The 2021-22 school year is set to bring some sort of normalcy back to high school athletics in the state after the coronavirus pandemic sent prep sports into disarray this past school year.
Teams are preparing for the chance to compete for state playoffs again and seasons are scheduled to start on time.
But things will look a little different this year in terms of how teams are aligned in their respective classifications and conferences.
The 2020-21 school year was the first year of a new classification cycle that featured a new alignment system with an emphasis on finding competitive balance for low-income schools.
In January of 2019, the WIAA Executive Board passed amendments that established hard-line enrollment numbers for the state’s six classifications — 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A, 2B and 1B — and the use of reduced-lunch rates to decrease enrollment totals.
The latter amendment allowed schools in classes 1A-4A an enrollment drop equal to the percentage they are above the state’s reduced-lunch-rate average, up to 40%. Schools that received the enrollment reduction couldn’t drop more than one classification.
For example, a school with an average enrollment of 1,000 students in grades 9-11 with a reduced-lunch rate of 10% above the state average would have its enrollment number reduced to 900 for classification purposes.
The new hard-line classifications numbers are 4A, 1,300 or more students; 3A, 900-1,299; 2A, 450-899; 1A, 225-449; 2B, 112-224; and 1B 1-111.
Ultimately, the use of reduced-lunch rates affected only one Snohomish County school. Cascade, which had an average grades 9-11 enrollment of 1,335, moved from 4A to 3A with a reduced-lunch-rate adjusted enrollment of 1,254.9. Mount Vernon, a member of Wesco 4A from 2012-2020, also moved from 4A to 3A after its average enrollment numbers were adjusted with the new formula.
Other Snohomish County schools on the move were Monroe (4A to 3A), Mountlake Terrace (2A to 3A) and Darrington (2B to 1B). Marysville Pilchuck fell to 2A but opted to remain a 3A school.
Under the old system, WIAA member schools were divided evenly among the six classifications, which created a large size disparity in some classifications.
Due to the shortened 2020-21 prep sports schedule, most teams in the area played schedules that were atypical to a normal conference slate, and 2021-22 is the first true look at the new landscape for high school sports.
Here’s how conferences will look across Snohomish County during the fall sports season, with a look at some changes to be made in winter as well:
The 21-team league became even more 3A-heavy with Cascade, Monroe and Mountlake Terrace all joining the classification. The conference lost 3A Oak Harbor and now-3A Mount Vernon to the Northwest Conference for all sports but football.
Wesco now has just five schools in 4A, two in 2A and a whopping 14 in 3A.
The number of 3A schools inflates when it comes to football, which divides the classification into geographical divisions.
All three 3A schools in the Northwest Conference — Oak Harbor, Mount Vernon and Ferndale — are football-only members of Wesco. They account for nearly half of the seven-team Wesco 3A North, which includes local schools Arlington, Marysville Getchell, Marysville Pilchuck and Stanwood.
Wesco 3A South features Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood, Meadowdale, Monroe, Mountlake Terrace, Shorecrest and Snohomish.
Each 3A team plays a round-robin intradivision schedule.
The divisions square off in Week 9 crossover games that feature matchups based on regular-season conference records.
The Wesco 3A North and South regular-season champs meet in the Wesco 3A championship game hosted by the North Division, with the winner receiving District 1’s top seed for the 32-team Week 10 playoffs. The loser gets the second seed. Second-place teams play for seeds three and four in a game hosted by the South Division.
Wesco 3A North’s No. 3 seed will host the South’s fifth seed, the South’s No. 3 seed hosts the North five seed and the North’s fourth seed hosts South No. 4 in winner-to-Week 10, loser-out games.
Cascade, Everett and Shorewood — all 3A schools — are playing independent football schedules this season. Their games against Wesco opponents won’t count as league games in the standings, but there is a path to the postseason for those squads.
Independent teams, which all play each other once, have to finish undefeated to qualify for a Week 9 play-in game against the North five seed Tuesday. The winner of that game would play the South No. 3 seed Saturday.
Giving teams playing independent schedules a postseason opportunity benefits those teams and the entire district. If teams don’t have a path to the postseason, they aren’t counted when the WIAA awards state-tournament berths to districts.
Wesco 4A is now just a five-team league, with Glacier Peak, Jackson, Kamiak, Lake Stevens and Mariner. The top three teams in league play advance to the Week 10 playoffs. Each 4A team plays a round-robin league schedule.
Archbishop Murphy and Cedarcrest, both 2A schools, are football-only members of the Northwest Conference (see below).
The conference will continue to have one large 3A/2A league and a 4A league in volleyball and girls soccer, with boys tennis being split into 4A, 3A North and 3A/2A South.
The league has approved plans for a competitively tiered girls basketball schedule in the winter. Cascade, Marysville Getchell, Marysville Pilchuck and Mariner are opting for competitively balanced schedules, although Mariner will still play league games against Wesco 4A teams Glacier Peak, Jackson, Kamiak and Lake Stevens.
“We’re gonna give it a whirl and see what happens,” Arlington athletics director Tom Roys said. “What we’re really trying to do is to protect kids. It isn’t any fun for anybody to get beat 96 to 6. It doesn’t do the good team any favors (and) it just demoralizes the kids. That’s not what high school athletics is supposed to be about.
“We’re really just trying to make it a good experience for kids, even if they’re in a situation where they’re at a super-low talent level. It’s important for kids to be active, and that’s what we want to do — we want to get them out and participate.”
The move is one that has become more common in recent years as many leagues have seen large disparities between their top and bottom teams in girls basketball.
The recently formed Emerald Sound Conference, which features Snohomish County schools Granite Falls and Sultan, saw plenty of success with its tiered leagues in girls basketball last school year. Both Granite Falls and Sultan had their best seasons in recent history, with Sultan claiming a division title.
“You’re always looking at other leagues to see what they do,” Roys said, “but we’ve really kind of focused internally on what’s best for our schools, what’s best for our kids, in trying to create the best experience for them.”
After spending the abbreviated 2020-21 high school sports season in Wesco, Lakewood returns to the 16-team Northwest Conference, which includes schools from classes 1A-3A. The Cougars are the only Snohomish County team in the league for all sports.
The conference is one big three-classification league for all sports but football.
“We’ve talked about splitting into upper and lower divisions for some of these sports, but the reality is you’re trying to help the bottom teams, but now the middle teams — how are you placing them?,” Lynden athletics director Mike McKee said. “Every year you graduate seniors and we’re on a two-year cycle (for scheduling). … One team may be very good one year and the next year they lose everybody and they’re horrible and stuck in the upper division. There’s no really easy fix.”
In football, the league is divided into 2A and 1A divisions with the league’s three 3A schools playing in Wesco.
Recently, the 2A league was divided into two competitively tiered divisions — the Sky (upper) and Lake (lower). That’s no longer the case, as 2A is now one division with football-only member Archbishop Murphy, Lakewood, Burlington-Edison, Lynden, Sedro-Woolley, Sehome and newly 2A Squalicum.
Football-only member Cedarcrest, Anacortes and Bellingham will play independent schedules and have a chance at the postseason if they can go undefeated.
State-tournament berths haven’t been allocated yet for 2A schools in District 1. McKee said the league expects to be awarded two or three berths.
Emerald Sound Conference
The Emerald Sound Conference enters its second year of existence and its first with state tournament berths at stake.
The 14-team 1A league is comprised of three public schools — Granite Falls, Sultan and South Whidbey — 10 private schools and one charter school.
The conference formed when the short-lived North Sound Conference and Emerald City League merged after the 2019-2020 school year. The league has 11 schools located in King County and competes in District 2, a change for former District 1 and North Sound Conference members Granite Falls, Sultan, South Whidbey, King’s and Cedar Park Christian.
Teams in the Emerald Sound Conference are divided into competitively balanced divisions in basketball, soccer and volleyball. The Chinook Division is the upper-tier and the Coho Division the lower.
The league plans to have conference tournaments that will ultimately decide automatic state-playoff berths from District 2 and bi-district matchups with Northwest Conference 1A schools to determine additional state-tournament berths. Exactly how that will look by sport has yet to be determined, but some tournaments could feature as many as 12 teams, according to league president and Sutlan athletics director Scott Sifferman.
It’s likely that the bottom two qualifying seeds from the league tournament will play the top two teams from Northwest Conference 1A in winner-to-state, loser-out games.
The league expects to send its top two football teams to the state playoffs, although that number isn’t official yet. Just five Emerald Sound Conference teams compete in football — Cedar Park Christian, Granite Falls, King’s, South Whidbey and Sultan.
“All in all, we are excited about being able to return to what feels like more normal sports,” Sifferman said. “… More kids as we’re getting back to this year are coming back and reengaging in sports, so it’s very encouraging.”