A pass sails out of reach of Archbishop Murphy’s Kyler Gordon (center) in the fourth quarter of a Class 2A semifinal state football game against Tumwater at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Nov. 25. Archbishop Murphy will need to find a new athletic conference next year, as the Cascade Conference schools voted to dissolve, with the smaller schools already agreeing to create a new league without AMHS or Cedarcrest High School. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

A pass sails out of reach of Archbishop Murphy’s Kyler Gordon (center) in the fourth quarter of a Class 2A semifinal state football game against Tumwater at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Nov. 25. Archbishop Murphy will need to find a new athletic conference next year, as the Cascade Conference schools voted to dissolve, with the smaller schools already agreeing to create a new league without AMHS or Cedarcrest High School. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Five high schools are leaving the Cascade sports conference

Archbishop Murphy and Cedarcrest will have to find a new conference as the others form their own.

By Evan Thompson / South Whidbey Record

The Cascade Conference is splitting up.

The conference’s seven members voted last week to dissolve the multi-classification league at the end of the current school year. Five of the schools — Granite Falls, Sultan, King’s, Cedar Park Christian-Bothell and South Whidbey — plan to form a new league next fall.

Sultan, King’s, Cedar Park Christian-Bothell and South Whidbey are 1A schools. Granite Falls is a 2A school, but is in the process of petitioning the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to drop to the 1A level.

The Cascade Conference’s remaining members — 2A schools Archbishop Murphy and Cedarcrest — will not be part of the new North Sound Conference, and will need to apply to join other leagues.

“A group of schools got together, talked and decided we want to compete against schools that are similar in size and similar in competition,” Granite Falls athletic director Joey Johnson said.

Enrollment among the North Sound Conference’s four 1A schools ranges from 249 to 358 students, according to the WIAA’s average enrollment data for the 2016-2020 classification cycle. Granite Falls had 377 students as of Dec. 1 of this year, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the WIAA listed Cedarcrest with an enrollment of 716 students. Archbishop Murphy, a private Catholic school that opts up to play in the 2A classification, was listed with 403 students.

“I think for a lot of the schools, the idea of playing schools of similar size is a big deal,” King’s athletic director Rick Skeen said. “To communities, that’s a big deal.”

Granite Falls is petitioning the WIAA to drop from 2A to 1A because of a significant decline in enrollment.

It marks the second time in two years Granite Falls has petitioned to move down. The school lost an appeal in January 2016 during the statewide reclassification for the current four-year cycle, which runs through the 2019-20 school year.

At the time of the reclassification, Granite Falls was the smallest 2A school in the state (not including schools that opted up) with 461.25 students. Granite Falls had just 0.12 more students than Connell, the largest 1A school.

Granite Falls’ enrollment has since dropped by 84 students, Johnson said.

“We tried to petition them to go down at that time, and they didn’t (allow it),” Johnson said of the WIAA. “They held the line. We told them that our numbers were going down, and the last two years they have. So we’re going to try and petition again, and hopefully win it this time.”

The breakup of the Cascade Conference began in 2016 when Lakewood transferred to the Northwest Conference, leaving the league with an odd number of teams. In September, King’s and CPC-Bothell, both private schools, applied to join the Emerald City League, which is comprised of nine private schools from the Seattle area. Their applications were denied by a 5-4 vote.

Skeen said Lakewood’s departure, along with criticism about competitive imbalance between public and private schools, drove his school’s efforts to transfer to the Seattle-based league.

Critics claim private schools have an athletic advantage over rural public schools because of the significantly larger area they draw from. Students can enroll in private schools if they live within a 50-mile radius of the campus, whereas public-school students must reside within the boundaries of their school district.

The most notable example of competitive imbalance came last year, when five Cascade Conference football teams forfeited to eventual 2A state champion Archbishop Murphy because of player-safety concerns over facing a physically superior Wildcats squad that featured four linemen who weighed 260 pounds or more.

This season, there were no forfeits on the football field, but Murphy outscored its Cascade Conference opponents by an average of 40 points per game.

“We hear a lot about public and private,” Skeen said. “One of our options was to solicit to an entirely private league (the Emerald City League), thinking it would be a solution. But more people in that conference did not want us.”

That sent the Cascade Conference’s athletic directors back to the drawing board to figure out the next step.

“All seven schools were a part of the discussion, got to voice their concerns in both directions and ultimately a vote was taken and the vote was to dissolve the conference,” Sultan athletic director Scott Sifferman said.

Skeen declined to reveal the results of the voting, but said all four 1A schools voted in favor of dissolving the conference.

“I think there’s a good feeling and a good buzz,” Skeen said. “I think our principals and athletic directors are excited about moving forward at this point.”

The North Sound Conference could eventually expand to eight schools. Other potential members include Coupeville, Port Townsend and Bellevue Christian, Skeen said.

Coupeville, which is appealing to the WIAA to drop from 1A to 2B, could join the new league as early as next fall.

“If Coupeville doesn’t become a 2B school, they are wanting to be a part of the North Sound Conference,” Sifferman said.

Both Coupeville and Granite Falls should know the outcome of their appeals by the end of January, Sifferman said.

Herald writer Cameron Van Til contributed to this story.

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