MORTON — Thump, thump, thump. The unmistakable sound of basketballs bouncing off blacktop fills the 42-degree air as a frigid December wind whips through Morton Elementary School’s large, covered playshed.
Inside are a dozen Morton-White Pass boys basketball players, each wearing a face mask and taking turns running through drills in pods of four. Coach Chad Cramer, who drew lines in sidewalk chalk to imitate a real court, yells out instructions that reverberate off the walls and ceiling.
This is the reality for any high school basketball team in the state that wants to practice right now. Teams are relegated to practicing outdoors-only after a statewide restriction Nov. 14 paused indoor practices following a rise of COVID-19 cases across the state.
So that’s what Cramer’s Timberwolves are doing, braving the cold to utilize what little options are left for a 2020-21 sports season that’s looking less and less likely to happen as the year goes on.
Morton, which was one of the final Lewis County schools to allow practices this fall, is having just its seventh basketball practice on Dec. 16. That’s why, even when temperatures dip into the 30s and rain blows water underneath the less-than-regulation-size 10-foot hoops, the Timberwolves are more than happy to be here.
“I don’t know what it’s like at other programs, obviously I’m not there,” Cramer said. “I don’t know how many programs would be out here and have this kind of turnout on a rainy, nasty December day when you can’t even scrimmage and you’re not promised a season. I’m over-the-moon about their dedication and how good they want to be.”
Practices are required to have zero contact, which means no defense, and consist mainly of offensive sets, transition drills and passing drills. Pods of five people are the maximum allowed, so that means four players and one coach working together while the rest of the team watches in the background before rotating in.
The T-Wolves have been averaging about 10-12 players per practice, a number Cramer said he’s happy to see with no promise of a season in sight. For the players, even with the chill, there’s no place they’d rather be right now.
“I will never ever complain about being in a cold gym again,” junior post Gary Dotson said. “It’s a lot colder with the wind chill out here. Hoping we play our junior and senior seasons. We’re just putting in time so in case we do have a season we’ll be good.”
They’re holding out hope that the basketball season, which has been pushed back twice now, actually ends up happening. The first postponement pushed basketball back to a Dec. 28 start date. The WIAA delayed sports again in November, pushing Season 2 sports, which includes basketball, to a Feb. 1 start date. It has players and coaches worried the season might ultimately get canceled all together.
“These practices might be all we have so we might as well do it,” junior guard Kysen Collette said.
The Timberwolves are coming off a respectable 2019-20 season in which they finished 12-11 overall and 7-3 in league play, tying for third in the Central 2B League. They took a No. 3 seed into the district tournament, beating Rainier in the opening round before being eliminated by Willapa Valley in the quarterfinals, a Vikings team that would go on to knock off the top-ranked 2B squad in the state (Liberty) before finishing fifth at the state tournament.
Prospects look promising for the Timberwolves this year as they lose just four seniors, one of which was a starter (second-team all-league pick Hayden Young). They bring back four starters, including Dotson, junior guards Kysen and Leytan Collette and 6-foot-4 sophomore sensation Josh Salguero, a third-team all-league selection who’s primed for a breakout year.
Bolstered by the returning underclassmen starters are a solid group of seniors who’ve taken their talents to the next level and could fight for a spot in the starting rotation, Cramer said. Those include Jayce Dean, Keegan Kelly, Tyler Blake and Mason Higdon.
“My seniors have absolutely blossomed,” Cramer said. “I couldn’t be happier with the senior group. We just have some absolute talent in the senior class. Maybe they didn’t start last year but that doesn’t mean that they won’t start this year.”
Even more, last year’s junior varsity team went undefeated last season and a few of those guys will be moving up to varsity as well.
Dotson and Collette both have their eyes set on advancing past the district tourney this year and making it to the state tournament, a destination they both think is attainable. They said this year’s team is more explosive and confident than last year, saying their 1-3-1 defense will be a problem for opposing offenses.
“All of us attack the basket really well and I think that will be our strongest point,” Dotson said.
For now, the Timberwolves are just focused on what they can control, and that’s putting in work. It doesn’t matter what type of weather the foothills in Morton brings. Rain, sun or snow, the T-Wolves will be practicing, waiting for their shot — if it ever comes.
“I was worried,” Cramer said. “I’m kind of past worried now. Predicting what can happen in 2020, we’ve learned that’s a fool’s errand. You’re wasting your time if you try to predict, or even if you spend time thinking about it. Kids clearly want to play. Should we be fortunate enough to have a season, we’ll be ready.”