Chiawana coach Steve Graff is all for putting his best players on the field at all times.
It’s a system that has worked for him in the past. But in many cases, the players getting much of the field time were seniors with a strong core of varsity experience.
After a 1-3 start in the new Mid-Columbia Conference, the coach with three state championship rings wonders whether he’s keeping his top players out on the field too long.
“We played really good against Richland (in a 21-14 loss two weeks ago). We just ran out of gas,” Graff said after a practice Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of young kids playing both ways. We’re working our tails off to get guys playing just one side of the ball and get some of those younger players ready to play.”
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In last week’s 28-13 home win over Pasco, Graff got to see that plan bear some fruit, as only three players saw significant action on both sides of the ball. As a result, the Riverhawks had enough energy to put up two third-quarter scoring drives and limit the Bulldogs to three first downs in the second half.
“After losing three in a row, getting that first one is always nice,” Graff said. “There’s no better way to do it than against your cross-town rival. There’s definitely a little more hop in our step.”
Chiawana will host Wenatchee at 7 p.m. today at Edgar Brown Stadium. The Riverhawks beat the visiting Panthers 27-13 last season, with Terro Bell and Miquiyah Zamora rushing for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But Graff is wary of this Wenatchee team, which has plenty of weapons even after the loss of Washington State-bound lineman Cody O’Connell, who tore his ACL during a loss to Eastmont last week. But the presence of junior utilityman Isaiah Brandt-Sims gives Wenatchee a big-play threat wherever he lines up.
Graff said he likely will be without linebacker Nate Murillo, who missed practice Tuesday because of possible appendicitis.
It has been roughly three weeks since the Panthers last practiced on their own field, a once familiar piece of turf they’ve learned not to take for granted anymore.
Two major fires in Wenatchee and Cashmere have hurt the air quality so much this month that those two schools have had to bus their athletic teams elsewhere for practices.
Twice a week, the Panthers practice at the Wenatchee Valley Sportsplex, a small indoor arena with AstroTurf. Once a week, the team loads up a bus and makes a 45-minute trek to Quincy, where it gets in a quick workout on a grass field before darkness comes.
On Tuesday, for the first time since the fires began in early September, the Panthers got to practice in their own backyard at Wenatchee High School. But even that didn’t last.
“We had sunshine and blue skies, but now the smoke is rolling back in,” Panthers coach Scott Devereaux said. He’s not the only one who misses the comforts of home.
“It’s been challenging. We try to keep it loose and fun, and the kids have been pretty good,” Devereaux said. “I’d like to think it hasn’t affected them, but for the first half against Moses Lake last week, we looked like we had been inside for a week.”
The Walla Walla Blue Devils haven’t had much luck with injuries lately, losing lineman Jeremy Larson and cornerback Darnell Handcox early in the season.
The latest setback came in a 20-17 home loss to Hanford last week, when Jonah Hoe, the Mid-Columbia Conference’s top returning rusher, injured his collarbone and did not return.
Hoe hasn’t been ruled out for Friday’s 7 p.m. road game against Kennewick, but coach Eric Hisaw has a plan in case Hoe can’t go.
Senior Stuart Gillan, a 6-foot-1, 203-pounder, could give Wa-Hi’s offense an added power dimension with him carrying the ball.
“He’s a different runner than Jonah, who is more a ‘Catch me if you can’-type back,” Hisaw said. “Stuart might be the toughest kid in the league, and he’s really big and physical. It could give us some depth.”
w Jack Millikin; 582-1406; email@example.com