Longtime Lake City boys basketball coach and administrator Jim Winger occasionally glances at a photo in his office, sparking reminiscence of a much simpler time.
The framed image includes a sea of navy blue and teal on one side of the Coeur d’Alene school’s gym and an equally raucous, blue and white crowd on the other.
Pom-poms, balloons, painted faces, themes, halftime shows and chants make up the pageantry of the annual Fight for the Fish boys and girls basketball doubleheader, which often attracts roughly 3,000 spirited spectators.
“The picture doesn’t look real considering what we’re doing now,” said Winger, who has seen the spirit game grow since its 1999 inception. “And this would have been the craziest year by far.”
But the coronavirus pandemic – limiting venues to nonfans or tiny groups – took away the 2020-2021 edition of the North Idaho town’s cherished event, which often raises thousands of dollars for each of the respective schools
The year’s amended version – Spirit of the Fish last week at Coeur d’Alene – was a much different spectacle. Each rostered player was allowed two guests to watch the girls game, which saw Coeur d’Alene (12-1, 7-0 Inland Empire League) handle Lake City (6-4, 3-2) 67-40.
The Coeur d’Alene (2-4, 1-2) and Lake City (5-4, 1-0) boys game was postponed due a positive coronavirus test.
Half the games, little spectators and a fraction of the spirit.
“We’ve hadn’t had fans, but this is a different level. The energy is so different,” said Coeur d’Alene girls standout Skylar Burke, who had 15 points in Friday’s win.
“It’s not just another league game. Fight for the Fish, before this year, is crazy and you can’t hear anything. The crowd goes crazy.”
Spirit doubleheaders are celebrated in the Inland Northwest and often bring as much pride and enthusiasm as homecoming football games.
Each has a longstanding moniker.
In North Idaho, there’s also the Battle for the Paddle (Lakeland vs. Sandpoint), the Golden Throne (Lewiston vs. Clarkston) Battle for the Buck (Timberlake vs. Priest River) and Brawl for the Ball (St. Maries vs. Kellogg).
“Kids who otherwise wouldn’t attend a sporting event would ask me, ‘When is the Fight for the Fish?’ ” so they could plan ahead and get that day off from their after-school jobs,” Winger said.
Spokane also has its spirit doubleheaders, including the popular Stinky Sneaker between Central Valley and University.
It’s unclear if Washington schools will allow fans when they begin their postponed seasons, but with Spokane County in Phase 1 of its reopening, spirit games in the Lilac City also appear to be in jeopardy.
This would have been Battle for the Buck week at Timberlake, where Timberlake Athletic Director Tim Cronnelley can feel a major void.
“One of the funnest weeks of the year. So much goes into it,” Cronnelly said. “It’s so great for the morale of the school and the kids. You can add it to the list of losses.
“But, with the way things have gone, it’s shown that kids are more resilient than we think they are.”
But Idaho student-athletes and coaches can deal with the losses of packed rivalry games if it means playing a season, and empathize with neighboring Washington high school athletes who’ve yet to play a game.
“At least we’re still playing,” Winger said. “Many kids would love that opportunity.”
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