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Sports >  High school sports

Dave Cook: Hosting state track at Eastern Washington a labor of love

UPDATED: Wed., May 27, 2020

Chewelah’s Lillian Kirry, center, clears a hurdle before winning the State 1A 100-meter hurdles during the 2018  track and field championship at Eastern Washington University. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Chewelah’s Lillian Kirry, center, clears a hurdle before winning the State 1A 100-meter hurdles during the 2018 track and field championship at Eastern Washington University. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

The phrase Labor of Love is apropos.

Especially when it’s missing in our coronavirus-impacted world.

This was to be the 25th year the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association would hold one of its state high school track and field meets on the campus of Eastern Washington University and Roos Field, and before that when it was known as Woodward Field. Personally, it was going to be my 25th and last as coordinator of entries and results for an endearing weekend event which serves as the culmination of the sports season for the WIAA.

The solitude and quiet of Cheney is loudly apparent these days. The usual silent days of summer have been extended with weeks and months of a spring slumber. While high school and college classes are held online, our lives in sports have stopped abruptly as well. It will for sure be a ghost town when this year’s three-day meet was scheduled to take place, starting Thursday.

For years, the solitude at the field on the Sunday after the meet was welcome … just me, the breeze and scavenging birds there on the red turf cleaning up after another successful meet. Some 1,600 athletes, about 1,000 school coaches/administrators, several hundred meet volunteers and workers and thousands more fans who had crammed the stands had converged for 2 1/2 days of competition. And celebration.

It was the end of the school year, and a final gasp of enthusiasm from those athletes as the season came to a close. For many it was their final road trip with their classmates, a daylong trek across the state – started by some schools by a ferry ride on Puget Sound. It was a weekend of camaraderie and memories that would last a lifetime.

They would give it their all one final time for the pride of themselves and their school. For every athlete that fell at the finish line from exhaustion and left their skin on the track over the years, there were another two puking into garbage cans nearby.

That has left an indelible taste in my mouth – figuratively, not literally.

They bought programs, ordered photos and bought personalized T-shirts, sweatshirts and other apparel for a memento of the experience. The more events they qualified for and placed in, the more bedazzled the apparel would get.

Some years they sweltered in the heat, and in some, got wind-burned from those pesky prevailing southwest winds that regularly sweep through the West Plains. Sometimes they got wet, drenched or even evacuated from the premises because of major thunderstorms. On one occasion, snow shovels had to be called in because of a poorly timed winter blast.

For roughly half of those athletes, they climbed the awards stand on the field to receive a medal as champions, or as low as eighth place, or as a sportsmanship recipient or as a para-athlete or wheelchair competitor. Or better yet, to receive a trophy with their teammates as a fourth-place finisher, or third place or runner-up or champion.

Smiles by all. Not this year.

I feel their pain. This was to be my final journey with such an amazing group of people I’m proud to call cherished family. Any day in May that starts with the number two – 20, 21, 22, etc. – annually fills my brain with reminders of what’s next on the lengthy “to-do” list I’ve had in my red and black Mead Trapper Keeper for 20-plus years. Now it collects dust on the shelf in my office, barely touched since last May.

My reminders, which should fill these final days of the month, are now only memories. Maybe now I can remember my sister’s birthday ( May 26) – I’ve forgotten more of them than I remembered in the past 24 years.

This particular labor of love started in 1996 when the EWU public address announcer at the time, Dan Birdsell, mentioned that the meet for smaller classifications was in dire need of an emergency home for a year. Eastern track and field coach Jerry Martin and I convened with EWU athletic department administrators John Johnson and Dick Zornes.

Somewhat surprisingly, hosting of state games was allowed by the NCAA, which doesn’t let you do much else with the high school sector. And by golly, we got the go-ahead to pull it off.

Besides bringing prospective EWU students to campus, my rationale was that it would be a good test run for the Big Sky Championships we would be hosting the year after. We ended up hosting both meets in 1997 – the state championships in perpetuity.

Back then, coaches loved coming to Cheney because they didn’t have to reserve or pay for hotel rooms. For a fraction of the cost, they could stay across the street at Pearce and Dressler halls while student enrollment at EWU was so low that those dorms sat empty.

It was like a sleepover in a high school gym – just bring your sleeping bags and teddy bear. Then walk about 100 yards to the student union for all your meals and about 200 yards across Washington Street for your competition.

That first meet in 1996 was notorious for several things – long lines at the concessions stands and overflowing porta potties. And it was hot, which added to the unpleasant odors when athletes checked in for their events on the north end of the stadium.

I’ll never forget my wife, Freida, informing me the facilities were out of toilet paper. She wasn’t saying that in 2020, but on the first day of the 1996 meet. We were scrambling for TP after that. Talk about apropos.

The response to the call for volunteers and groups to help at the event was the most gratifying accomplishment. The track and field officiating community helped in force. Department staff, university personnel and Cheney folks who didn’t know a shot put from a starting gun jumped on board to help.

Football coaches selling tickets and their team serving as the hurdle crew? Basketball coaches on the sweats crew? Yes, it was a special time, and Eastern changed shortly after that with increased enrollment and a new excitement on campus. Getting those state track meet folks here was a part of renewed growth under EWU President Stephen Jordan, but it also meant heading back to hotel rooms for the teams.

I remember crying during that first meet – mostly from pure emotion from the exhaustion I was feeling. A female competitor had to give back her medal because of a mistake in how ties were broken in the high jump. Unbeknownst to me, the NCAA rule was different from the high school rule. The utter pain I felt from having to retrieve that medal from a sad and upset high school girl led me to tears.

Significantly, that rule was later changed, much to my delight. But it did increase my angst over mistakes in the results we produced and my obsession with accuracy. I would use that example to all students I had working for us of how much we didn’t want to give out awards by mistake. They all grew weary of me saying, “Proof your work. Twice.”

The preparation for the event was perhaps more significant than the meet itself. Entry data for the state meet is compiled from 10 to 15 district meets. Expert Jan Truant spent way too many hours in my basement the weekend before the first meet helping me understand such things as district balance and preferred lanes weighing place over time.

We were mostly devoid of email in those days, so the fax machine was the modus operandi of that era. Then we had to figure out how to get them into the computer program we were using and spit them all out into lanes and positions. That’s where students’ help over the year became invaluable as they handled much of the data entry chores in a short, two-day window.

Late nights and early mornings were required to meet the WIAA’s program deadline of the Sunday afternoon before the meet was to begin. Countless times I had to explain to a district that getting results the following Monday when they were back in their school building just wouldn’t work.

Final submission came after an always lengthy Sunday seeding meeting at which the WIAA’s complicated process may have been incredibly fair, but was also incredibly tedious. It was a lot of time and effort with a big learning curve, but it turned out to be an investment in the future.

There were some serious obstacles for the first time, but the meet itself went so well, the WIAA wanted to come back. And come back again. And expand to three classifications. And come back again until, here we are, 2020.

And now, there is just solitude.

But with that solitude comes a remembrance of gratitude for all the people who have been a part of this event for a glorious 24 years. John Miller was the meet director for one year before he went on to greener pastures, including his long tenure in the WIAA office.

But filling in that role since then has been Jay Rydell, an absolute giant in his many ventures in athletics in Spokane and beyond through the years. He’s in the Inland Northwest Hall of Fame Scroll of Honor, and for good reason. When he and others say they are “doing it for the kids,” he means it and lives it.

Even his own kid, Kyle, is doing it for the kids. We’ve watched him grow up through the years as an Eastern student, teacher and now high-level school administrator. Kyle and his son give us a three-generation set of workers each May in Cheney – as well as a three-generation set in the fall as season-ticket holders for EWU football.

Between the people Rydell has brought into the fold, and the holdovers from the early beginnings, it’s a family reunion for all who put in considerable time and effort to make the meet a success. There are so many names of people to acknowledge, yet no good place to start.

So how about we just say Cash and Dorothy Stone and leave it at that? The Spokane icons capsulize the eagerness to be involved, the enthusiasm for working each year and love of youth that so many others have. The rest of you know who you are.

Sadly, we’ve lost a few along the way. Dick Potter, Lawson Van Kuren, Max Sanchez and Ron Swords are the most notable, and all four were with us from the start. Darn it anyway, life doesn’t last forever, and we’ll lose more way sooner than we want. My biggest hope is that the ones who would have been with us in 2020 will be with us again in 2021.

And I could never say enough about the appreciation we all have for the passion of the competitors themselves – the thousands of young adults through the years who have visited our campus. I’m guessing a 24-year total in excess of 25,000. Of course, this meet has and always will be for them.

Various infrequent sounds of cars, lawnmowers and jets flying overhead fill our air in Cheney these May days – and rain, lots of it. But there will no heartbeats heard at Roos Field in the coming days. And that fills my soul with sadness.

On my rather minimal bucket list, I’ve wanted to attend and run the BOLDERBoulder race my wife and multiple friends have attended and raved about. But it always falls on a weekend which conflicts either with the entries process of the meet or the meet itself.

My plan expressed two years ago was to train a replacement in 2020, assist Rydell where needed with preparations for the state meet in 2021, then depart for my Colorado Rocky Mountain high. I thought 25 years was enough; I’d give them one more meet, lay my keyboard down – that’s how I’m going out.

But now I’m having second thoughts. Deathly quiet second thoughts.

I never got a chance to say goodbye, and more important, thanks to all those family members I won’t see – some for good. I never got a chance to watch the teams arrive and practice at the field, and subsequently ask me questions upon questions.

I never got a chance to attend one more coaches meeting and express my gratitude to a group of people whose yearly positive comments to critical comments was usually on a ratio of 99-to-1. Shoot, I would have settled for 75-to-25, even 50-50. Regardless, the feelings are mutual.

I never got a chance to post results on the wall during the meet for all to see. I loved doing that job, mainly to be out and about with the people for whom we were hosting the meet. It was also solace for me in a way – I always knew that when I was posting results, all was going well underneath the red and white results tent.

I also never got a chance to grab the microphone and thank the fans and competitors who fill the stands at Roos Field each May. I’m not one to express my inner feelings via public address, but I truly wanted to share my appreciation for their 25 years of visiting a special place I’ve called home for more than half my life.

I guess I mean to say nearly 25 years.

The solitude has spoken. I still have to say goodbye to my Labor of Love.

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