South Whidbey football’s independent schedule will go down as a successful one-year experiment.
The Falcons will play in the newly formed North Sound Conference this fall, a decision administrators based on indications that the program is “healthy” and rising in levels of energy, enthusiasm and momentum; the Falcons ended the 2017 season on a seven-game winning streak and with a 7-2 record.
“Basically that was the plan all along,” Athletic Director Paul Lagerstedt said. “We would stay independent until felt like we were healthy.”
South Whidbey will compete against other class 1A teams leaving the Cascade Conference, including King’s, Cedar Park Christian (Bothell) and Sultan; Granite Falls is still awaiting approval from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to drop from 2A to 1A.
The motivation to play an independent schedule stemmed from competitive imbalance in the league, several consecutive losing seasons, declining participation and a youth-laden team. Facing a mixture of 2B and 1A schools, the Falcons finished with a winning season. The wins bred enthusiasm and made the sport more enjoyable, players and coaches said. The roster size also increased.
“We built some enthusiasm in the school and in the community,” head coach Mark Hodson said. “I think we made a statement that football is a positive experience. It’s a safe experience.”
Falcon sophomore Kobe Balora and junior Clay O’Brien agreed. Breaking a streak of 18 consecutive losses that began in 2015 contributed to a more optimistic outlook for the program. They’re also confident that a strong foundation has been laid that will make it more sustainable for the future.
“I think the whole atmosphere has changed completely,” Balora said. “Everyone is more excited, more people are showing up and talking about the team and how we’re actually doing good. The school spirit in general is good.”
O’Brien added that he’s heard more kids are planning to turn out for football because the Falcons are winning again.
Joining the North Sound Conference also gives the Falcons a shot at the postseason, an achievement that is difficult to accomplish as an independent. According to the WIAA, independent teams typically need to go undefeated to merit any consideration for the playoffs.
Balora and O’Brien supported the decision for this reason, while they’re also eager for the chance to earn spots on all-conference teams.
Lagerstedt said returning to a structured league schedule and format is beneficial to the program.
“The road to the playoffs is a little more predictable,” Lagerstedt said.
The North Sound Conference will compete against 1A schools from the Northwest Conference —based in the Bellingham area — at the district level.
Lagerstedt is confident that similar-sized schools will level the playing field.
“I think this will be a good league because we’re going to have some strong programs that we’re going to have to compete with and it will make us better,” Lagerstedt said. “…I don’t know how many wins and losses (we’ll have), but my goal is that we’ll be competitive.”
O’Brien said one of the drawbacks to the independent schedule was that teams were sometimes not up to par with the Falcons. The margin of victory was so drastic in some games that the starters would be pulled after only a couple quarters. Returning to a league with just 1A schools helps eliminate that possibility.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” O’Brien said. “It’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to see where we are with other schools.”