Wildfire smoke cleared out of Missoula long enough Thursday for Loyola Sacred Heart High School to host back-to-back varsity soccer games against the Corvallis Blue Devils. But air quality has frustrated school sports in the area for weeks, prompting numerous canceled games and forcing soccer, football and cross-country practices indoors. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

The Hamilton Lady Broncs were all set for their rivalry matchup against the Corvallis Blue Devils on Sept. 3. The last time the two varsity girls soccer teams took to the pitch in fall 2021, the game had ended in a 1-1 tie, and each side was amped for a potential win to start the 2022 conference season.

But as the Lady Broncs sat on their bus in Corvallis, smoke from regional wildfires continued to billow into the Bitterroot Valley. Coach Angela Fett had been watching hourly air quality data from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality trend closer toward “unhealthy” red, and before her team could leave their seats, the call came in: No game play today. Smoke’s too thick.

The opening weeks of the fall 2022 school sports season have been consumed by wildfire smoke in western Montana. Repeated bouts of unhealthy air quality have prompted schools to pull practices indoors and postpone or cancel games. Missoula County Public Schools notified parents of such cancellations on Sept. 12, noting that “when air quality reaches the ‘Unhealthy’ levels, MCPS moves all outdoor activities, including recess, to appropriate indoor spaces.” Similar notifications went out on Tuesday and Wednesday as DEQ’s website continued to rank the area in the red.

“We were able to get through our preseason practices and workouts and got those first weekend games in and everything was going fine,” said Tyson Tucker, assistant principal and athletic director at Corvallis High School. “Then all of a sudden, bam, it hits you, and you come to a screeching halt.”

And while occasional breaks in the smog have enabled some student athletes to take the field in September, unpredictable weather patterns mean coaches and athletic directors are keeping a close eye on state reports for rapid changes. A Sept. 8 matchup in Hamilton between the Lady Broncs and Loyola’s Breakers went ahead as scheduled, but the schools’ varsity boys soccer game that same day was halted at halftime as air quality worsened. The teams will have to reconvene at a later date to make up the remaining gameplay, with the Loyola Rams trailing 0-1.

“Do we make up the missed half when they come down here [to Missoula], or do we go back up there?” Loyola athletic director Kelli Matheny said, speaking to the logistical challenges raised by the situation. “Obviously they want us to be there because they want the home field, right?”

Air quality has been particularly poor in the Bitterroot, where it was listed as “very unhealthy” through the first half of the past week — the worst in the state. Florence-Carlton High School announced the cancellation Monday of its junior varsity football game against Missoula’s Loyola Sacred Heart High School, as well as a JV soccer matchup against Hamilton. The Lady Broncs also missed their second chance at the Corvallis game, which had been rescheduled for Tuesday. Fett said the two teams will now face each other in back-to-back matchups next Tuesday and Thursday, smoke permitting.

“I’ve just been really trying to encourage them to not hold on to this game for too long,” Fett said. “Let’s go on to the next and just be hopeful that air quality will improve. That energy and enthusiasm, you just have to carry that on to the next game. There’s nothing we can do about today.”

“We’ve got our cross-country team making laps in high school [hallways], cheer is in the foyer of the gym entrance. And then we’re rotating between morning and afternoon times, even horrible 6-to-8 spots in the evening just so people can get into the gym.”

Brian Gum, athletic director, Stevensville High School

Fett and others noted that when it comes to conference games, rescheduling is both a necessity and a challenge. For example, the first round of soccer playoffs starts Oct. 15, leaving little flex time to accommodate postponements and putting student athletes in the position of playing multiple tough matchups in an abbreviated amount of time. Brian Gum, athletic director at Stevensville High School, also pointed out that Montana schools have been facing a years-long referee shortage, adding to the complexity of rebooking smoke-canceled games. 

Meanwhile, juggling the between-game practice needs of multiple teams and sports with limited indoor space is no easy feat. On a single day in Corvallis this week, Tucker said, the school had two volleyball teams practicing in the larger gym, varsity football practicing in the smaller gym followed immediately by soccer, and JV football practicing in the wrestling room because it was the only place available. It’s “tough, it’s ridiculous, it’s frustrating,” he said. It’s the same for schools throughout the valley.

“It’s super frustrating,” Gum said. “We’ve got our cross-country team making laps in high school [hallways], cheer is in the foyer of the gym entrance. And then we’re rotating between morning and afternoon times, even horrible 6-to-8 spots in the evening just so people can get into the gym.”

Despite those challenges, away games in less smoky parts of the state have proved a saving grace for schools in the Bitterroot, and school officials have taken some creative steps to salvage sporting schedules. Tucker said Corvallis moved a home game this coming weekend to East Helena due to better air quality there, and Gum explained how, rather than run the risk of a smoke-induced cancellation, Stevensville negotiated the relocation of a varsity football game against Browning High School to Ronan.

The brunt of the unpredictability, of course, falls on students. Athletic directors acknowledge that indoor practices are a poor substitute for the full-energy experience of normal outdoor skill-building, and Fett said her Lady Broncs players have been understandably “disappointed” over canceled games, particularly their twice-reshuffled rivalry match. But those students have proven to be resilient, particularly after two seasons colored by the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think the last couple of years have taught us all to just be flexible and grateful for what we do have, because we saw where we weren’t getting to play sports on a regular basis,” Fett said. “So, I mean, yes, we are postponed due to smoke, but just knowing that we will get to have a season is exciting.”

In other words, the smoke will clear, as it did in Missoula Thursday — just in time for Loyola to host back-to-back varsity soccer games against the Corvallis Blue Devils. Between the boys and girls matchups, Matheny hovered above the stands. Her fingers were still crossed that Bozeman’s air quality would hold out for a Friday varsity football showdown against Red Lodge High School in the Montana State University Bobcats’ stadium. But prior to the boys soccer teams taking the pitch, she said her mind had been occupied by another advisory that threatened to postpone yet another spot on the schedule. This one had to do with nature too, but it had nothing to do with smoke.

“Lightning,” Matheny said.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...