Change is coming once again for the athletic programs in the North Sound Conference.
League president Scott Sifferman announced in a press release Monday that five of the North Sound Conference schools will merge with at least seven of the eight schools from District 2’s all-Class 1A Emerald City League and Seattle charter school Summit Sierra to form a possible 14-team, 1A Emerald Sound Conference beginning with the 2020-21 school year.
North Sound Conference public schools Granite Falls, Sultan and South Whidbey and private schools King’s and Cedar Park Christian are set to join Summit Sierra and the Emerald City League’s Bear Creek, Bush, Eastside Prep, Forest Ridge, Overlake, and University Prep to create a conference that consists of at least nine private schools, three public schools and one charter school.
Seattle Academy, the eighth school in the Emerald City League, has yet to make a decision on whether or not it will compete in 1A or opt-up to a higher classification. If Seattle Academy decides to stay in 1A, it plans to join the Emerald Sound Conference. Schools originally had until Jan. 10 to submit an opt-up form to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. That date was pushed back to Wednesday.
The North Sound Conference’s sixth member, Coupeville, plans to join the Northwest 2B/1B Conference after the school’s enrollment numbers dropped into the 2B range under the WIAA’s new fixed-number classification system that goes into affect next school year.
“One thing that really is a huge appeal as we’ve been talking through and going through this is the amount of diversity this league is going to bring to the table when you talk about the 14 schools that we have,” Sifferman said. “… We have a lot of kids coming from a lot of different backgrounds that get to compete with each other. We’re excited about that.”
Sifferman, the athletic director at Sultan High School, will serve as president of the Emerald Sound Conference. Emerald City League president and Bear Creek athletic director Chad Pohlman will be the vice president.
Sifferman and Pohlman both said finding “competitive equity” was a driving force for the merger.
The league will be broken up into two divisions based on competitive balance across boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer and volleyball. The upper division will be called Chinook and the lower division Coho.
“We’re hopeful that what will result in this is a better student experience at both sides of the spectrum,” Pohlman said. “What actually happens? We’ll see. We’ll know that here in a year. But I’m pretty confident that if nothing else, it’s going to be a positive change.”
The competitive imbalance was especially evident across basketball in both conferences last season.
The North Sound Conference was dominated on both the boys and girls sides by 1A basketball powerhouse King’s. The Knights’ boys and girls squads combined to best league opponents by an average of better than 40 points per game, winning every contest by at least 24 points and eight by 50 or more.
“Last year being the first year (of the North Sound Conference), especially when you start to take a look at some of the basketball, King’s is well ahead of many of the other schools that are in our league,” Sifferman said. “And mutually we knew that there were struggles there. It wasn’t good for them, their kids. If they’ve got a running clock in the second half, now their kids are getting less minutes. So as far as their development goes at the level they are (at), they’re missing out.
“And you know, if you’re at the bottom end of those games, it’s not a fun experience.”
That disparity helped lead to a decision to alter North Sound Conference basketball schedules this season. The King’s girls team plays each league opponent only once this season, and the Knights’ boys team is playing three of its five league peers only once. King’s played each squad twice last season. The move was also made in an effort to allow the Knights to schedule stronger competition and improve their Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which is used to seed basketball teams for state tournaments.
“As a league, we felt like we could do that for one year,” Sifferman said, “but as an ongoing thing we needed to look at better options.”
Girls basketball in the Emerald City League saw plenty of lopsided affairs as well. It wasn’t quite the singular dominance going on in the North Sound Conference, but 27 of 56 league games were decided by 25 points or more.
“Because we have a playoff relationship (through) bi-districts with District 2, we’ve had conversations, we work with their ADs all the time,” Sifferman said. “And so all the sudden they’re talking about they’ve got the same challenges. They’ve got a handful of schools that are very competitive and are working towards seeing how far they can advance in postseason, and then you had others that were just trying to get through a regular season with self-esteem and trying to develop a program from the ground.”
Neither Summit Sierra nor the Emerald City League schools have football or softball programs. North Sound Conference teams will continue the five-team football format that was in place this past season. The softball league will feature just four teams — King’s does not have a softball program — with Granite Falls, Sultan, South Whidbey and Cedar Park Christian facing each other three times each, Sifferman said.
The Emerald Sound Conference also will offer baseball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls golf, cross country, wrestling and track field. Those sports will not be divided into separate divisions.
The five North Sound Conference schools participating in the merger plan to apply for a move from WIAA District 1 to District 2.
Possible playoff scenarios are still in the works and determining whether or not bi-district tournaments between Districts 1 and 2 will continue won’t be decided until the WIAA announces allocations to the state tournaments. State-tournament allocations are awarded to each district based on the number of schools the district has in a particular classification.
Sifferman said that programs in the Coho Division will have chances to advance to the postseason.
“There’s a lot of work to be done and we’re working really hard at it,” Pohlman said. “Part of that, just one of the boxes to check off, is to figure out what playoff formats might look like — league, district and bi-district agreements and all those sorts of things. So we’ve got a lot of people working really hard on it, but we certainly don’t have all the answers right now. But they should be coming together here soon.”
The merger comes just over two years after the announcement was made that Granite Falls, Sultan, South Whidbey, King’s and Cedar Park Christian would leave the Cascade Conference to form the six-team 1A North Sound Conference along with former league member Coupeville. Coupeville was making a move back to District 1 after playing in District 3’s Olympic League from 2014-2018.
Before the decision to form the North Sound Conference was announced, Cedar Park Christian and King’s applied to move into the Emerald City League in the fall of 2017. Their applications were denied.
“I don’t want to speak for the league, but I think it was just the timing of things,” Pohlman said of the denials. “It seemed right this time around to expand. It seems like we had more of a plan in place. We had goals in front of us. We had a plan and the timing matched up pretty well. Those couple years just gave our league a chance to take a look at ourselves and our league and our goals and what we wanted to really get.”
Sifferman said schools from the North Sound Conference weighed other options before ultimately deciding to combine with the Emerald City League. One of those options included Granite Falls, Sultan and South Whidbey joining Coupeville for a move to the Northwest 2B/1B Conference to form a 1A/2B/1B league, but classification projections released to schools in October of 2019 showed that three of the league’s five 2B schools likely were heading for a drop to 1B.
“We’ve got great relationships with (the Northwest 2B/1B schools) and I know that they were open to the consideration of working with us,” Sifferman said. “We had been talking about this before. The talks were good, but ultimately when they were looking at the sizes of Granite Falls, South Whidbey and Sultan and comparing them to the sizes of where their schools are going to be, it didn’t make sense for them to welcome 1A schools into the league.”
Ultimately, a merger with the Emerald City League and the ability to move to tiered divisions in some sports seemed to be the best fit to the athletic directors at Sultan, Granite Falls and South Whidbey, Sifferman said.
“We’re all looking to try to have better experiences for our student athletes …,” Sifferman said. “The final lens that Granite Falls, Sultan and South Whidbey used was that long-term flexibility and growth.”