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The Lynden Lions and Mount Baker Mountaineers played each other in both teams’ 2019 season opener. Lynden coach Blake Van Dalen has been calling coaches of teams he would have faced this fall but won’t due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (File photos)

Lynden’s VanDalen calls each week to the coach he would have faced Friday

  WHATCOM ­— Here it is October, traditionally the heart of a high school football season. But Friday is just another day of the week. It’s never felt so different for some of the football coaches in the Northwest Conference. 

  The lights are on at some stadiums, but the seats and sidelines are empty. No fans, no players, no coaches, no touchdowns. 

  For coaches, the pandemic has led to a strange fall feeling without Friday night lights.

  “It’s been tough, there’s no doubt about it,” Mount Baker coach Ron Lepper said. “This is the first fall since 1973 I haven’t been involved with football, either playing or coaching.”

  Lepper said the first Friday night, Sept. 4, of what would have been the regular season was the hardest. 

  “My wife finally said she didn’t want to hear it anymore,” he said. “I had to go out to the garage and tell myself out loud we’d be doing warmups right now and doing this thing there.”

  Lepper said the hardest part for him this fall has been trying to keep the players’ spirits up with all the uncertainty still in the air.

  “I just don’t know if people really realize the psychological part of that,” he said. “It’s easy for us old guys because high school was a long time ago, so we just go, ‘Oh, it’s just high school, it’s no big deal,’ but when you’re there living in it, it is a big deal. Those are the things we’re trying to give them (the players) back a little bit.”

  Lynden football coach Blake VanDalen said this fall has been unbelievable in terms of how it has felt not coaching football.

  Like Lepper, VanDalen has been coaching for nearly half of his life and he said he’s always known football is at his core, so Friday nights this fall were difficult at first.

  To fill the void, VanDalen said, he’s been talking to the coaches he would have otherwise been vying against each week. He called Hockinson’s coach the first week, Ferndale’s the next, then Squalicum’s and then 2008 Lynden High School graduate Andy Olson at Burlington-Edison the following week. 

  The Week Four matchup against Burlington-Edison would have been the first time VanDalen coached against a former player. 

  “It’s so weird and so ingrained in what we do that I can tell you right now what I would have been doing if this was a normal year because I’ve done it for so much of my life,” VanDalen said. “The weird part is when I get to the weekend, I’m not used to all that time.”

  He said his extra time on the weekends has been spent chopping wood, spending time with his family, and watching other football. 

  “Normally, I’m watching (on film) the team we’re going to play or watching ourselves, but now I get to spend a lot of time watching college and pro football,” VanDalen said. 

  Despite the lack of a season this fall, VanDalen said he’s glad there’s a plan in place that gets every student-athlete a chance to compete this school year. 

  The fall sports allowable coaching period set by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is open until Dec. 19. It allows coaches to get some practice and time on the field before the season is scheduled to start now in March. 

  According to WIAA, that window was previously set to close on Nov. 30, but so many schools were still unable to practice due to county health metrics and school district decisions that the timeframe was extended.

  Mount Baker wrapped up its allowed 20 practices last week. 

  “You can only do so much when you’re not going to play a game in the immediate future,” Lepper said. “Hopefully soon we’ll get back to some kind of athletics across the board.”