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Lee: Numbers game costs Greater Spokane League state berths

Eastern Washington 4A schools received an extra state berth in all sports this year, but if you’re a Greater Spokane League or Mid-Columbia Conference school there’s no reason to celebrate.

The extra berth landed in the Big Nine Conference, which consists of five 4A schools like the GSL.

The WIAA had to invoke unusual but often used criteria to decide which league would receive the berth. The deciding factor was the league with the biggest combined enrollment.

The combined enrollment for the Big Nine is 8,517 and 6,420 for the GSL. Not even close.

“It’s always going to be up for debate,” WIAA assistant director John Miller said of trying to balance postseason berths. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect system out there.”

In a way the criteria is unfair to the GSL. It penalizes a league where a smaller school opts up. In the GSL’s case that would be Gonzaga Prep, which would be a 2A school based on enrollment. G-Prep had 683 students in grades 10-12 during the last enrollment count.

Sure G-Prep would dominate in most sports if it were part of the Great Northern League. But the school desires to challenge its student athletes. That’s been an honorable part of its creed for decades.

The Big Nine is full of old schools that have managed to avoid splitting to form two schools. Three of the six biggest 4A schools in the state are in the league. Wenatchee (2,108) ranks second, Eisenhower is fourth (1,875) and Davis is sixth (1,820).

Eisenhower opened a new campus this fall.

Pasco (1,464), which is in the MCC, was the biggest 4A school a few years back at more than 3,000 when it built a second school, Chiawana (1,556).

Had the MCC and Big Nine schools not split and formed separate conferences last year, four state berths would have been shared between the GSL and the other schools.

And when the Big Nine schools formed their own league, they wanted no part of sharing berths with the MCC and GSL.

The GSL and MCC will again pool their single berths together in 4A and three in 3A this year. They want the best teams, regardless of which league, to advance to state.

So I got to thinking. How did the Big Nine state qualifiers fare last year? The short answer is not well – which, in a way, might explain why they weren’t too sad to part with the MCC schools. Perhaps they got tired of getting beaten out for state berths by Richland, Chiawana, Walla Walla and Pasco.

The biggest state successes from the Big Nine were in cross country (Ike boys second, Ike girls fifth) and track (Wenatchee boys second).

The biggest state successes from the GSL were in cross country (CV boys state champs, Lewis and Clark fourth), girls basketball (Mead state champ), wrestling (CV fourth, Mead fifth) and volleyball (Mead state runner-up), not to mention two state quarterfinalists in football (Mead and G-Prep).

Walla Walla athletic director Don Wilkins aptly summed up the dilemma the MCC schools put themselves in when they parted ways with the Big Nine.

“If we stayed together, we might have had four (berths),” Wilkins told the Tri-City Herald. “That’s what we get for being (jerks) to them.”

Things might change in the next classification cycle that begins in 2014-15. Sunnyside, a 3A school that plays in the Big Nine for purposes of filling out a schedule, is expected to move up to 4A. It could stay in the Big Nine or ask for membership in the MCC.

The latter scenario would best behoove the MCC and the GSL. That would give all three Eastern Washington leagues five 4A schools, and the MCC’s combined enrollment would be close to the Big Nine. If Sunnyside opts to stay in the Big Nine, the issue would be moot.

One thing that the WIAA never considers in doling out state berths is strength of leagues in state competition.

It’s purely – and fairly – a numbers game.