A fall without football in the Yakima Valley continues to take its toll on student-athletes, and it’s unclear when the sport they love will be allowed to return.
Davis coach Jay Dumas fully understands what that loss means, since the 47-year-old said he’s never gone without football for more than six months in his entire career as a player and coach. With the help of his good friend Derek Sparks, a former teammate at Washington State, Dumas brought a taste of football back for nearly 100 young athletes through a Cleats Vs. Cancer minicamp Saturday at Sozo Sports Complex.
Sparks and Dumas also understand COVID-19 remains a serious risk. Along with coaches from Central Washington and other high schools, they made it clear players need to do their part in behaving responsibly to ensure football can come back safely.
“We don’t want to be reckless and come out here and not have masks on, not social distance,” Sparks said. “Not give a message about keeping the game safe but also keeping each other safe.”
CWU coach Chris Fisk acknowledged no community got hit harder than Yakima, which made headlines as the West Coast county with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases back in May. Coaches occasionally reminded athletes to keep their masks on while waiting their turn, and some kept them up even while running a 40-yard-dash or shuttle run.
Those restrictions hardly seemed to dim the excitement for more than 80 high school players from across the state, as well as 15 middle school athletes. Sophomore wide receiver Jamasen Carter was one of 10 Davis players to come out for an opportunity to get back on the field.
“This is just a way to get our names out there if we can,” Carter said. “Just trying to get someone to look at us.”
Dumas convinced Pirates senior wide receiver and cornerback Damian Corbray to attend as well, and he’s hopeful it will help him find a spot on a college roster. He’s been trying to stay in shape despite a busy schedule with work and school, and he’s ready to add limited football practices when Davis begins next Monday.
Zillah’s still trying to figure out how to safely hold practices, so second cousins Clay Delp and Zane Delp joined teammate Pedro Torres to try and stay in football shape. Zane Delp said he’s been lifting weights, but the 40-yard dash served as a reminder he should be running more.
Saturday’s camp was the third Cleats Vs. Cancer event in three months for Eisenhower wide receiver Damian Renderos, one of about 10 Cadets in attendance. The senior also attended two showcases in Lacey and even got to play some 7on7 against Steilacoom’s Emeka Egbuka, the nation’s top wide receiver recruit for the class of 2021, and Washington commit Sam Huard, a quarterback at Kennedy Catholic.
“It was fun,” Corbray said. “Seeing all of that is a learning experience and it’s a motivation, honestly.”
He’s eager to start practices with Eisenhower next Monday, and coach Gary Jimenez said attending the minicamp will be beneficial for his staff as well. They’ve developed a plan to practice during the pandemic but Saturday offered an opportunity to see what that might look like and learn from coaches at Central Washington who have already held nearly ten practices with their team in Ellensburg.
“How do we keep our kids separate?” Jimenez said. “How do we follow the protocols? Still do good football but do it in this new era.”
Those are questions Sparks wants to help others answer, and he’s already given more than 460 athletes a chance to play through his three minicamps. He saw Eastern Washington athletes coming over to Lacey and Yakima seemed like the perfect fit thanks to Dumas, who serves as a mentor for many players at Davis and other area schools.
Participants came to Sozo from Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Hermiston, Ore. and several west side schools, including Mt. Si, Tumwater, Issaquah, Lynden and Steilacoom. Sparks said with help from locals like Dumas and Jimenez, he wants to make the minicamp an annual event, likely held in the summer when the high school sports schedule can return to normal.
“The big picture would be that this becomes a camp/team 7on7 if you will, sort of right here in the hubcap of the state,” Dumas said. “Get everybody here at a time where the sun’s out, stuff like that.”
Competing for a cause
Cleats vs. Cancer began in 2018, shortly after doctors diagnosed Sparks’ daughter Ze’Lee with leukemia.
He quickly organized a charity all-star game, held in December, to showcase seniors for college coaches. The game raised money for other families fighting against cancer, attracting some 120 players from 50 schools in its first year.
When that became impossible this year, he called an audible to organize the minicamps, complete with 7-on-7 games on the west side. Local coaches and others stepped up, including Yakima’s Craig Kupp, who came out to Sozo to help instill the community values Sparks preaches through the game of football.
“There’s a lot that goes into it and so anytime our guys can come out and experience an event but know that it is going towards a bigger cause and something bigger than themselves, man, that’s a great value add to our young people,” Sparks said. “Hopefully they’ll replicate that when they go on.”
Sparks and Ze’Lee received some great news earlier this year, when doctors gave her a clean bill of health. He’s ready to keep working to raise money for other families, and Cleats Vs. Cancer tentatively rescheduled its senior showcase game for May 16, 2021, at French Field in Kent.
The Most Valuable Player awards from Saturday’s minicamp were Tumwater senior Noah Cunningham for skill positions and Issaquah senior Stephen Sweeney for linemen.