THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Getting lost, and other Fish tales

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Strange things happen at the Fight for the Fish — the annual spirit competition/basketball games between city rivals Coeur d’Alene and Lake City high schools.

Fans scream during parts of the game where you wouldn’t normally expect fans to make noise.

Players usually can’t hear instructions from the coaches — and they have to run down to the baseline to check in to the game, instead of going to the scorer’s table at midcourt.

And sometimes, coaches get so caught up in the game ...

“I guess the weirdest thing that happened was that I got lost,” said Lake City boys basketball coach Jim Winger, who has been a part of each of the previous 21 Fight for the Fish games — either as a coach or as Lake City’s athletic director.

Or both.

IN “NORMAL” games, the team benches are on the same side of the floor, with the scorer’s table between them, at midcourt.

In the Fish game, one school’s bench is on one sideline, with its students directly behind them, and the parents upstairs in the bleachers behind the students.

Ditto, on the other sideline, for the other team.

At first it was confusing for the referees, who weren’t used to signaling fouls to a table on the baseline, much less looking there for incoming substitutes. But they quickly got the hang of it.

Then there was Winger ...

“One time I found myself way down on the wrong side of the floor, because I was trying to get a timeout, and I ended up going way down where our bench usually is,” he recalled. “I don’t know why I ended up there ... I just got so disorganized with our benches being changed and everything. I don’t think the referees even knew what I was trying to do.”

This year’s edition of Fight for the Fish is scheduled for Friday, with Lake City hosting for the 14th time (Lake City, with the much larger gym, hosted the first five Fish games, before the schools began alternating as hosts. Now, Coeur d’Alene’s new gym seats only slightly less than Lake City’s).

The varsity girls game is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., followed by the varsity game around 7:30.

WHEN HE was boys basketball coach at Timberlake High, Tony Hanna experienced the madness of spirit games when the Tigers played Priest River in the Battle of the Buck.

Now the head man at Coeur d’Alene High, he’ll be coaching in his fourth Fish game on Friday, and third at Lake City.

“You can’t simulate it (the atmosphere) in practice; the kids get so excited for it,” Hanna said. “As far as basketball goes, it’s kinda hard to knock down shots, and hard to compose yourself, because you’ve got so much energy, and so much adrenaline going.

“But it’s fun, too. I always look forward to it, and I know the kids do too, for sure.”

Coaches have tried hand signals or cards to communicate with the players.

“They can barely hear you in the huddle,” Winger said. “So you better have it figured out before you go out there.”

“We will practice three whole days with the sound system cranked so loud we can’t hear each other,” third-year Lake City girls coach James Anderson said. “We try to have fairly chaotic practices beforehand.”

And with students from both schools putting on performances at halftime, the break between halves is much longer than normal.

“If you’re doing well, you try to ride that momentum,” Hanna said. “If you’re not doing well, it (the longer halftime) probably gives you a little extra time to get settled and start over.”

“I love the Fish game,” Anderson said. “The last two years we’ve had so many of our girls also involved in student council. Two years ago I remember four of them being so exhausted and banged up they could barely move in the training room (after the game), but getting out to the boys game and winning the Fish was so important to them, they taped up and kept going and cheered as hard as they played. We took three days off after that one.”

The first Fish game, at Lake City in 1999, consisted of a boys junior varsity game followed by a boys varsity game. Ever since then, the Fish games have consisted of a girls varsity game followed by a boys varsity game.

“I remember the first one we did, no one really understand how long things took,” recalled Winger, who was in his first stint as Lake City boys coach at that time. “So I think halftime of the boys game took like 32 minutes. So it was like trying to do a standup comedian act and a talk show at the half. That was a hard one. It was REALLY long one. After that year it has been good.”

THE WINNER of the Fish is determined by a panel of judges, monitoring the spirit of the two student bodies. The outcome of the games is not a factor on who wins the Fish. Eight times, one school celebrated a victory by its boys team — only to see the other school celebrate wildly moments later when it was awarded the Fish.

In the early years, the Fish game did not count in the league standings. But after a while, the schools were concerned about facing their rival so many times during a season — three times during the regular season, and a possible two more times during districts — so they made the Fish game a league game.

“I’m not in love with the fact it counts as a league game. It’s a disadvantage to the home team,” Winger said. “Because it’s taking away your nomalcy of a league game.”

However ...

“Despite some of the negatives, the positives outweigh it,” Winger said. “It’s an amazing event. And I’ve seen every one of them.”

Anderson agreed.

“It’s such a neat experience for the kids,” he said. “It’s the one game all year they don’t have to listen to parents and coaches the whole game. They get to just play. They can just play the game with their peers cheering for them the whole time.”

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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