By Pat Jenkins
Eatonville High School’s return to the class 1A enrollment category for athletics won’t necessarily be a perfect marriage, but it will be better overall than the past two years spent in 2A circles. That’s the attitude of Eatonville coaches who offered their opinions on the switch that will take effect with the start of the 2012-13 school year in September.
The Cruisers have left the 2A South Puget Sound Leatgue and will rejoin the Nisqually League, their old affiliation before jumping to the SPSL for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. The Nisqually is spread across multiple counties and has some schools that are about a two-hour bus drive apart, which Eatonville coaches – and presumably student-athletes and fans – aren’t wild about
But the geographic and logistical disadvantages are being accepted as a fair exchange for competing against schools of comparable enrollments and athletic prowess.
“We’re going back to the same schools and communities that Eatonville has competed against historically for many years dating back to the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s,” said baseball coach Mike Moeller.
The change was approved last December by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
The Nisqually’s enrollment classification under WIAA rules is 1A, meaning the member schools have 208 to 512 students. Eatonville, with about 500 students in grades 10 through 12, fits that classification better than the class 2A South Puget Sound League, which the Cruisers joined in 2010 after leaving the Nisqually. The enrollment range for 2A is 513 to 1,085, and several schools in the SPSL top the 1,000 mark. That puts smaller-enrollment schools such as Eatonville at a competitive disadvantage in most sports.
Football coach George Fairhart was one of the most outspoken critics of competing at the 2A level. Even though the Cruisers were co-SPSL champions in 2010, he consistently said his players were at a disadvantage when pitted against schools with double the enrollment of Eatonville.
The state 2A track meet in May was the final sporting event for Eatonville in the larger classification. At the end of the meet, in which several top-eight finishes were recorded by Cruisers, Fairhart, an assistant track coach, wrote in an e-mail, “So long, 2A.”
Moeller is happy to be going back to 1A, too. He noted the disparity between 2A and 1A.
“Moving to 1A doesn’t by any means make winning league titles or going to state tournaments any easier, as the Nisqually League has become one of the premiere 1A divisions in the state and the (district Nisqually schools compete in for state berths) consistently produces state championship-quality teams in all sports,” Moeller said. “But what it does is make it safer and more competitive on a day-day basis. It puts us on equal footing in regards to number of athletes, training facilities, playing facilities and athletic budgets. I think it’s a big misconception that switching to 1A is about winning more games. I see it as putting our students in the safest environment so they can compete on the same level as their own physical abilities.”
In baseball, 1A schools, because they have fewer athletes, don’t field teams with “specialized athletes” who concentrate and train exclusively for that sport alone, Moeller noted.
“The 1A schools have more athletes like ours,” he said. “While we have a few kids that focus on one sport, most of our kids play three and divide their time between all the different sports for an overall, well-rounded high school experience. That is the kind of schools that we will be back to facing. It doesn’t mean necessarily more wins, but we will be competing against schools with similar athletes with similar physical abilities.”
Davina Serdahl, Eatonville’s girls basketball coach, doesn’t expect returning to the 1A ranks to have much impact one way or the other on her program, which was highly competitive in the SPSL. She would have liked remaining in the SPSL for the regular season if arrangements could be made for her teams to compete against 1A schools in the post-season playoffs.
“But it’s best across the board for our school to be at the level where we need to be,” she said.
Serdahl said rejoining the Nisqually will have drawbacks, such as increased travel time to games in outposts like Chimacum. Also, there might be grousing among some fans that private Christian schools can essentially “recruit kids. But that shouldn’t be a negative impact for us,” she said. “We have some good players coming and great support. We expect to be fine.” Wrestling coach Tom Martin also laments the extra travel, which he said will be “challenging.”
In the SPSL, “all of our duals were fairly close. We now will have to travel to Bellevue, Vashon and the Olympic Peninsula,” he said.. Another concern, Martin said, is that the quality of competition for his wrestlers, while good, won’t be “as deep as in 2A. For us to be prepared for the post-season, we have to be challenged at each event. I’ll have to schedule tougher tournaments to maintain the level of competition we had in the past,” he said.
Eatonville’s wrestlers should have an advantage in team depth and overall numbers when competing in dual meets, Martin predicted. He added it will be “interesting to see the impact” of two strong 2A programs, Blaine and Mount Baker, as they drop down to 1A next season, too.
“I’m looking forward to the challenges of a new league,” Martin said. Moeller believes Eatonville student-athletes in general will have more fun going up against similar talent levels.
“For the safety, competitiveness and overall positive experience that our students can have from participating in sports, it should be done against schools with similar size and student population as ourselves,” he said. He added that the WIAA, the governing body of interscholastic athletics in Washington, sets enrollment classifications “for this purpose,” and membership in one classification or another “should not really be a choice.”
Schools that have chosen to play in higher classifications than their enrollments call for have usually done so to remain aligned with traditional rivals or ones that are in the same school district as them. In Eatonville’s case, returning to the Nisqually League and 1A is like going home because of their long-running affiliation before the Cruisers’ SPSL years.
Moeller noted Eatonville is “a close-knit, small community with few stop signs. We are much more akin to communities (with 1A schools) like Vashon and Chimacum than we are to (SPSL communities) Sumner, Parkland, Fife” and the like.