NELKE: Two decades later, ‘Fish’ still tasty

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It’s a crazy environment — has been that way for nearly two decades.

Cheers from either side seemingly come out of the blue — sometimes interrupting the concentration on free throws.

Other times, baskets that seem important to the game sometimes go unnoticed, as fans for the two teams prepare for the next cheer.

Though the game can affect league standings and ultimately determine who plays at home and who travels in the postseason, coaches who have been at every Fight for the Fish spirit game between Coeur d’Alene and Lake City high schools, as well as coaches who got their first taste of the event last year say the pros of the game far outweigh the cons.

“I’m a huge fan of it, even though it affects the game, and especially the way we do it now, that it’s a league game,” said Lake City boys basketball coach/athletic director Jim Winger, who has coached in 14 of the 19 Fish games, and was there as an administrator for the other five. “It’s a disadvantage to have it as your home game. You’d better have your homework done before you ever step on the floor; there’s definitely no adjusting. Timeouts, you better focus in on one little thing and if they can hear you they can hear you.”

Second-year Coeur d’Alene boys basketball coach Tony Hanna previously coached at Timberlake, which played a similar spirit game with Priest River, dubbed the Battle of the Buck.

“And I thought those were loud,” Hanna said. “They were loud, really loud for small gyms, but I’ve never been in an atmosphere like (last year’s Fish game, at Lake City) ... that was the loudest gym I’ve ever been in in my life. I’ve been to big college games, and pro games, and it’s loud, but it’s a different loud. The Fish game, it’s right on top of you ... one side’s going crazy, or the other side’s going crazy. It’s a crazy atmosphere. I think it’s fun; I think it’s a great atmosphere and environment for these kids to play in — once a year. I’m glad it’s only once a year, to be honest with you, because sometimes I think you forget there’s a game going on, with all the other stuff that’s going on.”

THIS YEAR’s Fight for the Fish games are scheduled for Friday at Lake City High, with the varsity girls game slated for 5:30 p.m. and the varsity boys to follow. During and between the games, students and fans of each team engage in spirit competitions, and a panel of judges from other schools votes for a winner — which is not influenced by the outcome of either game.

For those who have been to a Fish game, they know the drill — the gym is divided in half, with Lake City fans on one side, Coeur d’Alene fans on the other. No matter which school hosts the event, each school receives the same amount of tickets, and the gym — especially when the event is in the smaller Coeur d’Alene High gym — is usually packed.

The Fish game started in February 1999, and the first year featured a varsity boys game only. The event has been a girls/boys doubleheader every year since.

The first five Fish games were played at Lake City, which seats roughly 2,700 fans, or about 1,100 more than Coeur d’Alene’s gym. But Coeur d’Alene eventually wanted its turn at hosting. Coeur d’Alene hosted the 2004 event and, every year since, the site has alternated between the two schools.

Until this year, which was Coeur d’Alene’s turn to host. But Coeur d’Alene High is scheduled to remodel its current auxilliary gym — Viking Court — into a main gym of similar size to Lake City’s and Post Falls’ gyms. So the schools decided Coeur d’Alene will host the Fish games next year in its newer, larger gym, and Lake City will host for a second straight year on Friday.

THE ADMINISTRATOR and educator in Winger likes the Fish games, because they get more of the student body involved.

“Any time you have that amount of kids in your student body that are actually part of the game, I think that is what high school is all about,” said Winger, a Coeur d’Alene High grad. “Kids that maybe don’t have the opportunity to go, go to that game. The first month of school, I’ll get 10, 15 kids come to the office and want to know when the Fish game is, so they can take it off work. At lunches they’re in the auditorium practicing their cheers, and they’re all dressed in their school colors, and competing to win a prize ... I just think it’s pretty cool. I’m a big fan of it.”

Coaching-wise, it’s difficult. The routine is different; the teams are on different sides of the court. Winger said the Timberwolf coaches have gotten used to using hand signals, since it’s so hard to hear.

“But it’s worth it for the kids,” Winger said. “Tonight,” he said after a league game at home vs. Lewiston, “during a free throw, you can always change defenses. That just can’t happen in the Fish game.”

Winger said hosting the Fish game can be a disadvantage for the home team, because it really doesn’t have a home-court advantage. Each team has the same number of fans. Lake City gives up The Den, where its raucous student section resides behind one of the baskets.

FOR A few years, the Fish game was a nonleague game, an exhibition of sorts that did not count in the 5A Inland Empire League standings. But that meant Coeur d’Alene and Lake City would face each other three times during the regular season, with the possibility to meeting again as many as three more times in the postseason. So they switched it back to making it a league game.

“I liked it back when it was a nonleague game,” Winger said. “But, my gosh, we were playing five times a year, and that was too much.”

“The hard part is trying to stay focused on basketball, because there is so much other stuff going on (all week),” Hanna said. “And to try to keep these kids focused, that we have a basketball game to play.”

Last year, Coeur d’Alene beat Lake City at home by 13 points in their first league matchup. A week and a half later, in the Fish game at Lake City, the Timberwolves prevailed by six points. Coeur d’Alene, Lake City and Lewiston finished in a three-way tie for second place (behind Post Falls). When tiebreakers were factored in, Coeur d’Alene wound up as the No. 3 seed to the Region 1 tournament, and ended up having to travel for two of its three regional tourney games. The Vikings were eventually eliminated by Post Falls and did not make it to state.

“Only having six league games, every game is really important in our league,” Hanna said. “The Fish game kinda bit us last year. If we’d been able to pull that one off, we would have been second (in league) by ourselves, and we would have had home-court advantage, and that makes a big difference.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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