Beginning this fall, the road to the state playoffs will look quite different for most Wesco 4A teams.
For the next two years, Wesco and KingCo athletic directors voted to combine their state berths at the Class 4A level in every team sport except football.
So instead of Wesco and KingCo each holding separate 4A district tournaments like in years past, the two conferences will hold joint 12-team bi-district tournaments to determine state qualification for baseball, basketball, soccer, softball and volleyball.
Northwest District athletic director Robert Polk said the two leagues will re-evaluate the agreement after the 2019-20 school year, which marks the end of the current statewide classification cycle.
Wesco and KingCo will continue to hold separate district tournaments for 4A individual sports and for all 3A sports except football. Football teams from both conferences will continue to qualify for state through the traditional Week 10 playoff games.
“It definitely is a big change,” Glacier Peak boys basketball coach Brian Hunter said. “You’re always a little bit apprehensive about some changes like this, but overall I think it could be a positive for our league and for the excitement for the playoffs.”
Polk said talks between the two conferences began after it was determined KingCo 4A would receive an additional state berth on an every-other-year basis.
In recent years, Wesco 4A and KingCo 4A have had two state berths apiece. But with KingCo 4A increasing to 10 teams, the league will receive three state berths for the upcoming school year and two berths for 2019-20.
That means there will be a combined five state berths available at bi-district tournaments this coming school year, and four state berths the following year.
For the upcoming five-berth year, Wesco will send five of its eight teams to the bi-district tournament and KingCo will send seven of its 10 teams, Polk said. For the four-berth year in 2019-20, both conferences will send six teams to bi-district.
Polk said the bi-district tournament formats likely will vary from sport to sport, but that in all sports the top two seeds from each league will receive a first-round bye.
For Wesco athletic directors, a major impetus for moving to the bi-district format was the repetitiveness of the 4A district tournaments under the previous system, Polk said.
In all team sports except football, every Wesco 4A team faces one another twice during the 14-game conference slate. And because Wesco is the only 4A league in the Northwest District, teams then played each other once or twice more during the six-team district tournaments of recent years. That meant frequent instances of teams playing each other four times in a season.
“It becomes redundant, fan interest becomes low and we just felt like we needed to do something different,” Polk said.
The new bi-district format should significantly decrease the number of rematches between Wesco teams.
“I like the idea that we’re getting out of our league and playing other teams,” Jackson baseball coach Kirk Nicholson said.
Under the new bi-district format, the most significant difference is Wesco no longer will be guaranteed two teams in the state tournament. Depending on how its teams perform in the bi-district tournament, Wesco theoretically could qualify anywhere from zero to five teams for state. Wesco coaches differ on whether that’s good or bad.
Lake Stevens girls basketball coach Randy Edens is concerned the new format could decrease the number of Wesco teams that advance to state. He pointed to the strength of KingCo 4A girls basketball, which placed two teams in the state semifinals this past season.
“We don’t want to potentially lose state bids and opportunities for our kids to KingCo schools,” Edens said. “In girls basketball, KingCo’s tough. They’ve got some really good programs. … It’s already been a challenge to get to the Tacoma Dome (in) basketball, and this has the potential to make it that much tougher for our league to get there.
“If we had stayed separated, we’d guarantee our own bids and we’d guarantee our league a district championship,” he added. “And that’s a pretty special thing to pass up.”
But in a sport such as softball, a bi-district format likely would’ve benefited Wesco teams in recent years.
Each of the past few seasons, Wesco 4A has featured at least three elite, state-caliber softball teams. But with just two state berths available, one team inevitably was left out.
That scenario was strikingly evident this past spring, when Lake Stevens won a share of the Wesco 4A regular-season crown but finished behind Jackson and Monroe in the district tournament. The Timberwolves and Bearcats went on to showcase the league’s strength at state, advancing to face each other in an all-Wesco state title game.
“In the case of softball where Wesco has had three top-10 teams in the state — but one gets left out because of only two berths — it gives the chance for all three to go,” Jackson softball coach Kyle Peacocke said.
Lake Stevens boys basketball coach Mark Hein said while there’s a risk of one league losing state berths to the other, the new format better ensures that the best teams advance to state.
“It’s definitely a risk,” Hein said. “But at the same time, I feel like more than anything you want to see the teams that advance be deserving of that.
“If there’s a year that we deserve to have three or four teams go to (state), then that’s the way it should be. And if KingCo has a year where they’re superior, I just more and more believe that the end goal is to get the best teams to state.”
KingCo 4A consists of Bothell, Eastlake, Inglemoor, Issaquah, Mount Si, Newport, North Creek, Redmond, Skyline and Woodinville. North Creek joined the conference last year as a brand-new school, and Redmond moved up from 3A this year.
Wesco 4A includes Cascade, Glacier Peak, Jackson, Kamiak, Lake Stevens, Mariner, Monroe and Mount Vernon.
“Everything’s in cycles,” Hunter said. “If you look at last year, I would say the Wesco teams were better than the KingCo teams in 4A (boys) basketball. It changes every year, so this year it could be the KingCo teams.
“But I just think it might be a situation where we’ll keep each other working hard and improving our games, and then the product is that much better at the end. So that’s somewhat the hope — that the competitiveness makes the whole situation that much stronger from a district tournament standpoint.”
Coaches said the new format also increases the amount of scouting necessary to prepare for the postseason. Instead of facing a familiar Wesco rival for a third or fourth time, teams will be squaring off against brand-new opponents from KingCo.
“We’re going to have to do some advance scouting of those teams … to be as prepared as we can be going into playoff time,” Hein said. “So it’ll look different throughout the year — trying to collect more film and live-scout a couple more times down there as you get closer to playoffs and have some idea of who you might end up playing.
“It definitely changes the landscape of the leagues, but it also changes the job of the coaching staffs in terms of being prepared for that many more teams come playoffs.”
This won’t be the first time Wesco and KingCo have competed for state berths. Back in the 1990s, the two conferences held combined bi-district tournaments. And earlier this decade, the third-place finishers from each league’s 4A district tournament squared off in winner-to-state elimination games.
“It will make the district tournament a bit more like the state tournament — getting a chance to play teams you don’t see throughout the year,” Peacocke said. “I think that’s great for expanding the game.”