Cascade’s Katie Nelson clears the high bar at the state track and field championships on May 25, 2019, at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Cascade’s Katie Nelson clears the high bar at the state track and field championships on May 25, 2019, at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Where have all the high school sports writers gone?

The dearth of newspapers present at high school spring state events this past weekend was shocking.

Last Friday night, I experienced a moment of profound professional existential crisis.

I was assigned to cover the Class 4A state high school boys soccer semifinal game between Jackson and Puyallup, and I figured I was in for a squeeze. I’ve covered state soccer most years since 2004, so I know there’s limited space in the Sparks Stadium press box for media. With Jackson-Puyallup being the late game, I was concerned about whether I’d be able to find room to set up my computer, and I was steeling myself for the prospect of covering the game from the stands.

Sure enough, when I arrived there were about 15 people crowded into the designated media room in the press box. But when I announced myself as a member of the media, the leader of the group said they’d find another room and cleared out.

And I was left completely alone.

That’s right, it was the state semifinals of the largest school division and I was the only member of the media in the press box. Bellevue and Interlake had completed their 3A state semifinal about an hour earlier, yet there was no sign of my usual state soccer companion, Matt Massey from the Seattle Times, furiously typing up that result. Ferris was at halftime of the other 4A semifinal against Mount Si, yet no one from the Spokane Spokesman-Review was anywhere to be found.

This was unprecedented in my experience. In the past, there was usually a ribald crowd in the press box. In addition to Massey and myself, the Tacoma News Tribune always had someone covering the games. It was common to see reporters from the Spokesman, the Kitsap Sun and the Columbian as well, and outlets such as the Tri-City Herald or Skagit Valley Herald often were in attendance when they had a team involved.

Eventually, Andrew Hammond from the TNT showed up to cover Puyallup, but the press box still felt empty.

While this was significantly different from my previous experiences covering state, I didn’t know if this was true for all sports or unique to 4A/3A soccer this year. After all, the spring is complicated by the fact that pretty much all high school sports hold their championships on the same two days, forcing outlets to spread their resources thinner than skim milk. So I checked in with my fellow Herald reporters to find out what they experienced:

— Josh Horton, who made the trek to Spokane to cover 4A softball, said he was the only media member he encountered over the two days until a reporter freelancing for the Times showed up for the championship game.

— Zac Hereth, who was at 3A softball in Lacey on Friday, said he didn’t see any other reporters.

— Cameron Van Til, who spent all three days at 4A/3A/2A track and field in Tacoma, said there was a robust media presence, with the TNT and the Columbian both there all three days and the numbers swelling for the final day.

So I guess we’re not all gone, but the numbers do seem to be dwindling.

In one sense I’m extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish at The Herald. Our reporting staff is a fraction of what it was when I was brought on board in 2003, yet we sill managed to cover just about everything during state spring sports this year.

We had Cameron and a photographer at all three days of state track, and I love how Andy Bronson captured the emotion on Lake Stevens distance runner Taylor Roe’s face after she won the 4A girls 800 meters.

I’m flabbergasted that we managed to get Josh’s story on Jackson repeating as the 4A state softball champion into the print edition, considering the title tilt didn’t end until after our usual 9:30 p.m. deadline. And photographer Kevin Clark was heroic in driving to and from Spokane the same day — and on short notice — to shoot the championship game between Jackson and Lake Stevens.

Zac didn’t end up having to do it, but he was prepared for double duty on Saturday, covering both the 3A softball championship game and the 4A boys soccer championship game, had we had local teams in both.

Then there was the crew back at the office — sports editor Kevin Brown along with assistant sports editor Chad Davis, copy editor Brian Adamowsky, and sports clerks Andrew Lang and Katie Webber — who had to put it all together while also tracking down results from other locations such as 2A baseball in Yakima and 4A tennis in Richland.

I am in awe of what our team was able to do, and I’m grateful we’re still able to deliver sports news the community cares about, despite continuous cutbacks.

But in another sense I’m saddened by what we seem to be losing. While our community was able to receive comprehensive coverage of state spring sports, that clearly wasn’t the case for all communities across Washington. It no secret that newspapers — and the media as a whole — are facing serious challenges, and there’s all kinds of articles about how the demise of newspapers are creating news deserts where communities are devoid of any local news at all.

Given what I experienced this year, I’m concerned about where things are headed in Washington in that regard.

Maybe we’re not at breaking point yet. Checking the Times’ Sunday section I saw Massey was at state soccer for the 4A and 3A championship games, and there were three full pages of prep coverage. So high school sports are still getting in-person coverage in at least some places.

But I have to say, at least this spring, if sure felt lonely being a sports reporter for a community newspaper.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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