Coaches, players prepare for Phase 3

Having a handful of fans in the stands for Seattle Mariners games got plenty of attention in the state of Washington’s recent announcement of moving to Phase 3 COVID-19 restrictions.

What didn’t get as much attention was the effect on prep sports, and it’s a big one, especially for certain sports.

Phase 3 went into effect Monday, and local coaches and athletic directors are thrilled. For spring sports, which began their practices last week, it means more people can be allowed into the stands for games.

But the sports most impacted are the indoor sports, which were considered high-risk for the spread of COVID-19.

They know now that they actually get to play. That was seriously in doubt before. They not only get to play, but play in front of fans.

“No. 1 biggest change is high-risk sports will be able to compete,” said Sequim High School athletic director Dave Ditlefsen.

“I’m full-on excited,” said Port Angeles wrestling coach Rob Gale.

Gale said that not only can prep wrestling start April 26, but the Port Angeles Wrestling Club for kids from kindergarten to middle school can also start in Phase 3.

It’s a bit confusing to fans and parents who are used to the sport seasons following the familiar fall, winter and spring schedule.

This time around the fall sports season, which concluded last week, will move right past winter and directly into spring sports, which begin competition this week.

High-risk winter sports got postponed to the end of April, in the hopes that the COVID-19 infection rates and numbers of people vaccinated would allow them to be played.

“That sure looks like it was a good move right now,” Ditlefsen said.

Gale said when the decision was made late last year to push the winter sports last in the cycle of seasons, he thought it was a good idea. If winter sports had stayed with a proposed February start date, the chance to compete may have been completely lost, he said.

“Part of me was thinking later is better,” he said. “And now it’s happening.”

Port Angeles head boys’ basketball coach Kasey Ulin said he and his players are thrilled. Their season begins April 26.

He said that when he told his players that Phase 3 was beginning March 22 and that there would be a basketball season, “there were a lot of smiles.”

Ulin also said it’s important that players will be able to compete in front of fans. Attendance will still be limited in Phase 3, with 25 percent capacity in gyms. And fans will be required to wear masks.

“Having the people that care about you. Your family and friends in the stands cheering you on. That’s a major part of athletics,” Ulin said. “Sports are really important for the kids and the community. We’ve missed that severely over the last 12 months.”

Ulin and Gale both spoke about the mental and emotional drain on kids during the past year.

“The mental wear and tear. I think it’s dangerous,” Ulin said.

Gale said he just got a text from a woman who is happy for her son who has been depressed because he hasn’t been able to play sports during the past year.

“Some kids are in desperate need of it,” he said.

Ulin said coaches and athletic directors are working on creating a nine-team Olympic League for basketball. There won’t be state level competitions, but he said ADs are working on possibly creating a double-elimination league tournament at the end of the regular season.

With no state tourney, some kind of postseason tournament “would create such a positive goal to strive for to end the season,” Ulin said.

Ditlefsen said the Phase 3 changes don’t dramatically change the outdoor spring sports coming up next week — baseball, softball, boys soccer, golf, etc. More fans will be allowed into the stands than for the fall sports, which limited or restricted attendance altogether.

However, fans will still be required to wear masks, and players will be going through the same COVID-19 protocols and guidelines.

As far as wrestling, one thing that will have to be settled is whether wrestlers need to wear a mask. Gale isn’t sure that could work as masks would be pulled off continuously during matches. This remains an issue to be settled.

For the fall sports, players wore masks during competition except for cross country running. It was eventually decided in cross country that runners could take off their masks after the start of the race.

Ulin said some of his players have been involved in AAU basketball during the past eight months to keep in shape. Gale said kids have been working on their own with family members or working out simply staying in shape during that time.

In any case, coaches are eager for Monday to arrive for the beginning of Phase 3 as the area moves a little closer to a sense of normalcy.

“It’s hard to put into words. It’s almost surreal,” Ulin said.

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