The times, they are a-changin’ across the Greater Spokane League. What would have been a tumultuous season anyway has been thrown for even a bigger loop with the COVID-19 delay and late-February start date.
If coaches around the league are more concerned with getting their athletes some playing time rather than concentrating on a state title – which won’t be available this season anyway – they can be forgiven.
The reclassifications and realignment led to two GSL football divisions – one for the 4A and 3A teams and one for the newly classified 2As, along with the five former Great Northern League teams and Othello, which joins for the season after the Central Washington Athletic Conference was split between COVID regions.
Administrators hope that leads to better competitive balance across the league.
There were no off-season camps or conditioning, and with practice commencing Feb. 15, coaches had just 10 practices in 12 days to get their squads ready for competition, which starts with a full slate of games Saturday.
Graduation seemed to hit the quarterback position harder this year than most.
There are a few players sitting out due to COVID health concerns – or moved to a different state to get in a full season. Unfortunately, the injury bug bit several high-profile players across the league during the shutdown which will preclude their participation.
But football is back in some capacity and everyone involved will keep fingers crossed that there aren’t any more COVID-related setbacks that could postpone or shut down play again.
Bears build from within
Central Valley’s fourth-year coach Ryan Butner is still trying to wrap his head around the changes.
“There’s so much different about this year, I don’t I don’t even know where to start,” he said.
It’s not just this year. The league will change again in 2022 when the new Central Valley School District high school Ridgeline opens.
“With the addition of Cheney (to 3A) this year, that will be new to us,” Butner said. “Haven’t played them for quite some time, since they were in our league a while ago. But then, next year will look a little bit different, too.”
Butner is still adjusting, having missed the first week of practice battling COVID. He said he had two days of “feeling crummy” but was waiting out his quarantine last week.
“It’s good to be back,” he said. “I would do Zoom meetings every day with all of our players, you know, and then they wouldn’t see me at practice and I think they thought I was like the Wizard of Oz or something – like I was on the screen and like, ‘He doesn’t even exist.’ ”
He relied on his experienced staff to manage while he was out.
“The nice thing is we put this protocol in place in the offseason and we established who would take over as head coach and who would take over play calling duties and so on and so forth. So, we were organized and ready.”
The Bears are one of the teams making a switch at quarterback.
All-leaguer Matt Gabbert graduated, leaving junior Luke Abshire to step up. Abshire got some playing time the past two seasons and Butner sees him ready to step up.
“He’s a natural leader,” Butner said. “Guys listen to him. He works hard and is very critical of himself. He does a good job rallying all the players and is so goal-oriented and want to do well and wants to bring guys along with him.”
Butner will have a whole new stable of receivers – but they aren’t new to Abshire.
“You know, he’s kind of brought along his class ever since they were in middle school, to be honest,” Butner said.
“That class has a really good connection already.”
For the past several seasons, the Bears have had a “Swiss Army knife” type of weapon on offense, a guy who does a little bit of everything. This year that player will be Josh Lawson.
“Josh played almost mainly defensive back last year, and now he’s gonna have an opportunity to play wide receiver and running back,” Butner said. “He’s just a big personality. I mean, he’s what, 5-foot-8, 165 pounds maybe, but a huge personality. He livens up the practice field, really talented and explosive.”
CV boasts a couple of emerging stars on the line. Offensive lineman Dane Anderson is headed to Eastern Washington as a preferred walk-on and Sam Brown on the defensive side is headed to Idaho.
Bullpups on the prowl
Gonzaga Prep is one of the few teams in the league not replacing a quarterback. In fact, returning starter Ryan McKenna is just entering his junior season.
“He’s a big part of our offense, and is a great team leader,” coach Dave McKenna – Ryan’s dad – said. “He knows what we want to do there.
“He’ll watch film all the time off my phone or iPad and has done that for a long time, so he’s pretty familiar with what we do.”
Ryan McKenna’s off-season workouts are just a little bit different than most – he plays center for the Spokane Braves, a junior hockey league team in the KIJHL. He scored 12 goals with 13 assists in 38 games in 2019-20 for the Braves.
Coach McKenna, entering his 12th season with the Bullpups, thinks the hockey is doing wonders for his son’s athletic potential.
“Being a multisport guy, playing hockey against high competition, has made him stronger and more aware,” he said. “He was playing a game with a much faster pace.
“It’s been nice because in hockey they’re rubbing bodies as well and so that’s the core strength and lower-body strength – it’s a real benefit. When you’re 16 playing against 20-year-olds there’s a big gap, right, so you better learn how to take a hit. And so that also helps that you’re not awestruck by going against older kids. You’ve been there before, so to say.”
Dave McKenna said he’s been energized along with his athletes with the start of practice.
“Just ecstatic to back out here. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “All the other (COVID) things surrounding it, you know, are challenging because they’re new, but being out on the field with these kids is just awesome.”
All-league RB Jaden Ortega returns to share the backfield with Ryan McKenna in the Bullpups’ option offense.
“He’s a big body and he can run,” coach McKenna said. “He does a lot of great things for us as well. He’s challenging for the opposing team.”
Unfortunately, Division I prospect Kaz Melzer, a junior all-league defensive lineman, will miss the season due to a knee injury sustained during workouts.
“It’s just a shame, but he’s been resilient,” McKenna said. “He’s working hard and he’ll have his senior year when he comes back, so we look forward to having him back when he’s healthy.”
Senior all-league LB Daniel McKiernan and honorable mention lineman Ephraim Watkins will return to lead the Bullpups’ stout defense.
“McKeirnan’s our leader on defense,” McKenna said. “And Watkins started for us as a sophomore last year, he’s our ‘steady Eddie’ guy for us. He’s strong.”
Cheney (6-4, 2-2 Great Northern): The Blackhawks make the jump to 3A in coach Bobby Byrd’s seventh season. He has 12 starters returning, including All-GNL linebacker Ben McGourin and lineman James Whitely. But like much of the league, Cheney has to replace a departed quarterback. “I think up front on both sides of the ball we have a good line up with good depth,” Byrd said. “We are excited to get the privilege to play.”
Ferris (8-2, 3-2): Coach Tom Yearout, in his fourth season at Ferris and 13th overall, has 20 lettermen back but just three returning starters: senior DB Mason Backlund and linemen Nathan DePaulo and DJ Romero. “We are replacing an experienced and successful group with many new faces who have not played a lot of GSL varsity snaps,” he said. “Our plan will revolve around staying in games with our defense and developing an identity on offense as the season progresses.”
Lewis and Clark (3-7, 0-5): Joe Ireland takes over at coach in place of Dave Hughes, who became the full-time athletic director last year. There are 19 lettermen and eight starters back, including seniors Keel Potter and Jace Parbon, who will both go two ways. “The Tigers have a solid core of veterans returning led by a committed senior class of leaders,” Ireland said. There’s experience at skill positions, but both lines were hurt by graduation.
Mead (7-3, 4-1): Seventh-year coach Benji Sonnichsen has 31 lettermen returning, but that doesn’t include 4A MVP Ryan Blair or all-state defender Ben Voigtlaender. Senior RBs Caleb Shawen and Nick Terrill will get plenty of work. “Due to the shortened preparation, we are platooning our team to give us the best chance to execute our assignments,” Sonnichsen said. He needs two wins for 100 in his career.
Mt. Spokane (9-3, 3-0): The Wildcats have five 3A league titles in coach Terry Cloer’s six seasons but graduated 17 starters – including all-state RB Kannon Katzer – and lost all-league picks Cooper and Carter Miethe to knee injuries sustained while wrestling this off-season. Connor Marll takes over full time at QB and all-league fullback Hudson Gilbert will help ease his load. Junior kicker Ethan Moczulski is all-state caliber.
University (2-8, 1-4): Second-year coach Kaleb Madison will count on strong line play – the Titans have four starting senior linemen returning including Blake Womble and Kyler Anstrom – to stabilize things while the young skill players get up to speed. “We have some hard-working players, willing to put in the time and energy to improve and learn,” he said.
Clarkston (9-2, 4-0): Coach Brycen Bye is entering his seventh season with the Bantams, looking for his first GSL title after three in the GNL. He has 12 returning lettermen and 11 starters, including three two-way senior linemen. Senior all-league RB Eddie Berglund will get the bulk of the carries and senior newcomer Terrell Lawson will replace Kaeden Frazier taking the snaps. “We have 16 seniors, so we have good experience with several juniors that started games last season as well,” Bye said.
East Valley (1-8, 0-4): Coach Tom Griggs, in his third season with the Knights, has 18 starters returning from last year’s squad that took some lumps as they learned. Senior QB Henry Stevens is back, as is wideout Ryan Conrath. Senior linemen Makias Williams-Curtis and Dylan Embree will provide leadership, and outside linebacker Naaman Deakins transfers in from U-Hi.
North Central (1-9, 1-2): Third-year coach Sean Garvey no longer has his all-league RB/LB son to rely on as Kade Garvey graduated. Junior QB Carter Strom and a pair of senior all-league honorable mentions – LB Thizzelle Walton and OL/DL Alex Baker – will take on more responsibility. “We will need to master the basics to be successful,” Garvey said. “All of our focus will be set on playing safe, solid football.”
Othello (6-5, 3-1 CWAC): Coach Roger Hoell enters his 27th season under new circumstances. The Huskies lost in the first round of state last year to Lynden and are happy to have the opportunity to play in the restructured GSL this season. “Our kids are excited to play,” he said. “They have shown perseverance and resilience through this. They are motivated and ready to go out and compete after 15 months since their last game.”
Pullman (6-4, 2-2): Coach David Cofer, in his fourth year, has to replace the league player of the year and three other first-team all-league selections, but he has 20 lettermen and nine starters back. “Our senior class includes 11 guys who really embrace the team mentality and provide solid leadership for our program,” he said. Carson Coulter and Riley Pettitt will compete at QB while all-league linemen Gabe Westensee and Tanner Richartz are anchors.
Rogers (1-8, 0-3): Details were unavailable.
Shadle Park (5-5, 2-1): Seventh-year coach Jim Mace returns not one, but two capable quarterbacks as Ryan Schmidt and Logan Doyle will both line up under center – as well as other positions. Mace said he’s “hoping for big years from Schmidt and Doyle.” The Highlanders will be young up front and will rely on the skill guys as the linemen gel.
West Valley (7-3, 2-2): Craig Whitney returns in for his 16th year as coach, bringing five GNL titles with him. There are 33 lettermen back and 14 starters, but Nick Toole takes over for league MVP Matt Allen at QB. “We will work hard to have one-way players and provide rest to those who play both ways,” Whitney said. “Our depth is good and I like our chances on both offense and defense.”
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