Friday is homecoming for the Prairie High School football team.
And it will be a homecoming in more ways than one.
Before the season started, the longest planned road trip for the Falcons was a 20-mile jaunt to Washougal for a Week 1 non-league game against the Panthers.
After that, the only other scheduled road games for Prairie this season were a quick trip over to Kiggins Bowl to play Hudson’s Bay, two trips to McKenzie Stadium for games against Evergreen and Heritage, and a “road” game at District Stadium to face rival Battle Ground.
District Stadium also serves as the Falcons’ home.
That was the plan, at least.
But as it has happened for many teams this fall, plans change.
Two days prior to Prairie’s scheduled game with Bay, the Eagles announced they would have to withdraw because of COVID protocols. Prairie coach Mike Peck quickly pivoted and was able to find a new Week 2 opponent in a couple of hours. On Sept. 10, instead of making the 10-mile trip to Kiggins Bowl, the Falcons hopped on the bus for an 84-mile trip to Centralia.
In Week 3, Prairie was preparing for a matchup with rival Battle Ground. But on Tuesday, the Tigers had to withdraw because of COVID protocols. Peck was able to find a replacement opponent in Marshfield of Coos Bay, Ore. The game would be played at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore.
“We were fortunate to find a location in the middle that worked for both of us,” Peck said.
As it turned out, it worked out better for Marshfield than Prairie, when Friday afternoon traffic on Interstate 5 turned what should have been a trip of a little more than two hours into one that lasted more than four hours.
The Falcons arrived at Sheldon around 7 p.m., the scheduled game time. The start of the game was delayed to 7:50 p.m. to allow time for Prairie to get ready to play.
Marshfield beat Prairie 18-8.
“It was a long bus trip,” Peck said. “But we didn’t want to use that as an excuse. Marshfield is a really good football team, and they gave us a good test. It’s what we were looking for.”
For Peck, just having Prairie play three games in the past three weeks is a victory.
“It’s been a little crazy having to get ready for a new team so quickly,” he said. “But the big thing is that the kids got to play football. We’re going to do whatever it takes. If we can find them a game to play, we’ll find them a game to play. As long as we get to play football, that’s all that matters.”
Other local coaches have not been so lucky. Battle Ground, Hudson’s Bay, Fort Vancouver and Kalama have all lost games so far this season because of either COVID issues within their own programs or within the teams they were slated to play.
Kalama coach Sean McDonald got less than 24 hours notice that Forks would not be able to play the Chinooks in Week 2.
“I found out at 9 p.m. on Friday,” McDonald said. Kalama and Forks were set to play at 2 p.m. Saturday. “That’s just not enough time to find a suitable new opponent. I did have a bigger school contact me to play, but they had two Division I players on their line. We are a little banged up on the line, so I thought it better to just rest and get ready for Week 3.”
All of these postponements are leaving many coaches wary.
“It kind of feels like it’s just matter of time before your team is impacted,” La Center coach John Lambert said. “And what do we do when it’s a league game that can’t be played?”
COVID-prompted postponements and cancellations have impacted every sport this fall. But for football and it’s one-game-a-week scheduling, it can cause bigger headaches.
If Prairie can get to Friday and play a home game against Kelso to open its 3A Greater St. Helens League schedule, Mike Peck will be very relieved.
“If you’re a coach and you can get all the way through your schedule without having to adjust your schedule, you should consider yourself very, very lucky,” Peck said.
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4538, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter handle @360TMart.