Life during the pandemic has been all about playing the waiting game. Waiting for curves to flatten. Waiting to reconnect with loved ones and friends. Waiting for businesses and restaurants to reopen. Waiting for sports to return. Waiting for a vaccine.
So asking folks to wait just a little bit longer in order to watch their kids play high school sports again seems like a tough ask – and some are tired of waiting.
When Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Feb. 11 the state had moved into Phase 2, high school athletes and their families were overjoyed that sports competitions could return.
Traditional fall sports football, volleyball and girls soccer are now taking place across the Greater Spokane League and other state leagues, even as Idaho has already conducted fall and winter sports and is getting ready for the boys state basketball tournament.
But at least Washington is playing high school sports again, and it’s been good for all involved.
“All the protocols we’ve planned and set up to get games going again have been working,” GSL director Ken VanSickle said. “Families and kids have been following the rules in place to allow them to compete and we’ve been having good success with that.”
But now, some of those family members are growing impatient to see their kids in action. At least one local group has started an online petition to allow fans and a student section into games.
The state still has restrictions on the number of people that can be part of a sporting event – and the way that number is distributed is adding to the frustration.
The maximum number of total participants for any sporting event in the state under Phase 2 – professional, college or high school – is 200 people (or 25% capacity, whichever is lower). That number includes players, coaches, administrators, staff and spectators.
The same limitations apply to Gonzaga basketball and the Gonzaga Prep Bullpups. The Washington State Cougars follow the same rules as the Chewelah Cougars. The Seattle Seahawks have to comply just as the Cheney Blackhawks.
It’s non-negotiable, at least until the governor relaxes the COVID parameters again.
“We understand the frustration the parents are feeling,” VanSickle said. “We feel it, too. Most (coaches and administrators) have or has had kids play in the GSL and we know how important it is for families to share in making those memories – especially for our senior athletes.”
One of the big problems is the vastly different number of participants in the fall sports. Volleyball rosters consist of roughly 20 players and coaches, and soccer teams have 25 to 30, allowing those sports to have a strictly limited number of spectators.
Football teams, however, can have upwards of 80 to 100 participants per team, on top of officials and game staff.
“Some (football) games we’ve struggled to get below the 200 threshold,” VanSickle said.
That creates friction when one set of parents can watch their kids play in person, even inside, while others are limited to a blurry game stream on the internet – or peering through a chain-link fence from several hundred yards away, without wearing masks, as they were Saturday at Union Stadium and other venues.
“All they want is to see their kids play,” VanSickle said.
“I know if we let (parents) in they will mask up and they will follow the rules,” VanSickle said. “I think it would be safer if they were inside following the state rules.”
Another complicating factor is that some parents might not be caught up on the finer details of the protocols, believing that the school district or individual school is limiting their access to their kids’ games.
“Just like with restaurants, just like with other businesses that have to follow rules from the state to reopen, we have rules from the state to follow, too,” VanSickle said.
And while all this plays out in Washington, further adding to the frustration is neighboring Idaho – which has been playing sports since the start of the school year – opening their gyms to full crowds for the district basketball playoffs.
VanSickle said the league is hoping to send out a letter to parents soon emphasizing that they are in constant contact with the Spokane Regional Health District and working with that entity and the state in order to safely open the bleachers to parents again as soon as possible. The league petitioned SRHD to be able to have each participating athlete invite two family members to each contest and is awaiting the decision.
All that said, the coaches and players that have been able to take the field and courts are grateful – and relieved – to be playing, even if it is to mostly-empty stands for now.
“There were a lot of days where I didn’t think we would see today,” Mt. Spokane football coach Terry Cloer said Saturday after the Wildcats fell to Gonzaga Prep 10-7 at the grand opening of Union Stadium, the Mead School District’s new outdoor sports facility. “It’s great to get out here and compete with this group and watch these seniors get an opportunity to play the game that they love so much.”
“It really looked bleak for a long time,” Gonzaga Prep defensive lineman Ephraim Watkins said Saturday. “I really thought the governor was gonna say no. So, to be honest, I’m elated. I’m just happy to play, and I hope tonight proved that we all were extremely excited, extremely blessed to play tonight.”
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