North Sound Conference set to merge with Emerald City League

In a search for competitive balance, the North Sound Conference will merge with the Emerald City League next school year, forming the Emerald Sound Conference.

Five of the six North Sound Conference schools — South Whidbey, Cedar Park Christian, Granite Falls, King’s and Sultan — along with Seattle charter school Summit Sierra, are set to link up with the eight Emerald City League schools this coming fall.

The sixth North Sound Conference school, Coupeville, is dropping a classification from 1A to 2B and will be moving to the Northwest 1A/2B League in 2020-21. .

The Emerald City League schools are Bear Creek, Bush, Eastside Prep, Forest Ridge, Northwest, Overlake, Seattle Academy and University Prep.

The Emerald Sound Conference will have 14 schools, all in the 1A classification. South Whidbey, Granite Falls, Sultan and Summit Sierra are the only public schools.

The North Sound Conference schools will also switch from District 1 to District 2, which encompasses the Emerald City League.

“We are excited for the opportunity to build relationships with neighboring schools and communities, ultimately giving our student-athletes the best possible athletic experience,” South Whidbey High School Athletic Director Paul Lagerstedt said. “The Emerald Sound Conference is committed to providing education-based athletics to all of our school communities while also emphasizing sportsmanship and fair play.”

One of the primary reasons for the merger is to provide “competitive equity,” according to Lagerstedt. Another is providing more opportunities for athletes from all levels (varsity, junior varsity and C-team).

Competitive equity will be reached by splitting the 14-team conference into divisions in some sports based upon past success.

The stronger programs will be placed in the Chinook Division; the others in the Coho Division.

Other conferences around the state, including the Northwest Conference and the Metro League, have used this format in the past and are pleased with the results.

The goal is to make the contests more competitive and to eliminate blowouts, which are not beneficial to either the winning or losing team.

King’s, a state power in basketball, won its league games in both boys and girls basketball last season by an average of more than 40 points. The closest conference game was 24 points; eight were decided by 50 or more.

Because of the disparity, King’s is playing only one game against league foes Coupeville, Granite Falls and Sultan this year instead of the traditional home-and-home series. This allows the Knights to find stronger competition and the other teams to schedule opponents of similar talent.

In the Emerald City League in 2018-19, more than half of the 56 girls basketball games were decided by 25 or more points.

The Emerald Sound Conference will divide into divisions based upon strength for soccer, basketball and volleyball.

Baseball, tennis, golf, cross country, wrestling and track and field will not have divisions.

The Emerald City schools and do not play football, softball or wrestle; King’s and Cedar Park Christian do not have wrestling teams; and King’s doesn’t play softball. The current North Sound Conference schools, sans Coupeville, will continue to compete against each other in those sports.

Nothing will change for South Whidbey tennis. Most of the North Sound Conference schools do not provide the sport, so the Falcons have already been competing the Emerald City League the past few years.

The North Sound Conference started in the fall of 2018 after five schools broke off from the Cascade Conference, which included some 2A schools, to form an all-1A league. Coupeville moved from the Olympic League to join.

Instead of merging with the Emerald City League, South Whidbey, Granite Falls and Sultan considered joining 2B schools Coupeville, Friday Harbor and La Conner to form an all-public school 1A/2B league.

Because of concerns about competitive balance and travel, as well as the lack of sub-varsity programs in some sports at the smaller schools, the three North Sound schools decided the merger with the Emerald City League was more beneficial.

The biggest drawback is the public/private debate. Public schools draw students from set geographical boundaries. Private schools can pull students from a larger area, thus having a larger base from which to draw athletes.

“The public-versus-private school issue has always been a dilemma and it disproportionately impacts certain sports more than others,” South Whidbey track coach Mark Eager said. “But there is definitely no longer any blanket advantage for private schools over public schools across most sports like there is at the larger schools, and all teams (in the Emerald Sound Conference) would be at the 1A level.

“In my opinion, the switch to join the Emerald City League’s private schools in the Seattle region is the overall best of the available options.”

Eager added that although South Whidbey is a rural community, it is more closely tied to Snohomish and King counties than Skagit and San Juan.

“I look forward to the diversity of experience in the new conference with a blend of urban and rural, private and public, secular and religious schools. I believe it will be an invaluable experience for our kids who live on the island.”

South Whidbey cross country coach Doug Fulton said, “It will be nice to have more competition at the league meets and good opportunities to compete for state berths in our new district.”

Girls soccer coach Terry Swanson said, “I believe it is important to participate in a league that will provide competitive games that challenge our players and our program to reach their and its highest potential.

“While I recognize that playing in a league that largely consists of private schools may present unforeseen challenges due to the inherent competitive advantage related to player selection from large geographic areas within large population centers, I also recognize that these are the same teams we inevitably face in our playoff tournament.”

Swanson added that it is better to play talented teams and lose than lesser teams and easily win.

“You will never improve playing weaker teams in non-competitive games,” he said. “We are excited by the prospect of playing strong teams and meeting the challenges of trying to reach our full potential and perhaps one day vying for a state championship.”