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Sports >  High school sports

Ferris track and field coach James Fisher’s final season cut short; colleagues miss chance to help kids

UPDATED: Tue., May 19, 2020

Longtime Ferris track coach James Fisher was set to retire after this season, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Longtime Ferris track coach James Fisher was set to retire after this season, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dave Trimmer For The Spokesman-Review

This time of year is when the cold, windy, wet days of spring are forgotten as coaches prepare to load up their best athletes for state championships.

Memorial Weekend and state high school spring sports championships are here – or would be were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the closing of schools and cancellation of the entire sports seasons before the first competition.

Like every coach, James Fisher is disappointed his seniors won’t get a final chance to compete, but that is just part of the story.

“It’s tough, very heart-breaking,” the Ferris track and field coach said. “I have eight seniors I am very proud of. They worked (so hard). It’s definitely a disappointment. … Not only are you a coach, we all get close to our athletes. That’s what we do.”

For Fisher, like his seniors, there is no next year. He is retiring after 27 years as the head track coach and eight as Pat Pfeifer’s assistant.

“I think of all the kids that touched my life,” he said. “We have a vision how we want to (go out). We couldn’t plan this. … You have to learn from adversity. That’s what makes you tough.”

Fisher graduated from Ferris in 1969 and competed for the first Saxons coach, Herm Caviness, who was replaced by Pfeifer in 1984.

The pain for track and field coaches is widespread because almost every program gets at least one athlete through to state.

It is also the one sport in which any freshman with no particular athletic ability can turn out and discover an event that can become the base for competing successfully in life.

“What I miss the most is the connection to these kids,” Rogers coach Brent Palmer said. “When their hard work and dedication is channeled into our sport, I get to see the kind of adults they are going to be, the kind of people they are. Nothing can beat that.

“When you see a kid 10 paces behind and not once thinking about giving up an inch of effort, I know.”

The coaches at Central Valley, which is known for large programs, share a similar feeling.

“Ironically, what I have found myself missing the most is the JV/frosh meets,” girls coach Geoff Arte said. “There is so much going on during one of those meets, everything from kids trying to earn varsity spots, to kids attempting events for the first time outside of practice, to (personal records) by kids who never thought they would be any good.

“You really do see everything at one of those meets.”

“We live in a world where kids are filtered out of select teams (before high school), CV boys coach Chuck Bowden said. … “Track and field always offers kids an opportunity to actually compete for a team while also being able to improve into what they are truly capable of being while in high school.”

It’s all about the risks, rewards and lessons.

“The hard parts of the season … are when the girls learn the life lessons,” Mead girls coach Dori Whitford said. “They learn that they can do way more than they thought possible.”

That usually comes to fruition during the three-week postseason run that culminates at state – in Tacoma for the big schools and Cheney for the smaller ones. Those weeks in May, as the competition challenges and weather inspires, has produced some of the best memories in the sport.

“It’s the old ABC ‘Wide World of Sports,’ the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” Bowden said. “There is nothing like the … progression.”

“I never get tired of watching kids compete, at all levels,” Whitford said. “Kids facing their fears and feeling success. Or sometimes failing and learning they can survive that, too.”

For this year, at least, for the freshmen and the seniors, and the coaches who put their heart and soul into their success, all that’s left are the what ifs.

“I’m heartbroken to miss the newbies showing their stuff and upperclassmen being rewarded for years of hard work,” Mt. Spokane girls coach Annette Helling said. “And I am heartbroken for a virtual banquet and air hug instead of being able to honor the team with stories, tears and actual hugs.”

“I keep on thinking about different life lessons that I would be teaching the team at different points in the season,” Gonzaga Prep girls coach Chad Chambers said. “I can’t make these connections. I try and respond to my athletes through email, but I feel like I just don’t make the same connections as face-to-face coaching.”

“I miss the camaraderie of coaches and just being around GSL legends and stealing their drills, wisdom, jokes, and hearing or watching their families grow up,” G-Prep boys coach Matt Blaine said. “I just don’t think there is another sport like it, where competing coaches can actually physically stand shoulder-to-shoulder and watch their teams and athletes compete.”

“I bought three months’ worth of granola bars that I use (during meets),” University girls coach Todd Hawley said. “I’m now stuck eating cases of granola bars.”

By next spring, the worst March practices won’t feel so miserable.

“Getting rained on and soaked through every layer of clothing, coming home windburned, or sometimes sunburned from long days on the track without a chance to find shelter are all things I’ve taken for granted in the past,” Ferris girls coach Katie LeFriec said. “As much as we may complain, there’s nowhere I’d rather be during the spring season than around a track watching our kids compete.”

Fisher won’t be there next year, but he understands as he and his wife Jene’, who is retiring from her middle school job, await clearance to travel.

“My dad said nothing is promised. … You just hope you can touch someone’s life, like the coaches who touched mine,” he said. “I’ll just keep praying and continue to be thankful.”

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