, didn’t include athletics.

The program is pretty much the doing of Davis, whose children attended the school and who became A.D. in 1999 when Yeshiva had only boys and girls teams playing intramurals at the Jewish Community Center. His ideas for expanding that were not universally embraced.

“Some people didn’t like it at all – and there are still a few who think it’s a desecration of God, girls running around in shorts,” he said. “But what administrators discovered 100 years ago when high school systems got started is that good athletics and academics feed off each other in a positive way. Look at a school like Colton, where if those girls aren’t academic state champions they’re close to it.”

The program grew, but the school’s priorities remained – the unfortunate conflict in Yakima reaffirming that.

But what that conflict also underscored was the WIAA’s inability to, well, think on its feet. Brackets are routinely adjusted to keep boys and girls teams from the same town having to play at the same time. Unable to grasp the similarity, the organization instead froze on the boogeyman of setting a precedent.

“Obviously, I think there could have been more sensitivity,” Davis said. “I hope what developed was a respect. I know a lot of people look at the WIAA’s job and think it’s easy and it’s not, and I’ve come to understand that. But I also know the state is not the same place it was 15-20 years ago and as Washington becomes more diverse culturally, these things have to be addressed.”

The best response, in the end, came from the players.

“We were put in a terrible situation – we deserved two games like everyone else,” Owen said. “But we were able to take it as an opportunity to show pride in what we valued and believed. To stand up for something important to us was incredible, something most 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds don’t get to experience.”

Now they have the opportunity to experience the full-meal deal. Let’s hope no one can find an argument with that.