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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Kids first, then sports at St. Maries

| August 13, 2020 1:15 AM

Often, we’re under the cloud of wildfire smoke as fall sports practices begin in North Idaho in early August.

This year, we’re under the cloud of COVID-19.

Despite that, high school teams across North Idaho began practicing as scheduled on Monday.

Except for St. Maries.

The St. Maries school board, by a 5-0 vote, decided Monday night to delay the start of fall practices for St. Maries High teams by one month, to Sept. 10.

Cause for concern elsewhere?

Or just an abundance of caution?

“We all agree we want the kids back in school, back in sports for the most part, because for a lot of them, that’s their home, their stability,” board chairman Jody Hendrickx said. “But we also have to look at the bigger picture — if we go ahead practicing fall sports right now, and there’s cases that show up, it could be detrimental to the start-up date for school.”

THE DECISION has left St. Maries athletic director Todd Gilkey scrambling — canceling football games, and trying to squeeze as many rescheduled games into an already-short fall sports season in volleyball, boys soccer and girls soccer.

But he’s OK with it.

“Yes, I’m 100 percent behind this decision,” Gilkey said. “I support it, because the most important thing for our kids is their education, and if we can get ’em in school, and started in a routine, and get them in some face-to face learning, and then start gradually introducing sports ... If we can get through this, yes, it hurts the fall sports, I know the fall sports kids are going to be impacted. But if we can get through the early part of the school year, maybe that will make sure we get through the whole school year, and be able to have the winter and spring sports, and not have them be affected.”

FROM AN academic side, Hendrickx and Gilkey both stressed how important it was for students at St. Maries to be in the classroom, as opposed to trying to learn online. As of now, St. Maries is planning for students to be in classrooms when school begins Sept. 8 with a four-day, limited schedule each week, with early release.

Hendrickx said a task force in St. Maries which included teachers, administrators and parents worked for more than a month, noting what has happened elsewhere in the country. Eventually, the board acted on a recommendation from St. Maries High principal John Cordell, a former girls basketball coach at the school.

“Kids, they need to be in school,” Hendrickx said. “What concerns me is, we have a lot of unstable homes, where school is pretty much a set schedule for them ... it’s a routine for them, and a feel-safe area for them. We need to get these kids to where they feel safe, and they’re around friends.”

LUMBERJACK TEAMS planned to start practicing on Monday, but it was decided they should wait until after hearing the results of the school board meeting that night.

Now, they’ll wait another month.

This, after all spring sports teams in Idaho had their seasons cut short in mid-March, after only a couple weeks of practices and, for some, a game or two, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Since high school teams in Idaho need 10 practices before their first competition, the earliest a St. Maries team could play is Sept. 22, Gilkey said.

That means the Lumberjacks’ first four football games have been canceled.

And that’s after Gilkey already had to work to re-do the football schedule.

St. Maries was originally scheduled to play Kellogg, Lakeside (Nine Mile Falls, Wash.), Freeman and Lakeland in its first four games, starting Aug. 28.

When Washington recently moved its fall sports season to the spring, Gilkey scheduled games with Moscow and Priest River to replace Lakeside and Freeman.

Now, St. Maries, a 2A school, will open Sept. 25 at home vs. 3A Timberlake. It will be the Tigers’ fourth game of the season.

“It would have been a tough game for us, even if it had been our fourth game,” Gilkey said.

St. Maries is scheduled to play host to Bonners Ferry on Oct. 2, then play its two Central Idaho League games, at Grangeville on Oct. 9 and vs. Orofino on Oct. 23.

Gilkey said he might try to find a game for the Lumberjacks’ bye week on Oct. 16, so St. Maries would at least have five regular-season games.

THEN THERE’S soccer.

The 2A and 3A schools in North Idaho combine for one big league in boys and girls soccer, which means seven teams (and 12 league games) each for the St. Maries boys and girls. Each Lumberjack soccer team has seven of its league games scheduled prior to Sept. 22.

The District 1-2 tournament is scheduled to start Oct. 12 — 20 days later.

“We play two of the schools within the first three weeks of the soccer season, and then we wouldn’t see them again until districts,” Gilkey said. “If that’s the case, there’s no chance to even play em once. We might have to re-arrange some schedules, and maybe only play another school once so I can make up a game with somebody we were supposed to play twice in the first three weeks of the season.”

If St. Maries (or any other team that has to reschedule due to COVID) can’t play all its league games prior to districts, league officials will have to figure out how to seed the district tourneys. The Lumberjacks won’t have to forfeit those games, as the Idaho High School Activities Association ruled teams won’t be punished if they have to cancel games due to COVID-19.

Re-doing the volleyball schedule won’t be such a headache — at least as far as league games, as there are only two other teams in the CIL. The ’Jacks were scheduled to play at the Lewiston Invitational on Aug. 29, but that has been canceled. So has the Linda Sheridan Classic in Spokane, one of the top tourneys in the Northwest, which was axed when Washington moved fall sports to the spring.

Idaho discussed pushing back the start of its sports seasons like they did in Washington, where sports will start in late December and run into June, with slightly condensed seasons, before opting to move ahead with its usual schedule.

Gilkey said an argument could be made for both ways.

“I don’t know if the Washington model is perfect, but at least they’re giving all the fall, winter and spring sports a chance to play, and maybe by not playing early in the year, and with what they’re doing with school, it might calm the number of COVID (cases) down ... it might be able to work,” he said. “And if it doesn’t work, at least they tried something.”

MEANWHILE, THE St. Maries school board plans to hold an emergency meeting in late August (date TBA), at which time it could reconsider its new start date for fall sports.

In the meantime, schedules are being created with pencil and eraser, rather than with ink.

“It’s all a big jigsaw puzzle we’re trying to put together,” Gilkey said. “It’s going to be an interesting year, to see if we can all make it through this.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.