Inland Empire League football coaches thought it was a door that had been permanently shut.
For nearly a decade, IEL coaches have desired that their counterparts in the Greater Spokane League would convince their administrators to open up their schedules and allow nonleague games.
It made sense for two reasons for IEL teams. First, they wanted quality, playoff-level competition. Second, they wanted to stay closer to home instead of making treks to Boise, Pocatello, Seattle and stops in between to fill out their schedules.
It made sense, too, for GSL schools – especially 3A schools. Rogers and North Central, for example, would be able to schedule games against teams more at their competitive level.
Imagine the smiles that crept over IEL coaches faces in early January when they learned that the GSL planned to divide into 4A and 3A divisions, opening spots on their schedules for nonleague games.
Within hours of the announcement, border teams had orally committed to games. The ink wasn’t dry and Coeur d’Alene, for example, had commitments to play Central Valley and Ferris.
Mead coach Sean Carty isn’t a fan of the change.
“I’d rather we have a full league schedule,” Carty said. “I don’t like risking anything for a nonleague game. I want all of our games to count.”
He said a game at Lake City more than a decade ago when the GSL had nonleague opportunities impacted Mead’s league season.
“We lost our quarterback and a wide receiver in that game,” Carty said. “It soured me on nonleague games.”
The landscape of leagues across the region changed for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 athletic years. Reclassification had much to do with the juggling among leagues involving 2A schools and smaller in eastern Washington.
The ripple effect crossed the border into Idaho, too.
Here’s a quick look at what’s new in the region:
• A 4A champ and a 3A champ will be crowned in the GSL. Just games involving teams from their respective classification will count toward league title and postseason berths.
• The Great Northern League has shrunk from seven teams to five. That means the top two seeds will play play-in games against the second and third seeds from the Central Washington Athletic Conference, on a Tuesday, to earn the right to continue advancing.
• The Northeast A League lost a team but gained two, expanding to eight. Colville and Deer Park moved down from the GNL. This allows the NEA to discontinue its crossover agreement with the Caribou Trail League, which shrunk to four teams. The top three teams in the NEA earn playoff berths.
• The league experiencing the most expansion is the Northeast 2B. Already tough with two-time defending state champ Lind-Ritzville/Sprague, traditional powers Colfax and Reardan, the league added Wilbur-Creston and Tekoa-Rosalia, a new coop between former 1B schools. Kettle Falls drops from 1A. This gives the NE 2B 10 teams and a full league schedule. There will be no nonleague games.
• In 1B, Columbia and Inchelium have ended their coop after four years and will field separate teams and be located in opposite divisions.
• In Idaho, the North Star League’s four eight-man teams have combined with the four from the Whitepine League. The new league is called the White Star, and the top two teams earn playoff berths.
While Carty isn’t a proponent of the change in the GSL, he also understands it.
“I’m willing to do what it takes,” Carty said. “I totally get it. I’m not saying it’s all wrong.”
The majority of the GSL coaches support the change wholeheartedly.
“There are some positives and negatives,” Lewis and Clark coach Dave Hughes said. “The positives are we have a chance at a couple of nonleague games. The negative is football is now different than any other GSL sport. Every other sport has one GSL champ. It’s a tradition and history thing for me. This league functioned well before I got in it. Maybe the traditional league doesn’t work anymore.”
As far as the IEL coaches were concerned, the GSL’s change was a late Christmas present for them.
Sandpoint, for example, picked up games with University and Mt. Spokane and dropped games with West Valley and Clarkston.
“We wanted to strengthen our schedule,” Sandpoint coach Satini Puailoa said.
CdA exchanged road trips to Boise, Portland and Seattle for games with CV, Ferris and Moses Lake.
Lake City said goodbye to treks to Idaho Falls, Seattle and Kennewick for contests against CV, Lewis and Clark and Shadle Park.
Deer Park is looking forward to its change of scenery in the NEA. The Stags trade a 3-hour one way road trek to Clarkston for less than an hour trip to Freeman.
“The GNL was a great league to be part of,” Deer Park athletic director Chris Snyder said. “We had a lot of success in that league. Our district will appreciate the savings in travel, and the kids will get home sooner on week nights. When you’re heading to Clarkston on a Tuesday for volleyball, basketball or wrestling, you’re not getting back until midnight or 1 in the morning. We’re looking forward to eliminating those for a couple of years.”
The shrinking GNL could shrivel even more in two years when enrollments are checked again. It’s believed Cheney, which has two middle schools feeding into its high school, could be big enough to join the 3A teams in the GSL. Such a move most likely would pull East Valley along and West Valley also might tag along in such a scenario. That would leave Pullman and Clarkston on an island.
It’s not a good year for Wilbur-Creston to move up a classification. The Wildcats would have been heavily favored to challenge for a state football championship in 1B.
Now Wilbur-Creston has landed in arguably the toughest 2B league in the state.
“We’re ready to take on the challenge,” W-C coach Darin Reppe said. “The kids are excited and ready for something new.
“We’re going up against what I call the Big Three – Lind-Ritzville/Sprague, Colfax and Reardan. They’re in the playoffs every year. Their track records speak for themselves. They set the bar of excellence in this league. We’re looking forward to the challenge of breaking through the top three.”
In 1B, Columbia and Inchelium had combined to field a football team the last four years. But Inchelium’s school board voted last spring to break away and field its own team.
“Columbia wanted to stay together,” said Brian Myers, Inchelium’s athletic director who coached the football team last year. “I’d still be the coach if we were one team.”