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Sports >  High school sports

Spirit delayed: Greater Spokane League postpones rivalry games at Arena due to surging COVID numbers

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 12, 2022

School districts have been dealing with the “new normal” with regard to COVID and the subsequent protocols for almost two years, but that doesn’t lessen the disappointment any time a tradition is upended or altered.

After consultation with Spokane Regional Health District, the Greater Spokane League on Wednesday officially announced the postponement of Spirit Week at the Spokane Arena from next week until the second week of February, as several area athletic programs and school districts are shutting down temporarily.

“With surging cases in our schools right now among students and staff, we just didn’t want to put any of our communities in danger by putting them at an event where the omicron variant could spread,” GSL director Ken VanSickle said.

Due to rising COVID case numbers across the region, the SRHD on Tuesday urged schools to cancel or postpone large events until case rates stabilize. On its website, the SRHD cited “extremely high COVID-19 transmission rates” as a deterrent to hold those events next week as scheduled.

The high school sports schedule over the past week has been decimated with postponements due to COVID protocols and hazardous weather and road conditions.

“We want to keep our kids playing. We want to keep them safe. We want to keep them in school,” VanSickle said.

“We’re going to follow the recommendations from Spokane Regional Health. So, the games have been moved. They aren’t canceled.”

The three sets of games traditionally held at the Arena, along with the rivalry games between East Valley and West Valley, have been rescheduled:

  • Feb. 7: Lewis and Clark vs Ferris (“Rubber Chicken”)
  • Feb. 8: Central Valley vs University (“Stinky Sneaker”)
  • Feb. 9: East Valley vs West Valley (“Golden Throne”)
  • Feb. 10: North Central vs Shadle Park (“Groovy Shoes”)

All games will be held at the Arena, which “worked with the league” financially, according to VanSickle, to add the “Golden Throne” games – normally played at home gyms – to the schedule.

“All of our schools involved in spirit games, their ASBs, teams and community put a lot of work and effort into those games and the performances,” VanSickle said.

The events, popular with the teams, entire student bodies and faculty, are now squeezed into the schedule just before the District 8 playoffs, which start with the 4A play-in game on Feb. 10 and conclude at the Arena Feb. 18-19.

The ‘best decision’

Scott Harmon is a history and leadership teacher at Shadle Park who is annually involved with putting on “Groovy Shoes.”

“It was absolutely the best decision,” he said. “It would’ve been a bit hypocritical to have an event that draws nearly 4,000 people to the arena in which people are asked to scream and yell as loud as they can during a time that their mouths are the single greatest way of spreading this disease. Even though we put wearing masks on the scorecard and asking our students to follow the safety protocols, it’s difficult to enforce that policy.

“If we look at having to delay or cancel the event in terms of public safety, we absolutely need to do that first and foremost.”

Most students appreciated the call for safety, even if they were disappointed by the outcome.

“It was the right call,” Shadle Park junior Jayce Rodriguez said. “They want us to pack the house with a new virus adaptation? That doesn’t sound like the greatest idea.”

“The model is literally shoulder-to-shoulder ‘pack the house,’ ” Shadle Park junior Connor Bayless said. “And there’s omicron and you already know people aren’t going to have their masks up because they’re going to want to cheer.”

Some saw the decision as an inevitability.

“It sucks, but I pretty much saw it coming,” North Central junior Christian Leonard said. “With rising cases and the possibility of school going back online if teachers can’t come in, it was probably a good move. I just hope it doesn’t get totally canceled.”

“I would say that it was the right thing to do, as at North Central a lot of our cheer team has COVID and people all over the school are getting it,” North Central junior Jesse Leach said.

VanSickle stressed the need for spectators to follow public health guidelines when attending athletic events, including wearing properly fitting face masks, social distancing and sitting in family pods as much as possible. He also pointed out that most schools and districts have stopped selling concessions in the hopes more fans will remain masked during games.

“Our hope is that the numbers will be heading down, and we’ll be able to have these spirit games,” VanSickle said. “We’re hoping we don’t have, for lack of a better term, any mitigation where we have to have (fans) show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test. That is something on the table and will depend on the recommendation of Spokane Regional Health when that time comes.”

Several leagues on the West Side of the state have restricted or eliminated fans in order to continue playing, and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association this week implored fans to wear masks – or risk losing fan participation at upcoming state tournaments.

On pause

The GSL is comprised of 16 teams among nine school districts in the region.

Several of those districts, after consulting public health administrators, have recently implemented additional measures against the surge fueled by the omicron variant.

Gonzaga Prep made a decision to return to remote learning starting on Wednesday. School officials have targeted Jan. 24 for a return to in-person learning.

“Five of our eight basketball programs, along with wrestling and cheer, are shut down right now,” G-Prep athletic director Paul Manfred said. “Twelve percent of our student body has tested positive since the Christmas break.”

In addition, after consulting with Whitman County Department of Health and district administrative staff, the Pullman school district on Wednesday announced a two-week moratorium on athletic participation citing “an increase in the number of student-athletes identified as a close contact or testing positive,” according to statement by district superintendent Bob Maxwell.

In the Mead School District, the decision was temporarily taken out of their hands.

The district doesn’t have a school or athletic program in COVID protocol but is suffering from a shortage of testing material and cannot administer the tests required by the state to remain competing.

They were able to play their spirit basketball games, “Pack the Palace,” on Tuesday, but wrestling matches for Mead and Mt. Spokane for Wednesday and Thursday were postponed. The gymnastics teams for both schools were forced to bow out of Wednesday’s meet.

Basketball games on Friday and wrestling over the weekend is pending testing material.

“A lot of people weren’t sure exactly what happened,” Mead athletic director John Barrington said. “We ordered (testing material) the same time as other folks and we just haven’t gotten ours. My understanding is it’s a shipping delay, and that’s where we’re at.

“It’s hardest on the kids. And it’s hard on our coaches. They’ve been doing so much work just to keep things going and then to have this piece add to the mix is just incredibly frustrating.”

With the increase in the number of postponements in the past few weeks, and the active “pauses” by several school districts, GSL officials have concerns about completing a full schedule for winter sports before the district playoffs.

“We still have a window that’s big enough, I think, to get them all in,” Barrington said.

“We’re going to look at scheduling,” VanSickle said. “Our goal is to have everybody face each other – we’d like to have a true GSL champ.

“We’ll make adjustments if it gets to the point we can’t make things up.”

Correspondent Jordan Tolley-Turner contributed to this report.

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