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Taking the bad with the good.

Byline: Curtis Anderson The Register-Guard

P r e p s

For Thurston High School, the recently completed fall sports season was its most successful on record.

The Colts won Midwestern League titles in three sports, had teams or individuals involved in the state playoffs in every sport, and had more kids turn out to compete in fall athletics than ever before.

The unprecedented run of success spilled over into the classrooms and hallways at Thurston High, where pep assemblies drew large crowds of excited kids who proudly wore their new championship gear.

`It can't get too much better than that,' Thurston athletic director Scott Johnson said. `In terms of wins and losses, we had our most successful fall sports season ever, and it made the kids feel proud.'

This scenario was made possible by the Oregon School Activities Association.

In a highly controversial decision, the OSAA shuffled the competitive deck from four to six classifications in prep sports this year.

The new plan ultimately changed the landscape in every sport at all levels as the fall season comes to a close Saturday with the OSAA state championship football tripleheader at Autzen Stadium.

Locally, the Midwestern League was trimmed from nine to six schools and given a Class 5A label.

The league's two biggest schools in terms of enrollment - South Eugene and Sheldon - were shipped south to form a new Class 6A partnership with schools from Roseburg, Grants Pass and Medford.

Lebanon, which had been in the league for only four years, was sent back north to the Mid-Willamette Conference.

Thus, with the Irish and Axemen out of the way, the door was opened for the remaining members of the Midwestern League - Churchill, Marshfield, North Eugene, Springfield, Thurston and Willamette - to provide their students and communities with a taste of state playoff competition.

`In terms of opportunities for our kids to play in the postseason, the OSAA plan was extremely positive,' Johnson said.

`I don't know if reclassification had anything to do with it, but we also had more kids out for fall sports than ever before.'

Thurston wasn't the only MWL school to enjoy a bump in prosperity on the athletic fields this fall:

Churchill won the league title in football and its boys soccer team was one penalty kick away from reaching the 5A state championship match.

The Willamette girls and North Eugene boys not only reached the soccer playoffs for the first time in years, but they each won a first-round contest.

In cross country, the Marshfield girls qualified for the state meet for the first time ever, and Springfield advanced both of its teams to the state championships.

Still, the loss of traditional rivalries with Sheldon and South Eugene was a painful trade-off for some schools.

`We thought the reclassification plan would be a good idea for football only, and so far, that's what it has been,' Churchill athletic director Tim Carmichael said.

`I wish Sheldon and South Eugene were still in our league, I don't care what the classification is. We all know each other and we think its good for the community.'

Carmichael won't get much of an argument from the Eugene School District, which filed a lawsuit with the Court of Appeals in Salem to stop the OSAA plan, although a ruling is not expected for another three to six months.

Missed class time

When the reclassification plan went into effect, the district protested loudly that the longer distances they would have to travel, in essence swapping a 20-minute crosstown ride for seven hours round-trip on a bus to Medford, would result in lost classroom time for students and a rise in transportation costs.

Both of those situations have come to pass, according to Pat Latimer, the district athletic director.

`Last year we spent about $80,000 for travel in the fall and winter,' he said. `When it's all said and done, we're estimating those costs at closer to $175,000 this year, which means it will go up by about 130 percent.'

He added that the increase in missed classroom time was `significant' for athletes from South Eugene and Sheldon.

For example, a volleyball or soccer player might have missed about three hours of classroom time for a single trip to Marshfield last season. However, with trips to Roseburg, Grants Pass and Medford on this year's schedule, Latimer said those players likely missed a minimum of 18 hours.

`In football, most everybody was happy with the new plan,' Latimer said. `But as an ex-principal, I hate the fact that we're spending thousands of dollars more in transportation costs than in the past, because that all comes out of the instruction budget. At the same time, it has allowed some of our schools to be more successful than in the past, so there is a trade-off.'

There were other costs as well.

At Sheldon, athletic director Mark Risen said at least two head coaches who work outside the school building have decided to resign: girls soccer coach Phil Larsen and boys tennis coach David Chun.

`They both cited the fact of travel having a profound impact on their professional and personal lives,' Risen said. `My fear is that those two resignations are not the end of the costs of this thing. I fear it will continue to make it difficult to both recruit and maintain good coaches.'

Larsen coached girls soccer at Sheldon for four seasons, including back-to-back state championships in 2003 and '04. He also served as an assistant coach for the boys program for three seasons.

`When all this talk came out, I had a little bit of hope that it wouldn't go through,' Larsen said. `But when it did, I decided to try it for a year and see how it goes.

"Unfortunately, it was as bad as I thought it would be. It became a huge time deal for me personally, plus I lost my whole staff last year. It was very difficult to sell a position to somebody that was willing to make that time commitment.'

South Eugene girls soccer coach Brad Stratton lamented the loss of a fan base.

`Nobody traveled with us,' he said. `I would guess that we had less than a half-dozen people go with us on the road. Parent-wise, a few faces would pop up on a Saturday, but the atmosphere was totally changed.'

Success on the field

Despite all the negatives, most coaches at South Eugene and Sheldon this fall were nearly unanimous in their approval of the level of competition they encountered in the Southwest Conference.

`For football, I thought it was a positive deal,' Sheldon coach Marty Johnson said. `To be able to go to Roseburg and Medford and play in their stadiums with that type of competition was great for us.

"I know our players would tell you that it was much more competitive, and as a result, a lot more fun during the league season.'

Irish volleyball coach Cathy Nelson echoed those sentiments.

`I liked the competition. Three teams in our league finished in the top eight in the state, and we still won the league, so that was a huge accomplishment for us,' she said. `But the travel was tough. By the end of the year, all of our kids were tired. Physically and academically, it was definitely more taxing on them.

`Unless something changes, we just have to get used to the whole concept and how it works. The first year is always the learning year, and we're still trying to figure out what works best.'

In volleyball, one possible solution to cut down on travel time would be scheduling Friday or Saturday doubleheaders with the Medford schools.

`If you stay with this new league, that's the best solution,' South Eugene volleyball coach Dave Poole said. `When you pull into school after midnight and have to be back in class before 8 in the morning, if it was me, I'd be falling asleep in class. We didn't practice on Fridays this season. I moved them to Sunday afternoon so the girls could catch up on their sleep on Saturday.'

South Eugene athletic director Dave Hancock said the problem of getting home late on school nights will only get worse during the upcoming basketball season with more trips during the middle of the week.

`That's something I think we'll struggle with for several years,' he said. `My argument is that one shoe doesn't fit everybody and we all have to be more creative in looking at what's best for each situation.'

Hancock said the district has already decided not to play a Southwest Conference schedule in freshman baseball. Instead, South Eugene and Sheldon will pick up games against Midwestern schools, and also surrounding 4A schools such as Marist, Pleasant Hill and Junction City.

OSAA pleased

The gulf between 5A and 6A schools in Eugene could get wider.

Johnson indicated that after going through his first season in the Southwest Conference, he was now inclined to schedule more nonleague games against 6A schools instead of keeping some local rivalries alive.

`I say that with no disrespect to the Midwestern League teams, but we have to do that to maintain our competitive edge,' Johnson said.

`There will be pluses and minuses over the next few years. The plus is maintaining those rivalries with less travel time and the minus is not quite getting the same competition we would if we went up north to play some of those Portland teams.'

No matter what the future holds, the Eugene schools understand that they are in the minority statewide.

`We're very pleased with how things have worked out,' said Tom Welter, executive director of the OSAA.

`We've heard a lot of positive comments from member schools who are excited and happy with the new six-class system.

`For a lot of schools, it has given more students and their communities the chance to experience state championship activities. Even during the regular season, they felt they were aligned in a more competitive situation. As a result, the whole culture of their student bodies changed.

`Where previously kids didn't have any hope for success on the playing field, now their whole attitude has changed and they feel better about themselves.

"They're walking down the hallways with a smile on their face and that carries over into the classroom.'
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Title Annotation:Sports; OSAA reclassification has had ups and downs for local high schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 8, 2006
Next Article:Corvallis returns to the top after move to Class 5A.

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