The South Whidbey football team is taking an indefinite leave from the Cascade Conference and plans to play as an independent in 2017. (Evan Thompson / South Whidbey Record)

The South Whidbey football team is taking an indefinite leave from the Cascade Conference and plans to play as an independent in 2017. (Evan Thompson / South Whidbey Record)

South Whidbey football team to play as independent in 2017

The South Whidbey football team will be in a league of its own next fall.

The Falcons have opted to play an independent schedule for the 2017 season and indefinitely break away from the Cascade Conference, the school’s athletic director, Paul Lagerstedt, said. Lagerstedt cited potential competitive imbalances in the conference as he anticipates South Whidbey’s 2017 squad will be “heavily laden with sophomores” — a reference to the 18 freshmen on the Falcons’ junior-varsity roster this past season.

Lagerstedt said he is formulating a schedule that would best mesh with the Falcons’ competitive level and would include Class 1A and 2B teams. In the best-case scenario, the Falcons will compete independently for just one year, Lagerstedt said.

“With all sophomores, I don’t think it would be a competitive schedule,” Lagerstedt said. “We’re going to look around for teams that would be good matchups for us. I just want to make sure we’re in a competitive, safe situation.”

South Whidbey’s departure leaves the Cascade Conference with six football teams: Archbishop Murphy, King’s, Sultan, Granite Falls, Cedar Park Christian and Cedarcrest.

Jason Frederick, the president of the Cascade Conference and the athletic director at Cedarcrest, said there will be an avenue for the Falcons to compete in the postseason but that it has not yet been determined.

“The conference supports South Whidbey in their decision, just like we would any conference school if anybody was in the same position,” Frederick said. “Falcon football will get back to where it once was.”

The Falcons’ football program has been in decline since 2014, having won just three games over the past three seasons under two different head coaches. Things were especially rough for the Falcons in 2016. South Whidbey was winless and outscored 325-88 in eight games, the varsity roster dipped to just 14 players during the season and head coach Michael Coe resigned after two seasons at the helm.

The Falcons also were one of five Cascade Conference teams to forfeit to powerhouse Archbishop Murphy, which went 14-0 and won the Class 2A state championship.

Lagerstedt said he hopes an independent schedule will produce a more competitive balance and reinvigorate interest in the program. “It becomes a great experience when you get to go out there on Friday nights and it’s a game in the fourth quarter,” he said.

South Whidbey football players had mixed feelings about the decision.

“I agree with this decision,” freshman offensive/defensive lineman Aiden Coleman said. “We’re young. It’s a whole different speed than what the (junior varsity) was.”

Kole Nelson, a freshman quarterback, said there is pride associated with competing in the Cascade Conference and that he’d prefer to stay in the league.

South Whidbey officials hope the program can follow in the footsteps of Bellingham, which opted to leave the Northwest Conference and play an independent football schedule in 2014.

“By all measurements possible, we were a dying football program,” Bellingham athletic director Chad Larsen said. “We needed to get very creative and we needed to find new solutions if we were going to keep football.”

Following 11 wins in two seasons playing against a mixture of class 2A, 1A and 2B schools, Bellingham rejoined the Northwest Conference in 2016. The Red Raiders posted a 4-6 record, the participation numbers are up and interest in the program is budding.

“We’re now a competitive program,” Larsen said. “We have hope.”

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