The rain fell steadily for most of the day in Lake Stevens.
But just in the nick of time, it let up for the Lake Stevens High School football team’s season-opening practice Monday afternoon.
“It was like the parting of the Red Sea,” Vikings coach Tom Tri said. “It knew that it was practice time for Lake Stevens. It was awesome.”
The weather was an apt metaphor for what Snohomish County high school athletes have experienced over the last year.
It’s been a long and uncertain wait as to whether they would get a chance to play this school year because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But the waiting came to an end Monday, which was the first official day of practices for traditional fall sports in Wesco.
It marked the end of a layoff that spanned 15-plus months for football, girls soccer, volleyball, cross country, boys tennis, and girls swim and dive teams in Snohomish County’s largest high school athletics league.
“It meant the world,” Lake Stevens senior football player Max Moenoa said. “I’ve dedicated like my whole life to play this game, and it almost being taken away from me was a big thing that I wasn’t ready to face. … Just being able to play is an honor, so I’m excited about it.”
Wesco athletes had been sidelined since last spring because of coronavirus restrictions. But after Snohomish County moved to Phase 2 of the state’s new reopening strategy last month, the path was cleared for high school sports to return. About a week later, Wesco athletic directors approved a plan that features condensed seasons of six weeks apiece for fall, winter and spring sports.
For the Lake Stevens football team, the energy and enthusiasm was palpable at Monday’s practice. It marked the first time in 457 days — dating back to their heartbreaking Class 4A state quarterfinal loss to Mount Si on Nov. 23, 2019 — that the Vikings had been together on a football field for an official in-season activity.
“Today was probably the most excited I’ve been to practice,” Lake Stevens senior quarterback Tanner Jellison said. “I was talking to my buddy and I was telling him, ‘Dude, I’m like so excited today. I have butterflies.’ It’s just crazy. (We) haven’t been able to practice in 15 months, so it’s awesome.”
Every day before entering practice, all Lake Stevens athletes will have to undergo a temperature check and complete an online form that declares they don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms and haven’t been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for the virus.
Athletes and coaches are required to wear masks for the entirety of their practices and games. The only exceptions are cross country runners during races, and swimmers and divers when they are in the water. Athletes and coaches are encouraged to remain socially distanced as much as possible.
“I truly feel like a first-year coach all over again,” said Tri, who’s entering his 16th season at the helm of the Vikings’ football program. “Everything from your procedures to your routines to how you might run a practice and the way we try to disseminate information to our players — everything is different this year, so it’s all been outside-the-box thinking.”
Lake Stevens teams had been limited to virtual meetings until just a few weeks ago, when they began conditioning once or twice per week. With the first competitions taking place next week, it will be a particularly quick ramp-up for the Vikings and their fellow Wesco squads.
Wesco girls soccer, volleyball, cross country and boys tennis are scheduled to begin competitions next Tuesday and Wednesday. The first Wesco football games are set for next Saturday.
“We’re in uncharted waters in terms of preparing for a season,” Tri said, “but still grateful for the opportunity to get the guys out and have a chance to play.”
It will be a short season for Wesco teams, who are scheduled to play roughly the equivalent of a half season’s worth of games or meets. Wesco teams are limited to facing one another. There will be no postseason for any sport.
Football teams are scheduled to play five games apiece. Most girls soccer and volleyball teams are slated for nine matches. Boys tennis teams are scheduled for eight or nine matches. Cross country teams each have four scheduled meets.
Swim and dive teams will be limited to time trials, due to capacity restrictions for pools.
“Our swim and dive coaches have had to be the most creative of all the coaches in terms of navigating through this,” Lake Stevens athletic director Jason Pearson said.
The lack of a postseason is undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for many athletes and teams, including the powerhouse Lake Stevens football program. The Vikings reached the 4A state playoffs each of the last six seasons, including four state quarterfinal trips, two state semifinal trips and a state championship game appearance in 2018. They had aspirations of making another state playoff run this season.
“It does suck that we won’t have a state playoff, but it’s all right,” Jellison said. “We’ve got five games to go showcase our full potential and play to our full ability, so I’m excited to play.”
One unique aspect of this season is that it’s allowed some teams to schedule opponents they wouldn’t normally face.
The Lake Stevens football team is set to open against local 2A power Archbishop Murphy, which will be a highly compelling public school-private school clash between two of the top football programs in the county. The Vikings, a member of the new five-team Wesco 4A, then face four of the area’s top Wesco 3A teams: former Wesco 4A rival Monroe, Snohomish, Marysville Pilchuck and Arlington. Several of those teams were former league rivals of Lake Stevens before moving down to the 3A level.
“It’s kind of refreshing for me as a coach to play some of our old longtime rivals (again),” Tri said. “… We’re happy we have an opportunity to play those schools.”
With the ongoing pandemic, nothing is guaranteed. There is the possibility of COVID-related postponements or cancellations. And for football, volleyball and girls soccer, Snohomish County’s region must remain in Phase 2 for games to take place.
But on Monday, it was all about hope, optimism and gratitude.
“(We’ve) learned to become very grateful,” Tri said. “… I think there was truly a time — middle of December and maybe even into early January — where we were getting to a point where we didn’t think we were going to have a season, and that was very depressing.
“I’m just grateful that we’re having this opportunity to do it again.”