SPOKANE — As high schools ramp up summer practices in preparation for team sports that start as early as late August, coaches must contend with rules barring them from making summer practice mandatory.
“Everything is optional; it’s considered the offseason, and they’re definitely very proactive in saying nothing can be required in the summer,” said Grady Emmerson, an assistant principal and the athletic director of Ridgeline High School. “At the same time, I was a head football coach and would tell kids this is an opportunity to get better. A lot of these kids, families and coaches have a desire to play as much as they can.”
Depending on the sport, athletes have various opportunities to improve their abilities during summer break.
“Each sport kind of takes on its own personality in the summer, and it’s very unique for various reasons,” Emmerson said. “The culture of each sport depends on what is needed over the summer.”
Students vary between wanting to put in extra work over the course of summer and wanting to use the break as a time to relax. As a result, schools try not to create disadvantages for students who do not participate in any summer activities for the school, Emmerson said.
“You’ve got a balance between kids and coaches that are really passionate about sports, but you know our role as an administrator is to help people understand that it is summer,” Emmerson said. “We don’t need to be doing things 24 hours and seven days a week. At the same time, people are competitive, and they want to use summer as a time to hone their skills and, more importantly, to build that team aspect.”
While it is essential for athletes to have a sufficient recovery period, some significantly improve their game over the summer.
“I think every individual is different. You’ve got such a wide range of kids, talents and abilities,” Emmerson said. “There are kids out there that are good enough athletically and skill-wise that they could take all the time they need off and are still going to be very successful in high school sports. Other kids are going to use that opportunity over the summer to get better.”
Typically, high schools have a summer strength and conditioning program available to all students. Aside from this, schools offer a wide range of practices and summer workouts — even for sports that won’t start playing games until the spring.
The five high schools in the Spokane School District offer multiple summer sports camps for athletes. Shadle Park, Lewis and Clark and Ferris, for instance, offer boys and girls basketball, volleyball, football and softball. Cheer, track, baseball, cross country, wrestling and tennis are also offered by at least one school in the district.
Since there is not much time to practice during the fall, basketball has summer leagues and tournaments throughout the three-month break. With volleyball and cross country coming in the fall, those teams often prepare a few times per week during the summer with open gyms and workouts.
Some schools provide opportunities for athletes to attend wrestling camps at colleges throughout the summer.
For sports like baseball, softball and soccer, most players play on club teams in the summer, so schools will provide occasional open gym sessions to begin practicing as a team.
“For soccer, at our school, we have a once-per-week kick-around just to kind of build that team sense and get kids together,” Emmerson said.
The most time-consuming high school sport during the summer is typically football. High school football season kicks off with local spring camps, often held at colleges. After camp, teams have workouts and practice . Most schools also schedule scrimmages.
“Conditioning is important; the whole team needs to get stronger so we can push people around,” Shadle Park junior, running back and safety Nic Tilton said. “We’re getting a lot of reps in, and everyone is starting to learn the playbook more and make fewer mistakes.”
Football teams practice frequently in the summer because, unlike other sports, the regular season starts before classes do.
“I think it would be nice to have some extra preparation time ahead of our first regular-season game,” Shadle Park football 10th-year head coach Jim Mace said. “When we lose Week 1 games, a lot of the time, it is due to poor tackling because the team has not been prepared for contact. If any position could benefit from more preparation time, it would be the quarterback.”
Certain athletes are unable to practice during the summer but hope to play football in the fall. While local high schools don’t automatically cut players in these situations, it is challenging to prepare for the season without summer practice.
“If we didn’t practice all summer, the running game would really struggle. Our linemen, in particular, would forget the basics,” Mace said. “Team bonding has more of an impact than anything else. It’s important to work out, but I think just getting them united around one goal brings the guys closer together.”
Three Shadle Park football players agreed that the summer is an important time to see reps and form the team. None of the three players is opposed to increasing practice throughout the summer, even if it means having practice twice daily.
“I feel like we have the potential to grow because we’re so young. If we all stick together and build off of each other, we will do well,” said junior Jeremiah Sanchez, who is competing for the starting quarterback position. “We get stronger, run more efficient plays and perfect our timing during summer. The time we spend in the summer plays a big role in our success in the fall.”
If players are not bonding with each other in the summer, the team may lack preparation going into the regular season.
“We will be ready when the season starts. Summer gets you prepared and gets you in shape, and if you take a break, you’re not prepared for what’s coming,” junior lineman Koleson Grote said. “In summer, we get an idea of what our depth chart will look like during the season. We don’t have a lot of time, but we use our time the best we can.”
Three years ago, Shadle Park moved from five days of summer practice per week to four intense practices per week. Mace has allowed his players to enjoy their summer while not allowing time for the competition to get ahead.
After losing to Othello in the state play-in game last season, the Highlanders are hoping to improve in the 2023 season. While Shadle Park players spend a lot of time on the practice field, Mace has emphasized not overworking his players.
“I can’t have kids with dead legs on Aug. 16. At some point, you’re only going to get so much out of the kids,” Mace said, regarding exhaustion. “When we’re at our best, we’re in and out in 2 hours and 15 minutes. When we struggle, we are out here for nearly 3 hours because the kids aren’t bringing their best.”
In a game in 2022, Tilton collapsed and was temporarily paralyzed on the ground for more than 30 minutes. After ensuring he was fully recovered, the Shadle Park coaching staff welcomed Tilton back to the team with open arms.
Tilton has been working hard to have a bounce-back season and help the team win the Greater Spokane League title. Tilton’s mother, Autumn, is happy that the coaches have made sure her son is fully comfortable and ready to go before returning to games.
“I don’t think we could ask for better coaches. Mace does a good job of holding them accountable,” Autumn Tilton said. “Mace runs a great program and teaches his players that this work goes beyond just football. I think he’s teaching these boys to be leaders on and off the field.”
Autumn Tilton said Shadle Park coaches give players much-needed free time.
“I feel like they do a good job of understanding life happens and trying to keep it earlier in the morning, so there’s a full day left for family stuff and for the kids to be teenagers,” Tilton said. “The older my kids get, and the less time I realize I have with them till they’re off doing their own thing. I just want to soak up as much time with them as I can. I appreciate the coaches understanding.”
Attendance is not mandatory for any summer activities in high school, but those who opt not to participate likely are at a disadvantage.
“In a sport that’s physical, if you want your kid to win, summer participation has to happen,” Mace said.
“We find ways to have a good system and get our kids to maximize their abilities. You can’t really replace not being here.”
Ultimately, players who don’t participate with the team in the summer can still play in the fall and have success.
Players who take the summer off must be committed to earning a spot on the team in a limited amount of time.
“To come fall and say, ‘Hey, you weren’t here in the summer. Therefore, you’re not going to play,’ we just don’t do that. You can’t do that if summers are off,” Emmerson said. “Summer is an important part of skill development for a lot of kids, while some kids completely go off the radar and do their thing over the summer. That’s what high school is all about.”