It started with a challenge to think “out of the box.”
With injuries a concern and competitive balance in some high school football leagues in decline, athletic directors from the Northwest District’s 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A schools met this fall to try to come up with solutions to those problems.
The result of their creative thinking? A plan that calls for the creation of what is believed to be the first football-only leagues in the state of Washington.
“It’s the first time it’s been discussed and tried,” Everett School District athletic director Robert Polk said. “In the past, an effort has been made to treat football like all other sports and we made choices years ago to start forming multi-classification leagues. We tried to hold to that, but we see football as being very unique because of the nature of the sport.”
The plan calls for combining the football teams from the Northwest Conference, the Cascade Conference and the Wesco 4A and 3A into five classification-specific leagues. While unofficial, the unnamed leagues are all but a certainty, with the athletic directors hoping to finalize schedules by next month.
“Everyone’s willing to work together to make sure this works for everybody that we represent,” Sultan athletic director Scott Sifferman said. “I think District 1, as a whole, we’re thinking out of the box.”
The Northwest District — which includes Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom and Island counties — is awaiting the final classification numbers from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) before putting the finishing touches on the agreement. A school’s classification is based on its enrollment, with 4A schools being the largest, followed by 3A, 2A, etc.
The leagues involved will remain in their current formats for all other sports.
“I think when we were sitting around the table the onus was, listen, if we keep matching up 1As against big 2As, football is going to go away at a lot of places,” Archbishop Murphy athletic director Erick Streelman said. “It’s not going to be competitive. We don’t want anyone to get beat up. We don’t want people to not have a competitive schedule.
“All the people that were at the initial meeting, there wasn’t anybody in the room who said, ‘This is a terrible idea. Let’s scrap this.’ It was, ‘This is a good idea. Let’s see how we can make this work.’”
Under the plan, all of Snohomish County’s football leagues will undergo at least a slight change in membership. In 3A, the Wesco North will add current Northwest Conference teams Ferndale and Squalicum (which moves up to 3A next fall) to go along with Oak Harbor, Stanwood, Arlington, Marysville Getchell and Marysville Pilchuck.
The Wesco 3A South adds Everett and Snohomish — one of which will be in the Wesco 3A North for every other sport — to a group that already includes Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood, Meadowdale, Shorecrest and Shorewood.
The 2A league will be made up of Anacortes, Archbishop Murphy, Bellingham, Blaine, Burlington-Edison, Cedarcrest, Granite Falls, Lakewood, Lynden, Mountlake Terrace, Sedro-Woolley and Sehome. The new league figures to be a powerhouse — its members have claimed seven of the past 10 Class 2A state champions. The schools will be divided into two six-team divisions based on a ranking system devised by the athletic directors to ensure a competitive balance.
“I’m guessing Lynden is like No. 1, Sedro-Woolley No. 2 or whatever it might be,” Polk said. “They then divided each division by placing No. 1 to the left, No. 2 to the right. They divided them up so there’s a balance of strong programs versus developing programs in each division.”
The 1A league includes Cedar Park Christian-Bothell, King’s, Lynden Christian, Meridian, Mount Baker, Nooksack Valley, South Whidbey and Sultan.
The Wesco 4A will remain largely unchanged, with the only modification being Glacier Peak joining the league in place of Snohomish, which drops to 3A for the next classification cycle. The Grizzlies will play with existing 4A members Cascade, Jackson, Kamiak, Lake Stevens, Mariner, Monroe and Mount Vernon.
“I think we’re out for the good of the kids and the good of the game,” Streelman said. “That’s what’s driving this decision. We want football to be something that’s relevant and exciting for the school. That’s not the case if you’re 1-9 and getting killed by everybody. Or if you’re 9-1 and killing everybody.
“I think the Northwest Conference has a pretty big division between the top of the 2As and the bottom of the 1As. And the Cascade Conference is in a bit of the same position.”
Sultan’s Sifferman said the new leagues should make for better football games.
“From Sultan’s point of view, if there’s a 1A league, we wouldn’t play an Archbishop Murphy. But Nooksack Valley, Meridian, Mount Baker are still really strong football programs. …” he said. “We know it’s not necessarily going to be an easier road, but when you know the schools are a similar size, it helps with motivation. We want to play hard in Weeks 9 and 10 because we want to play in week 11.”
Safety was a concern for the athletic directors, who shuddered at the thought of smaller 1A schools continuing to go up against 2A and 3A competition.
“We are doing this because we believe the size of the school correlates pretty strongly with the size of the football team,” Polk said. “Overall, I think for the safety of kids, I think it’s a good step in the right direction. Will it definitely address it and fix it? I don’t know. We’ll see. But we’re trying to take positive steps to try to address the concerns.”
When a 1A school plays a 4A school in basketball, “we might get drilled, but we won’t get hurt,” King’s athletic director Rick Skeen said. “But if you play a Bellevue (a 3A team) in football, you might end up with a kid going to the hospital.”
Skeen said there initially may have been some holdouts among the 1A schools, but once it was clear the 2A schools in the Cascade and Northwest conferences were in favor of the plan, the 1A schools decided to go along.
“It kind of felt like, where I was sitting, the Wesco and Northwest were the drivers behind this,” Skeen said. “The Northwest Conference — I coached up there for 11 years — and the challenge of football is unique. It’s a 3A/2A/1A league and everyone’s thrown into the same thing. Obviously, in football that’s a different situation.
“First, initially, the response was, ‘I don’t know if we like that,’ mainly, because of (travel) distance. But I think as people started to look at it, people started to see the positives in it.”
With the Cascade Conference’s 2A schools linking up with the Northwest Conference, the Cascade Conference’s 1A schools had to follow suit or be left with a four-team league, with teams playing each other twice each season. “No coach wants that,” Skeen said.
The new leagues are not without drawbacks. Travel presents a problem, with a team such as Sultan having to drive 90 miles one way for a game at Mount Baker, and Mountlake Terrace traveling 98 miles to Blaine.
But athletic directors said football, with just one game a week, lends itself to longer travel better than other sports.
“If we have to travel to Lynden, it’s a 1½-hour trip but it’s only once a week on a Friday night,” Murphy’s Streelman said. “There isn’t a huge impact on academics. It’s not like basketball, where you can travel two or three times a week.”
The football leagues will be for varsity only, meaning the increased travel won’t affect junior varsity and freshman squads.
The new alignments will affect some conference rivalries that have developed over the years — such as the Black and Blue Bowl between Granite Falls and Sultan — but the athletic directors said they hope to continue those games as non-league contests.
“Down here, we’re going to find a space for an Everett-Cascade game and Glacier Peak-Snohomish,” Polk said. “We’re going to make those happen.”
The 3A playoff picture will be clearer now that Ferndale — the Northwest Conference’s lone 3A school the past few years — no longer has to factor into the postseason equation based on its league winning percentage. The Wesco 3A North and South each get three playoff berths, with the possibility of a seventh that would be shared between them. If the seventh spot becomes a reality, the fourth-place teams from each conference would play to decide the berth.
The 2A playoff format is still to be determined.
The Northwest District’s 1A schools have a bi-district agreement with District 2 for state berths, however, none of the 1A schools in District 2 play football. So the top two teams from the 1A league would advance, with the possibility of a third team moving on every other year.
Granite Falls, which landed in the lower part of the 2A classification when the final enrollment numbers were released last week, is appealing in hopes of becoming a 1A school. If that happens, the Tigers would drop to the 1A league.
“If there’s (an) odd number (of teams), we have to work together that no school is left standing alone and has to travel east of the mountains for a Week 5 game because there’s no one to play over here,” Sifferman said.
“We need to figure out what’s going on with Granite Falls. That decision will determine whether (the 1A league will) have two or three non-conference games. If Granite Falls is in (the 1A league), one of those games we pretty much need to pair up (with a team in the Northwest District 1). If we have an opening, and there’s a 2A school that has an opening, we’d want to line it up if the competition is right.”
The athletic directors hope to have the leagues finalized soon after the WIAA meets to hear appeals on Jan. 24-25. The leagues are being proposed for two years, and will be evaluated after the second season.
“My understanding, and again I’m not a driver behind this I’m a new kid at the table, I understand that once the WIAA finalizes everything (the league would be created),” Skeen said. “I have a schedule sitting in front of me for a 1A (league). We have things penciled in and planned and playoff agreements and how we would do it. We just have to wait a week or so to know exactly who is 1A, who is 2A.
“But I don’t see any way it’s not going to happen at this point.”