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Sports >  High school sports

GSL high school sports spring into action with pandemic safety rules in place

By Steve Christilaw For The Spokesman-Review

Ken VanSickle’s cellphone “blew up.”

After a year without high school sports, the Greater Spokane League had just held its first sporting event of the 2020-21 season. It was a slate of volleyball games, including a Shadle Park sweep of East Valley and North Central sweep of first-year member Othello.

As the new GSL director, VanSickle keeps all of the league’s athletics directors on a text blast and his phone was chirping like an aviary at feeding time.

“They were all texting each other,” he laughed. “They all wanted to know ‘How did you handle this?’ or ‘How did you do that?’ I had a permanent grin on my face the whole night.”

The grins were spread leaguewide. The athletic directors were downright giddy after seeing something resembling a normal night of high school sports.

“We have our plans and we’re all following protocol,” VanSickle said. “I think we’re all anxious to see how it actually works.”

This high school sports season will be unlike any that has come before it.

The protocols are many and varied. And they are not optional.

For example, locker rooms are off-limits at halftime, VanSickle said. Football and volleyball teams will remain on the field or court at intermission because crowding into a dressing area for a pep talk violates social distancing protocols. Sidelines, too, will be spaced. Volleyball’s bench will feature chairs spaced 6 feet apart with assigned seating.

Volleyball teams and cross country runners will come to the event dressed and ready to play. Football teams will dress in small groups and cycle through locker rooms as quickly as possible.

“That way we aren’t cross contaminating kids,” VanSickle explained. “They have their assigned seat and that’s where they will keep their stuff. That way no one else can touch their belongings.”

Cross country runners will be required to wear a mask at the start of the race but can remove it once they clear the crowded start line. They will be required to mask up as soon as they finish.

Bus rides will be different, as well. Each player will have an assigned seat so that contact tracing can be done if needed.

“There is a hard cap on how many people can be at an event,” VanSickle explained. “There is a maximum of 200 people at an event, and that includes players, coaches, game officials, trainers and staff.”

To make up for that limitation, schools are doing everything they can to make games available to be streamed live online.

“We had one AD sitting in the stands with his cellphone, streaming the volleyball game straight to YouTube,” the director said.

Many schools will stream their games through High School Sports Online (nfhsnetwork.com). Central Valley, Cheney, Clarkston, East Valley, Ferris, Gonzaga Prep, Mead, Mt. Spokane, North Central, Othello, Pullman, Shadle Park, University and West Valley all stream games through that service.

After almost four decades at University High, VanSickle is navigating uncharted waters as the GSL returns to play.

Growing up across the street from the old University High, VanSickle was a Titans batboy before he ever got to the school as a student athlete. By the time he graduated in 1977, he was a three-sport letter winner, and after a stint at North Pines Junior High, returned to the school as a history teacher and assistant coach in 1989.

He retired after 38 years at the school at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

His new job directing the GSL comes at an unusual time, to say the least.

“It isn’t what I thought it would be, that’s for sure,” he said. “Normally as an AD you set your schedules a year in advance. You don’t adjust them. Then we play.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered all of that. The modified schedules the league will play under, with three mini-seasons squeezed together, is the ninth one the league has put together.

The league’s ADs have met, via Zoom, more times in January than they did in all of the last school year.

The 2020-21 high school sports season was already set to see the first of many changes.

The Mead School District is set to open Union Stadium as the new home field for both Mead and Mt. Spokane high school sports with a pair of games Saturday.

“We talked about doing something to mark the opening of the new stadium, but I think we’re just going to kind of let that slide and maybe do something big when we kick things off in the fall,” Mead athletic director John Barrington said. “We’re excited to get in there and play. It’s a beautiful stadium, the lighting is first-rate and we can fit quite a few fans in there.”

The best guess, he said, is that Saturday’s opening game will be the first home game the Panthers will have played on their own home field in more than four decades. And it will be the first such event for Mt. Spokane.

Rogers High will host a varsity football game at the school for the first time in recent memory.

In a return to play, the league debuts its first season as a three-classification league, welcoming the return of Class 3A Cheney and Class 2A West Valley, East Valley, Pullman and Clarkston as the league absorbs the old Great Northern League.

For this year only Othello joins the league as a Class 2A member.

The newest member of the league joins in the fall when the Central Valley School District opens Ridgeline High near Liberty Lake.

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Steve Christilaw can be reached at steve.christilaw@gmail.com

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