Liberty Bell Junior/Senior High School athletics are back in their traditional seasonal slots this fall, after a year of COVID-related adjustments: compressed seasons, cross country in the snow, basketball in 100 degree weather, no district, regional or state tournaments.
This week we are previewing the football and cross country seasons. Next week we turn our attention to volleyball and girls’ soccer.
When former Liberty Bell coach Bob Bucsko recommended petitioning the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to permit the Mountain Lions into the B 8-man football division, some praised the recommendation, some were opposed to it. But the numbers were clear: It was the only way for a football program to survive.
Third-year head coach Jeff Lidey, formerly a Bucsko assistant, is a big fan of that decision. “We just didn’t have the numbers of players to safely put a team together for the 11-man game,” Lidey said. “At the B-8 level, we have seen less injuries and more kids play.”
Lidey’s 2021 team has 24 players on the roster who are going through drills already. The junior high program is growing in popularity as well.
The WIAA accepted Liberty Bell’s petition for the 2019 season under a probationary year to ensure the school was an appropriate fit for the 8-man game statewide. Liberty Bell was approved for full participation in time for the 2020 season, only to see it postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, then adapted to a shortened spring season.
The Mountain Lions ended up with a 4-1 season record and were ranked fourth in a statewide coaches/media poll, their only loss on the road in their first game to perennial power Almira-Coulee-Hartline.
Junior quarterback Jeff Lidey leads this year’s team, which is light on seniors but heavy on enthusiasm. Two of the 12 freshmen on the roster, Lucien Paz and Morgan Spellman, are also throwing balls to receivers at camp. Paz may have the early lead for the first backup spot, and will see plenty of playing time on both sides of the ball at running back and defensively in the backfield. There is some good speed in the receiving corps with seniors Noah Holston and Sawyer Crandall nabbing passes, and several members of a very athletic freshmen class also stepping in. Look for Quincy Scott to have an impact early on.
The offensive and defensive front lines are where the really good teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and a point of concern for Coach Lidey. “We only have three or four kids who want to play in the interior line right now,” he said. “The 8-man game is all about technique more than size. If we can get a few more kids interested in the offensive line, all we need is that one block that can spring a play.”
Conditioning has also been an issue with COVID limitations placed on facilities like the Lions’ Den conditioning center. With the relaxation of some restrictions by the State Department of Health, and the enthusiastic response to the school’s vaccination program by eligible students, some of those indoor training opportunities are now returning.
The Mountain Lions open the 2021 season at home on Sept. 10 as the lights get turned back on at Mountain Lion Stadium for a 7 p.m. tilt with the Concrete Lions. The early test for Liberty Bell comes the following week when the Mountain Lions travel to the Blue Mountains to face Pomeroy on Sept. 17.
“They’re always near the top and should be a good game for us,” Lidey of Pomeroy.
The second of two consecutive road games follows at Waterville, then there is an Oct. 1 home match-up with Pateros followed by a trip to Soap Lake for the second straight season. A three-game home stand versus Entiat, Waterville and Bridgeport closes out the regular season.
“Top-ranked Odessa gave us a call about playing,” Lidey said. “That gives you an indication of how we have improved over the past two years when the No. 1 team wants a game. We just didn’t have room in the schedule.”
Occasional becomes traditional when something is repeated so many times it becomes an expected behavior. With so many appearances at the WIAA state championship meet, Liberty Bell cross country has a solid argument that state appearances are now at least a habit, if not tradition.
The program heads into the 2021 season with some streaks intact, and a solid core of runners on both the girls’ and boys’ teams, including a promising group of freshmen.
They open up the season on Sept. 11 with a trip to Bellingham for the Gear Up Preview race, make a stop in Wenatchee on Sept. 18, travel to the Nike Twilight in Marysville on Oct. 2, and look forward to the state championships in Pasco on Nov. 6. Liberty Bell will host a meet on Oct. 9.
Senior Jori Grialou headlines the girls’ team and looks to return to form after missing last spring’s season to compete in regional and national Nordic skiing events. She has been an integral part of the women’s 1st- and 2nd-place podium placings at state in 2018 and 2019.
While Grialou was not a part of the equation in 2020, there were some exciting and promising moments provided by freshman Leki Albright, who won several races before her season was derailed by injuries. Albright returns healed and healthy this year, joined by classmates Dashe McCabe and Sandra Hernandez and incoming freshman Zoe Kaltenbach. Seniors Peyton Kaufmann and Kierra Reichert are also back and look to contribute.
“We’d like to continue the tradition of state,” said Albright. The Mountain Lion women have qualified for state five consecutive years, placing 5th in 2015, winning three straight team titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and placing 2nd in 2019.
The boys look for their 11th straight trip to state as a team, a run that began in 2010 and has only been interrupted by the lack of a state meet in 2020. The promise of this young team became evident at the league championships at Manson in early April when Liberty Bell surprised the field by placing second as a team behind Manson, with three runners (two freshmen and a sophomore) finishing in the top 10.
Sophomores Aksel Thomson and Wil Halpin project out as top five in the league with junior Isaiah Stoothoff in that mix. Eyes will also be on freshman Dexter Delaney, who dominated the last two seasons and ran impressive 1,600-meter times on the track during the adjusted spring season. The Schmekel twins, juniors Tristan and Jackson, ran strong races last year, and sophomore Kyler Mitchell continued to improve through the shortened season last spring.
COVID and spectators
With the ongoing COVID-19 situation, protocols for interscholastic competition in Washington have been updated from the past year. Taken directly from the state Department of Health policy: “Masking is required universally for all spectators attending indoor K-12 sporting activities, regardless of vaccination status. Audience members should be seated in ‘family units’ and those small groups should be spaced at least 3 feet apart.
The full policy is posted on the WIAA website (WIAA.com) via a clickable link on their home page, the school sports protocols begin on page 14 of the document.
Admission to all Liberty Bell athletic events is free of charge according to the school district’s recently adopted policy.
“The money we received from tickets was minimal and not supporting the costs of the programs, so it was decided to pay for activities out of the main budget,” said Liberty Bell Activities Director Michael Wilbur.
Some of those incurred costs of sports and activities include officials fees (around $50 per game per official plus travel reimbursements), game managers, and clock/scoreboard operators.
Supt. Tom Venable said that the recent elimination of “pay to play” fees has had the desired effect of allowing more students to participate in athletics and activities in the junior and senior high school levels.
“We’re seeing a huge turnout this fall, which is a good thing,” Venable said, noting that study after study states a positive correlation between a robust extra-curricular activities program and academic success.
Wilbur is looking for volunteers to help with Liberty Bell events this year. Instead of ticket takers, events require a gate host to assist with distribution of event programs, ushering and welcoming visitors to the campus. Scoreboard and clock operators (and back-ups) are needed for events like football, volleyball and soccer, as well as public address announcers and post-event cleanup.
The Liberty Bell Booster Club is seeking volunteers to operate concessions for the Sept. 10 football game at home.
“Right now, we only have three people available to do concessions for that first football game,” said Booster Club President and Assistant Football Coach Jim McMillan “That just isn’t gonna work and we might not be open.”
The Boosters raise money for a number of projects around the campus and support other activities program needs. Call Wilbur at 996-2215 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer.