WIAA allows football programs to petition to play down one classification

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The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) Representative Assembly voted to pass eight amendments for the 2019-20 school year, the association announced Monday.

Most of the amendments were of an administrative nature or affected practice guidelines, but one in particular will grab the attention of football fans in Eastern Washington.

Beginning in 2019-20, all schools will be allowed to petition down one classification in football only. Currently, 1B and 2B schools are permitted to opt up or down in football, but the passed amendment will now allow for 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A schools to seek permission from the executive board to opt down.

The rationale of this amendment seeks added flexibility for scheduling purposes as well as increased competitive equity. In order to qualify, schools would need the approval of the league they would be leaving, in addition to one they would potentially be joining.

Herb Rotchford, Greater Spokane League/WIAA District 8 director, said schools would have to show a history of competitive inequity to be approved to opt down.

“There would need to be a history of really struggling, so that you know it’s the appropriate decision to make if we’re going to drop you one classification in football, so that you can have the opportunity to be more competitive as a school and for your kids,” he said.

This move is in addition to the amendments approved in January set for the 2020-21 school year, which instituted hard-cap enrollment parameters for classification as opposed to the current equal distribution of schools among the six levels, and allowed the use of free and reduced lunch data for each school as a means of adjusting the enrollment numbers.

The Representative Assembly is comprised of 53 school administrators (35 high school, 18 middle school) from each of the nine WIAA districts. For an amendment to pass, 60 percent approval is needed from voting members of the Assembly.

The effect of January’s rule would allow for several Greater Spokane League schools to move down a classification in all sports. Monday’s ruling introduces the possibility that their football programs could get a head start this fall, instead of waiting until 2020.

January’s ruling immediately caused speculation on how the changes could affect the GSL and how its member schools could become aligned. Monday’s decision further muddies the waters.

GSL members Mead, Shadle Park, North Central and Rogers – and perhaps even University – could meet the threshold to reduce their classification cap number for the upcoming cycle based upon the free and reduced lunch adjustment, with area schools Cheney and Deer Park candidates to move up a class based upon an increase in enrollment.

Rotchford acknowledged that North Central and Rogers would appear to be likely candidates to petition to opt down, but said no decision has been made at this point.

If any or all of those GSL schools petition to play down for football this fall and the petitions are granted, it would cause the GSL and 2A Great Northern League to alter their football schedules for this fall.

“It comes down to competitive equity,” NC athletic director David Hall said. “North Central would definitely have a strong case to petition to move down one complete level. (Principal) Steve (Fisk) and I took a close look at what we want to do. And we haven’t made a decision yet. I also called up (football coach) Sean (Garvey) to get his input. And I think we’re all on the same page.”

Hall expects that the schools will let the league know their decisions soon.

John Barrington, the Mead athletic director and GSL football coordinator, said the most recent decision by the WIAA adds a layer of complication to drawing up a football schedule for the fall.

“We currently have a schedule that can be played that we all signed off on,” Barrington said, before noting that changes could be made based upon whether one or more teams are allowed to opt down for this fall.

“Nothing is really set in stone at this point,” he said.

Rotchford said while the schedule is workable, things are still up in the air.

“The schedule is such that (schools) could decide say ‘Okay, you know we’re happy with how the GSL has tried to adjust the schedule to meet our needs and can meet our concerns. And so we’ll play in the league this year. And then we’ll go wherever we go in terms of the classification numbers for next year.’

“But that’s something that the schools would have to decide,” he added.

“We felt pretty good about the schedule for next year,” Hall said. “Until the vote happened. I don’t believe any of us in Spokane fully believed that this amendment was going to pass. So that’s opened up a different can of worms now.”

In January, Rotchford said the GSL would move forward for the upcoming season with a football schedule that would not require 3A schools Rogers and North Central to play a full schedule against the 4A schools.

“I know that might have ruffled a lot of feathers, but it came down to competitive equity again,” Hall said. “There was no reason for us to go play nonleague games and then go through the so-called ‘4A gauntlet’ and then basically be beat up like crazy, and not have a opportunity to be healthy to play against our 3A counterparts.”

NC is a combined 6-32 the past four seasons with two league wins – both over Rogers, which is 3-34 in the same span.

Rotchford said in January that the GSL had been involved in talks with the Great Northern League about the possibility of realignment.

Whether this amendment intensifies the process – or derails it – is still a matter to be decided. Either way, it most likely wouldn’t be in effect until the 2020-21 school year.

“There will be a lot of work to be done and a lot of preparation to be made,” Rotchford said of the possibility of bringing the two leagues under the same umbrella.

“I don’t think it would speed it up from the standpoint of ‘Oh gosh, we’re going to do this next year.’ No, that’s that’s not realistic at this point.”

If Rogers, North Central and Shadle Park all opt down this season, or wait until next year, when they would qualify under the free/reduced lunch amendment, it could dramatically change how schools are aligned for the future.

Hall said if it came to it, the decision to leave the GSL would be a difficult one for everyone, considering the history involved – both NC and Rogers were charter members of the league in 1976.

“I get it. I understand the alumni feelings and the history,” Hall said. “But at some point, we’ve got to be realistic and smart about what we do. And currently right now, for football at North Central High School, or at Rogers, it is not smart, the way we’re doing it.

“People are opposed to change. But honestly, the way I look at it is that I really believe that the games would be more equally balanced. And we still might get beat. But at least there’s the opportunity there for competitive equity.”

Rotchford said if asked, the GSL would give its blessing.

“We have an obligation to respond and to provide better opportunities for our kids to be competitive – and have the hope of being competitive. And I would say that the GSL would support – certainly support – Rogers and North Central. We certainly honor who they are and who they’ve been over the years, but certainly we would be supportive of their request.”

In addition to these changes, when Central Valley School District’s new high school, Ridgeline, opens in the fall of 2021, it could very likely lower the enrollment of Central Valley and University, allowing those schools to qualify at the 3A level for the following four-year cycle.

The possibility exists that by then the area leagues would made up of two 4A schools (Ferris and Lewis and Clark), six 3A schools (Central Valley, University, Mead, Ridgeline, Mt. Spokane and Cheney) and eight 2A schools (Rogers, North Central, Shadle Park, East Valley, West Valley, Pullman, Clarkston and Deer Park), with Gonzaga Prep, which has enrollment numbers of a 2B classification school, essentially allowed to choose where it best fits based on competition and playoff allotments.

For now, the only certainty is that changes are inevitable to a league with such a storied history.

“When you have such a strong tradition over so many years, that’s hard for people, and I understand why it’s hard for people to let go,” Rotchford said.

“But at the same time, the conversation needs to be what is best for our kids who we are responsible for, for placing them in a situation that is best for them in terms of being an athlete, what’s best for them in terms of being a competitor, and what’s best for them in terms of having hope.”

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