It was a year unlike any other in local sports activities, beginning with the question of whether there would there be any Liberty Bell Junior/Senior High School and youth sports at all, then culminating with a first-ever state playoff win for one program and a fifth state championship for another.
In a reversal of known reality, we watched football players, cross country runners and soccer players who couldn’t practice because of lingering snow, and basketball games played when the outside temperatures were 90 to 100 degrees warmer than during a normal season. But all of that returned to almost normal by September.
We also saw the end of an era in the Methow Valley’s youth Nordic skiing program that has made room for an alumnus of the program to step in and take the reins this year. Speaking of Nordic skiing, 2021 has seen the reuniting of teammates and Mazama natives at the University of Utah, as Walker Hall has transferred from back east to join sophomore Novie McCabe on the Utes’ ski team.
In other noteworthy Nordic news, after a legendary career as one of America’s top Nordic skiers, Methow Valley native and two-time Olympian Sadie Maubet Bjornsen retired from the professional circuit.
Bjornsen’s legacy includes nearly 200 World Cup starts, the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, competing in seven World Championships, 11 World Cup medals, one World Championship medal and five consecutive seasons as one of the world’s top-16 skiers.
Bjornsen grew up in Mazama, and her brother Erik also represented the United States in two winter Olympics. Eric retired in 2020, after more than a decade of extraordinarily successful competition in Nordic skiing as a member of the U.S. Ski Team.
While the winter indoor sports were realigned with the warmer spring days at the beginning of the year, the major outdoor winter activity around these parts prospered with a boom in numbers of participating children. Retiring Nordic Ski Team head coach Leslie Hall reported a record 130 youth in the program during the 2020-21 season, including both skiing and biathlon. She attributed the increase to three factors: COVID rendering indoor winter activities almost non-existent; a general trend of increasing interest in outside winter sports; and more families moving into the valley who normally only made wintertime visits, possibly an escape from the urban COVID pandemic.
Following are our top four newsworthy youth sporting stories of 2021.
1 — COVID chaos
With the postponement of most high school activities during the fall of 2020, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) was charged with developing COVID-19 protocols and regulations governing all WIAA-sanctioned activities to get students playing and competing in early 2021 while remaining compliant with state and federal guidelines to reduce the threat of the pandemic.
The WIAA identified three seasons that ran for six weeks each, with a temporary regional realignment of leagues and schedules, blending schools in competition from the 1B up through the 4A classifications in some sports. There were regional finale events, but contrary to tradition, season-ending WIAA state championships were not held for the 2020-21 sports seasons.
Restarting interscholastic sports and activities began in early 2021 with the establishment of the three shortened seasons. Season 1 from Feb. 1-March 20 at Liberty Bell included the fall sports of girls’ soccer, volleyball, cross country and football. Season 2 included the traditional spring sports of track and field, baseball and fast-pitch softball, boys’ soccer and tennis, began workouts in late March and ran through the end of April. On May 1, indoor winter sports took over the calendar as temperatures climbed to record levels by the June 16 culmination of high school sports in Washington.
2 — Anatomy of a championship
The 2020 cross country season for the Mountain Lions presented challenges not usually experienced by the runners, many of whom use the fall running season as a training ground for the winter competitive Nordic ski team season. With the juxtaposition to the late winter dates, most of the local trails were still snow-covered, and several team members were still occupied with regional and national Nordic events.
As a result, the incoming freshman class of girls that oozed with potential in junior high was not available with the exception of Leki Albright. Albright ran very well, winning meets at Moses Lake, Eastmont and Wenatchee, but then was sidelined by a bothersome lower leg issue, resting it the remainder of the season.
Incoming freshmen on the boys side of the program highlighted the spring 2021 season, with Aksel Thomson and Will Halpin both running impressively. The Mountain Lion boys, with just enough participants to score a team at most meets, were mostly middle-of-the-pack, nipping Manson and Brewster at the season finale, and providing a taste of what was to come in the fall with a full cast that would include two sets of twins, the Schmekels and the Sheleys, and incoming freshman Dexter Delaney, who dominated the spring middle school circuit.
When the fall 2021 season opened in early September, both Mountain Lion programs began to make some noise. At the 2-mile Sehome Gear Up event, the Liberty Bell boys packed five runners into a 55-second span, led by Delaney, turning some heads and giving an indication what was to come. It was at Wenatchee on Sept. 18 when the 2B Mountain Lions ran with the big schools and beat most of them, sending notice that their pre-season No. 1 ranking was legitimate.
Delaney went down with a nagging leg injury that would force him to miss the rest of the season in late September, but that didn’t slow the team down as they placed fourth at the Nike Twilight and, led by Halpin, easily won meets at Liberty Bell, The Gorge Amphitheater, NCWB League and the District 6 Championships to qualify for the 12th straight time as a team to state.
The girls were also making noise statewide. At Wenatchee, they placed fifth in the team standings among the big schools, with Jori Grialou, Albright and Dashe McCabe packing in spots 10-12 and only 2 seconds apart. As those three continued to run toward the front of meets, seniors Payten Kaufman, Ayeanna Ruprecht and sophomore Sandra Hernandez continued to pick up the pace and improve throughout the season. The Mountain Lions were required to travel to Pasco for their state qualifier meet. They were up to the task, dominating Tri-Cities Prep by a score of 18-42, and it was on to state for the sixth consecutive time.
At state, the boys took home the first-place trophy and the girls placed second in the team standings in Pasco on Nov. 6. Halpin and Albright each placed second individually. The Mountain Lion Boys beat second-place Pope John Paul II by a score or 50-96 while the runner-up girls were a scant 13 points (46-59) behind champion team Pope John Paul II on the 5-kilometer course.
The boys’ win represented the fifth state title in the combined program. The boys previously won the 1A/B title in 1998, and the girls won three in a row between 2016 and 2018, placing second in 2019. Also noteworthy, senior Jori Grialou closed out her career by earning podium recognition at state each of her three state meets.
3 — Leslie Hall retires
Valley resident Leslie Hall, three-time Olympian and longtime youth programs director/head coach of the Methow Valley Nordic Ski Team, announced her retirement from active coaching early in the spring of 2021. She was the head of the program for nine years, and involved with the program almost since arriving in the Methow in 1996.
A veteran of three Winter Games (1988 Calgary, 1992 Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer), multiple international competitions and NCAA collegiate championships during her matriculation at Dartmouth, Hall and husband, Alex, eventually moved to the Mazama area. She became involved with the youth skiing program as a volunteer shortly after arriving, and took on the responsibilities of coaching when the opportunity availed itself in 2012.
Hall was instrumental in building the Nordic program to the 130 youth that registered in her last year, and working withthe school district developing a symbiotic partnership that has clearly benefited both the Nordic and school’s interscholastic activities programs. “Leslie has been such an organized, amazing force for our team — her attention to detail, never skipping a beat,” said her longtime teammate and friend, Laura McCabe.
The Halls plan to remain in the community. She will continue to be associated with the Nordic program, helping at events and occasionally sliding back into her role as a volunteer coach. There also are hopes of traveling a bit to watch their son Walker compete at the collegiate and international level.
Sam Naney, one of Hall’s early charges from her volunteer days with the team, has assumed the duties as the program’s coach.
4 — Football playoff win
Mountain Lion football played an abbreviated slate of five games in the spring of 2021, losing only to Almira-Coulee-Hartline (ASCH) in a tough, hard-fought battle, 34-16. Liberty Bell routed the rest of the schedule, outscoring the opponents 234-20, finishing with a 4-1 record and ranked as the fourth-best 8-man football team in the state. The Mountain Lions played all games on the road, and practiced in available gym space, in the parking lot, and on the practice field once the hard-packed snow melted off enough to reveal the mangy brown grass.
With only a handful of seniors during the COVID-impacted season, Coach Jeff Lidey used the shortened schedule as an extended version of a spring practice, and when fall camp opened there was a renewed enthusiasm in Mountain Lion football as 24 prospective gridders hit the practice field in late August.
Liberty Bell entered the 2021 fall season as the favorite in the Central Washington B-8 league, and swept through their five-game league schedule unscathed, finishing with a 5-0 record, 8-1 overall on the regular season. The only loss was suffered at the hands of perennial power Pomeroy as the Lions traveled to the Blue Mountain region to take on the Pirates in mid-September.
The season wasn’t without challenges, including losing starting junior quarterback Riley Lidey for three games. Understudy freshman Lucien Paz was ready to step in and guided the Mountain Lions capably to three wins as the primary signal caller.
For the first time since 2006, Liberty Bell qualified for the state playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the 12-team tournament, and hosted a playoff game for the first time in school history. The No. 12 Cusick Panthers traveled to the Methow Valley to face the Mountain Lions in that historic first-round game. On a foggy, damp Saturday afternoon, with the temperature just warm enough to hold off the snow visibly advancing down Blue Buck Mountain, Liberty Bell made history, scoring its first-ever victory in a state football championship tournament, mauling the Panthers 52-20 and advancing to the second round. No. 2 Odessa lurked, but the Mountain Lions had battled the No. 4 Pirates in Pomeroy and had held their own against No. 1 ACH during the spring season.
The weather in Moses Lake on Nov. 20 was warmer, clearer and more compatible with the Mountain Lion passing attack as they prepared for the high-powered Tigers from Odessa. In spite of the 60-22 loss to Tigers, a very young Liberty Bell team with an overall record of 9-2, making the playoffs and winning that first-ever playoff game were definite signs of advancement that have the Mountain Lion program, players, coaches and fans looking ahead to 2022.
Other notes and notables
January saw a scaled-down resumption of competition with the youth Nordic and biathlon teams each holding weekend events at the Sean McCabe Course on the school campus. Meet directors noted the reduced fields as a direct effect of the COVID pandemic with travel severely restricted between British Columbia and Washington, and quarantine requirements on interstate travel.
In February, Nordic events continued and school sports ramped up. Liberty Bell was one of three or four schools statewide hampered by snowpack, forcing practices to be held in the gyms or on the pavement. Several local equipment operators did manage to donate labor and equipment to clear snow from fields later in February.
March and April saw the only high school events that resembled anything close to normal, with track and field, baseball softball and tennis getting underway, and running mostly through the month of April. Coach Katie Leuthauser took over the head coaching job on the track and Dave Marz made the daily trip up from Chelan to take on the coaching duties for boys’ soccer at the high school. Several local athletes participated in late season Nordic events on the national and international levels, including Kelsie Dickinson (U.S. National Biathlon), Novie McCabe (U.S. and University of Utah ski teams), and Alex Tareski.
May brought on the normal winter sports activities of basketball and wrestling, with a 50% schedule and no playoffs or tournaments, with one week of sports lingering into mid-June after school had shut down for the summer break.
August brought with it the return to fall season high school sports and a sense of normalcy, amid the haze and smoke, with practices beginning in late in the month. The Mountain Lions were recognized by the WIAA for academic excellence in all five programs during the fall season, including another state academic championship for girls’ soccer. Liberty Bell closed out the fall season as the 2B class points leader in the WIAA’s statewide Scholastic Cup race, an annual year-long competition that includes elements of academics, sportsmanship and athletic achievement.
The cooler days of November brought on the late-season success of the football and cross country programs, and we would be remiss to not mention girls’ soccer also making the district playoffs, being eliminated one game before qualifying for another appearance at the state final four.
Early December saw Liberty Bell senior basketball player Jadyn Mitchell tickle the twine for her 1,000th career point, a plateau that few have accomplished in the history of the program. Mitchell has also kept alive her current streak of double-doubles (points and rebounds) as the Mountain Lion girls enter 2022.
The 2021 coaching carousel: After five years at the helm, volleyball coach Christine Scott resigned after the season to move with family to the Tri-Cities. Her replacement has not yet been named by Activities Director Michael Wilbur. Nate Chrastina has assumed duties as head boys’ basketball coach for 2021-22, following the resignation of longtime coach Kyle Acord. Liberty Bell Wrestling also brought in new coach, Joe Downing, to guide the grapplers into the 2022 season.