The Cascade Conference is officially splitting apart.
South Whidbey High School is leaving the combined class 1A/2A conference with four other 1A schools — King’s, Cedar Park Christian-Bothell, Sultan and Granite Falls — to form a new league called the North Sound Conference.
It’s slated to begin in the fall of 2018.
“I’m excited about going to a 1A conference,” said South Whidbey Athletic Director Paul Lagerstedt. “I think it’s always healthier when we’re playing schools that are more like us, and we’re talking about 1A-sized schools.”
The North Sound Conference will not include 2A schools Cedarcrest and Archbishop Murphy. Both will need to apply to other conferences.
Granite Falls, currently a 2A school, is petitioning with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to drop down a classification.
King’s Athletic Director Rick Skeen said that in order for a school’s appeal to be a considered, it must show there’s been a significant change in enrollment. Granite Falls is the smallest 2A school in the state at 461.25 students, according to the WIAA’s most recent classification enrollment data for 2016-2020.
The school has since lost about 75 students, Skeen said, and the league’s athletic directors are fairly confident Granite Falls should win the appeal.
The rift in the Cascade Conference began in 2016 when Lakewood transferred to the Northwest Conference, leaving the league with an odd number of teams at seven. The league was on the verge of breaking apart a year later when private schools King’s and Cedar Park Christian-Bothell applied to the Emerald City League in September, composed of nine private schools from the Seattle area.
Both were later denied by a 5-4 vote.
Skeen said Lakewood’s departure, along with criticism about competitive imbalance between public and private schools, were catalysts in his school’s efforts to transfer to the Seattle-based league.
Critics claim private schools have an advantage over rural public schools because students can enroll if they live within a 50-mile radius of the campus, while students in public schools must reside within the boundaries of their school district. For example, the length from Clinton to Freeland — the boundaries of the South Whidbey School District — is about 10 miles.
Some see King’s, a private Christian school with a rich history of state placings and championships in several of its sports, including football, volleyball, basketball and soccer, as part of the problem. Skeen countered that for all the success King’s enjoys, it also has sports where the Knights aren’t as prominent.
Others blamed another private school steeped in athletic success, Archbishop Murphy. A notable example of competitive disparity with the private Catholic school came in 2016 when five Cascade Conference schools forfeited to the Wildcats’ dominant football team, which later won the state championship.
“We hear a lot about public and private,” Skeen said. “One of our options was to solicit to an entirely private league, thinking it would be a solution. But, more people in that conference did not want us.”
The Cascade Conference’s athletic directors went back to the drawing board to figure out the next step.
“It just felt like we were a fractured conference that was not going to last,” Skeen said. “It was really our impetus to reach out to the Emerald City League. We didn’t want to get left without a dance partner or voted off the island, so to speak.”
The 1A athletic directors concluded the new league would be better suited if it were composed of similar-sized schools. It was too difficult to justify playing a team like Cedarcrest, which reported an enrollment of 716 students in 2016. Archbishop Murphy had 403.63 and opts up to play 2A.
Enrollment among the North Sound Conference’s five schools range between 249 and 461 students.
“I think for a lot of the schools, the idea of playing schools of similar size is a big deal,” Skeen said. “To communities, that’s a big deal.”
Skeen declined to release the final vote among athletic directors regarding the decision, but said it was unanimous among the 1A schools.
“I think there’s a good feeling and a good buzz,” Skeen said. “I think our principals and athletic directors are excited about moving forward at this point.”
Skeen said the league could eventually expand to eight schools.
Though there have been no official conversations yet, prospective schools could include Coupeville, Port Townsend, Bellevue Christian and several others, Skeen said.
South Whidbey coaches contacted by The Record supported the move.
“The positives are we are able to compete against schools our size and avoid having to leave school early a lot, which takes students away from academic time,” boys basketball coach Mike Washington said. “I think it’s great to be in a league with like schools as it gives us more and an even playing field.”
Baseball coach Tom Fallon echoed his sentiments, adding that the North Sound Conference trumps other ideas floated in the past, such as going to the Olympic or Nisqually leagues.
“I think this is the best situation that could’ve come about,” Fallon said.
Terry Swanson, who coached the Falcon girls soccer team to its first berth to the 1A state championships in 13 years, believes having fewer teams is a positive for the time being. He said that if less games are scheduled, it gives players more time to rest and focus on their academics.
“I felt the girls season of 23 games in 62 days was far too excessive for health reasons,” Swanson said. “…I’m just saying right now, with the smaller number of teams, I would welcome the opportunity to go to 12 games in a season and allow these girls to focus more on their academic studies, and it gives us more days to train with them.”