Dependency hasn’t just been the name of the game in Whitman County athletics. It’s how the game has survived.
Bigger farms, retreating towns and shrinking enrollments turned longtime rivals into new-age partners. Hyphens became equipment as necessary as helmets and gloves. Old nicknames were shelved. Old grudges, too. Well, most of the time.
And there’s no going back.
Just a temporary reminder of how it was.
Playoff football reaches the semifinal stage for Washington high schools this weekend, and among the teams a step away from the Gridiron Classic is Rosalia.
Not Rosalia Hyphen Something or Something Something Slash Rosalia.
The Spartans travel to Pasco for a Saturday evening rematch with Touchet in one of those 8-man delights that make college football’s spread-offense revolution look like a game of Old Maid.
In the quarterfinals last week against Colton-Pullman Christian, the Spartans amassed more than 600 yards. By halftime. When the clock finally hit zero in a 76-32 victory, the total was 805 – just on the ground. Craig Nelson had 350 of those, Clay Shelton 265 more.
But then, the Spartans are used to covering ground. Their season of independence has forced them to log 2,000 miles on the bus, a far cry from the 20-minutes-down- the-road days of Whitman County football.
One of those trips took them to Taholah, 420 miles away. Even if they’d wanted to go farther, they couldn’t.
That’s where the road ends.
But the Spartans have gotten more out of the season than bus butt.
“We’ve enjoyed this season way better,” said Nelson. “We don’t have to travel to practice every day. Everything’s on our home field. We’ve bonded more as a team because it’s just us.”
Yet it’s also just temporary.
Until this year, Rosalia’s lived the co-op life with the rest of the Whitman County towns, teaming up with Tekoa and Oakesdale for all sports except volleyball and basketball. Last year, the school approached its partners to join in those sports as well for 2013-14, but the other two opted to keep the status quo.
So the district decided to strike out on its own for a year “and kind of figure out everything from there,” said football coach Kaleb Madison. Now Tekoa and Rosalia have forged a union for 2014-15; Oakesdale is still weighing its options.
There was a price for this pioneer spirit.
Enrollment would put the Spartans at the 1B level after playing 11-man football in the co-op. With the decision not finalized until May, scheduling among WIAA District 9 schools had already been completed – there was no room in the Southeast 1B inn. That meant playing as an independent, though a deal was struck to allow Rosalia entrée into the playoffs through a play-in game – provided the Spartans finished the regular season above .500.
But the Spartans had to find some teams to play, round up helmets, pads and uniforms and, above all, learn how to do it 8-man style.
“We were scrambling,” Madison said.
To fill their Friday nights, the Spartans wound up with dates against schools in Idaho (Troy) and Oregon (Cove and Elgin). They took that daylong trek to Taholah – and got off the bus and beat the Chitwins 65-38, then spent the night and came home. Oakville was coaxed to come east, as was King’s Way Christian – a school in Hazel Dell that plays in a 1A league but opts for 8-man football. That makes the Knights ineligible for the playoffs, but they were 8-0 until Rosalia handed them a 38-22 setback.
Adjusting to 8-man offered its share of potholes, too. The Spartans’ first venture was a summer camp in Cove.
“The field seemed so much bigger,” said Shelton. “There was way more ground to cover by yourself. Miss a tackle and it’s a touchdown.”
Madison, who played football at Northern Arizona and coached the co-op team the past two years, had never X’d an 8-man O, either. But when the Spartans struggled with a concept, he fell back on his training as a special ed teacher.
“We had ‘interventions’,” he said with a laugh. “Tackling interventions. Blocking interventions. We had a couple of bye weeks where we could take two hours and just hammer on something and it really helped us get better.”
But they were going to be pretty good anyway. Rosalia kids formed the core of the co-op TOR team that lost in the first round of last year’s 2B playoffs. With the line coming of age in front of Nelson, Shelton and quarterback Ryan Maley, the Spartans have had only two hiccups – lopsided losses to Troy and Touchet. Now they’re the first Rosalia team to reach the semis in 27 years, or make the playoffs on their own since 1997.
“Sometimes you just have to deal with what you’re handed and make the best of it,” said Madison. “These kids have jumped in with both feet and made the best of it.”
Striking a blow for independence, however temporary.