Lakewood running back Landen Pruitt runs through a gauntlet of players during practice on Aug. 23, 2018,	at Lakewood High School in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lakewood running back Landen Pruitt runs through a gauntlet of players during practice on Aug. 23, 2018, at Lakewood High School in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Prep football preview: Northwest 2A Conference

Northwest 2A adopts a two-tiered format to fight competitive imbalance.

Class 2A football in the Northwest District has a brand-new look.

In an effort to improve competitive balance and help struggling programs, the district formed a two-tiered, football-only league that will debut this fall and include all 11 of its 2A teams.

For the first season of the district-wide league, the upper Sky division will include Archbishop Murphy, Burlington-Edison, Lakewood, Lynden and Sedro-Woolley. The lower Lake division will consist of Anacortes, Bellingham, Blaine, Cedarcrest, Mountlake Terrace and Sehome.

Both divisions have avenues to reach the state playoffs through Week 9 and Week 10 playoff games.

“We were trying to take all 2A schools in District 1 and come up with some sort of system to take care of those schools that are really struggling at the bottom end, as far as numbers and getting kids to turn out,” said Burlington-Edison athletic director Don Beazizo, who recently finished his term as the Northwest Conference president.

The Northwest District joins the Metro League and North Puget Sound League in a growing trend of conferences creating multi-tiered football systems to combat competitive imbalance. The Metro formed a three-tiered system in 2017 and the NPSL will debut a three-tiered system this fall.

In recent years, competitive imbalances in Northwest District football have been strikingly evident.

Over the past six seasons in the Northwest Conference 2A, the struggling programs of Anacortes, Bellingham and Sehome have gone a combined 2-43 against league powers Burlington-Edison, Lynden and Sedro-Woolley, while getting outscored by an average of 29.9 points per game in those contests.

The struggles and lack of participation numbers were so significant that Bellingham temporarily left the NWC to play an independent schedule in 2014 and 2015. Sehome followed suit and played an independent slate last season.

There also was the case of five schools from the since-disbanded 2A/1A Cascade Conference forfeiting to Archbishop Murphy during the 2016 season, citing player-safety concerns over facing an ultra-talented and physically superior Wildcats team that cruised to the 2A state title.

“The middle class of football teams is starting to fade away,” new NWC president and Lynden athletic director Mike McKee said. “(There are) the haves and the have-nots, and there’s a lot of disparity. … On top of just getting beat, (the struggling teams) are getting beat up.”

According to Beazizo, low turnout numbers even prompted some school boards to consider whether they should shut down their football programs.

“We needed to try something different for the sake of football,” McKee said.

The hope is that splitting the league into two divisions based on competition level will help struggling programs regain their footing.

“Fair competition and winning some football games is probably one of the primary ways to attract kids to high school football, get community support … and get the spirit and energy going,” Mountlake Terrace coach Kelly Dougan said.

After each season, the district will use a weighted formula to determine whether teams should be placed in the Sky or Lake division. The formula includes factors such as roster size, number of graduating seniors, number of underclassmen, a coaches poll and win-loss record.

“There is a chance after year one that there would be a shifting of teams,” McKee said. “We don’t think it will be a lot, but it might be those middle teams. Some of them might go up (and) some of them might go down.”

Home to eight of the past 12 2A state champions, the current Sky division is a juggernaut collection of programs.

In the past 12 years, Lynden has won six state titles and made nine state semifinal appearances. Archbishop Murphy has reached the state semifinals nine of the past 14 seasons, winning a state crown in 2016. Sedro-Woolley captured a state championship in 2014. Burlington-Edison has advanced to the state quarterfinals five times in the past 11 years.

Over the past 13 seasons, current Sky division teams have totaled 13 appearances in the 2A state title game.

“Usually in any season, even though you might have a league that’s good top to bottom, there’s still two or three teams that aren’t going to be quite as competitive,” Lakewood coach Dan Teeter said. “And with this one, there are no breaks. … It’s going to be a battle, for sure — every game, every week.”

In the Sky division, every team plays each other once during the regular season for a four-game league slate. Playoff seeding will be determined by where teams finish in the division standings.

In the Lake division, teams face each other once apiece for a five-game league schedule. Playoff seeding will be determined by a Ratings Percentage Index system that also includes KingCo 2A teams Liberty (Issaquah) and Sammamish, which compete in the Northwest District for the postseason.

The postseason format will depend on whether the Northwest District is allotted three or four state berths. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is expected to announce state-playoff allocations in the latter half of September, McKee said.

If the district has three state berths, the top three seeds in the Sky division will receive Week 9 byes and home-field advantage for the Week 10 winner-to-state games. Meanwhile, the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds from the Sky division and the top seed from the Lake division/KingCo RPI rankings will host seeds 2-4 from the RPI rankings in Week 9 playoff games. The three Week 9 winners advance to face the top three Sky teams in Week 10 for state-playoff spots.

If the district has four state berths, the top four seeds in the Sky division will receive Week 9 byes and home-field advantage for Week 10. The Sky No. 5 seed and the top three seeds from the Lake division/KingCo RPI rankings will host seeds 4-7 from the RPI rankings in Week 9 playoff games. The four Week 9 winners advance to face the top four Sky teams in Week 10 for state-playoff berths.

So, if the district has three state berths, then nine of the 13 teams from the two-tiered league and KingCo 2A are guaranteed Week 9 playoff spots. And if the district has four state berths, all but one of the 13 teams will play in Week 9.

“This gives some of those programs that are struggling a chance to play for something all year long and not give up,” McKee said.

In a unique wrinkle, the Week 9 winners will be seeded for their Week 10 playoff matchups based on a poll of coaches and athletic directors from every school playing in those Week 10 games.

For example, if the district has three state berths, then all six schools playing in Week 10 will vote on how the three Week 9 winners should be seeded. The top three Sky teams will remain seeded based on their finish in the division standings.

McKee said the district will re-evaluate the new two-tiered system after the 2019-20 school year, which marks the end of the current statewide classification cycle.

“We realize that probably the teams that will suffer the most in this new formula are the 4 and 5 (seeds) of the Sky division,” he said. “They line up every week and play somebody who’s (tough as) nails. But I think even the teams that think they may not benefit (understand) that we needed to try something different … to keep our football programs afloat.

“It’s a lot of working parts,” he added. “But at the end of the day, we’re hoping it helps to strengthen the programs that have been struggling and get our numbers up so that everybody has a chance to be successful.”

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