The Great Northern League is staring change right in the face.
The Class 2A league is small, but mighty. Five teams battle it out in every sport, and the teams that prevail invariably do well in competing for state titles.
But when reclassification rolls around for the 2020-21 school year, the prospects for the league are up in the air.
“Some of the numbers coming down the road look like there is a true possibility that Cheney might go back to Class 3A,” East Valley athletic director Alec Vermaire said. “There is a possibility that we could end up being a four-team league where every football team plays each other twice. No one wants that.”
At the same time, the second-year AD points out, there are a number of other possibilities.
Until the WIAA Representative Assembly meets Monday in Renton, all anyone can do is explore possibilities.
The WIAA Executive Board has a number amendments for the state constitution, two of which address how the state determines classifications.
The current system has six classifications with roughly the same number of schools (64) per classification. Schools can “opt up” to play in a bigger classification, but to maintain balance a school is then pushed down to maintain even numbers.
This system allows the state to maintain a 16-team state tournament based on the state’s preferred 4-to-1 ratio of schools to state berths.
A new amendment goes to a straight, hard-number classification system based on enrollment: 4A: 1,300 and up; 3A: 900-1,299; 2A: 450- 899; 1A: 225-449; 2B: 105-224; and 1B: 104 and below.
Schools can still opt up, but there will no longer be a corresponding push down, and the result is a likely imbalance in classification size.
The WIAA will maintain its 4-to-1 ratio of state berths by altering the size of its state tournaments. Larger classifications could ultimately go to a 24-team state tournament. Smaller classifications could go to an eight-team tournament.
“I think there is some good momentum behind that proposal,” West Valley athletic director Jamie Nilles said. “I’ve had some experience with that – being in a classification with 90 schools fighting to get into a 16-team tournament while a 40-team classification still had a 16-team tournament and it was so much easier getting to state.”
Nilles was the area’s third delegate to last year’s Representative Assembly. This year that third seat goes to another district, so he’s staying home.
There already will be some major shifts in classification for area schools coming for 2020-21, Nilles said. A third Central Valley School District high school, Ridgeline, is due to come online for the 2021 school year, with the prospect of all three of the district’s high schools – Central Valley, University and Ridgeline – playing in Class 3A. Mead is likely to drop to Class 3A to join Mt. Spokane and Cheney.
That would leave only Ferris and Lewis and Clark as Class 4A teams in the GSL. Gonzaga Prep would decide if it wants to continue to opt up to Class 4A or stay at 3A, where there may be more state tournament berths in play.
The second classification-related amendment the Representative Assembly will take up offers even more potential change for area schools.
The proposed amendment would introduce a socioeconomic element to the classification process by factoring in the number of free and reduced-cost lunches a school offers.
Washington state high schools, on average, have 43 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches. If a school offers 10 percent more than the average, it could adjust its enrollment number down by an equal percentage.
For example, if a school offers free and reduced-cost lunches to 55 percent of its students, it could adjust its enrollment down by 12 percent.
If it passes, that could open the door for Greater Spokane League schools like Rogers, North Central and Shadle Park to drop down to Class 2A.
“I started a list, and I think I have six different possible scenarios playing out so far,” Nilles said.
For one, he said, Deer Park is likely to return to Class 2A and rejoin the Great Northern League. Another would see Shadle Park, North Central and Rogers all dropping down a classification and joining East Valley, West Valley, Pullman, Clarkston and Deer Park in an eight-team league.
“That would be a big boost for the league, and it would make scheduling a whole lot easier,” Vermaire said. “We could get away from having to play everyone three times per season, and I think we’d all like to see that.”
There’s always “but” built into these scenarios, however.
“I don’t think it’s a given that those three GSL schools will drop down,” Nilles said. “They all have a long history with the GSL, and they might not want to leave.
“We already have good relationships there, and we already play those schools. We are in the first year of a two-year scheduling cycle, so all of our nonleague games will be the same next year.”
There are discussions underway to merge the GSL and GNL into a three-tiered, 4A/3A/2A conference.
“That would certainly offer the most flexibility when it comes to scheduling,” Nilles said. “Even with teams moving up and down between classifications. And it would certainly add an element of travel to the GSL if they add Pullman and Clarkston. Right now they think CV-to-Mead is a long road trip.”
Nilles has empathy for NC, Shadle Park and Rogers, and he is a voice of experience on the subject. He was the boys basketball coach when West Valley’s enrollment numbers dropped and it moved from being the smallest Class 3A school in the GSL to membership in the GNL.
“That was tough for everyone but boys basketball in those days,” he said. “We were able to be competitive there because we had a run of really good players.”
Since dropping to the GNL, WV has gone from having winless football seasons to playing for state titles and being a regular Top 10 team year-in and year-out.
“There is just so much positive that comes from having your football team be competitive. It is such a positive thing – from a school’s self-esteem to the way kids treat each other in the halls every day. I think it impacts things that people don’t even think about. It makes a huge difference.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.