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Gonzaga Prep's quaterback Connor Halonen rushes for a gain as he breaks free of Coeur d'Alene defender Trent Elstad in the first quarter at Coeur d'Alene High School Friday night. One solution to the imbalance in the Greater Spokane League might be to combine with the Inland Empire League. (BRUCE TWITCHELL / COURTESY)

Dave Nichols: Time to level the playing field in the Greater Spokane League

The Greater Spokane League has an increasingly troublesome problem. It has do to with competitive disparity between members – especially in its 3A ranks – and there’s no easy answer.

This column marks my one-year anniversary as high school sports editor at The Spokesman-Review, and while I’ve seen and heard quite a bit, my experience pales in comparison to many people in the area.

Still, I have been privy to several conversations recently that usually ended up at the same place when this topic arises.

There are schools that just aren’t able to compete in team sports in their own classifications, much less be routinely subjected to play against competition from a higher classification within their own league.

And nowhere does it show more glaringly than on the football field.

The 4A and 3A teams play in the same league in name really, since only competition against the same classification counts toward seeding for the district playoffs.

One need look no further than the GSL 3A football standings to get the picture.

Shadle Park, Rogers and North Central are a combined 2-16 this season with league play starting this week. Last week was especially brutal. On Thursday at Albi Stadium, Ferris (4-2) blasted Rogers 35-0 while Lewis and Clark – undefeated and ranked No. 7 in state 4A at the time – trounced North Central 45-0.

In three games so far against 4A opponents, North Central has scored a total of eight points and been shut out twice, including a 49-0 loss to Central Valley (3-3). Additionally, the Indians were also blanked by 2A West Valley (5-1) 49-0.

Rogers has it no better this season.

The Pirates have also been shut out twice against 4A opponents and put up 10 points in three contests. They also lost to Idaho 4A Lakeland (3-3) and 3A Timberlake (4-3).

This isn’t a new problem, either. North Central is a combined 4-16 the past two seasons with two league wins – both over Rogers, which is 2-17 the past two years.

In fact, Rogers, North Central and Shadle Park are a combined 2-25 the past three seasons against their 4A brethren.

That’s not fair – and doesn’t do anybody any good.

I have heard a lot of opinions from administrators, coaches, other media and officials the past few weeks about why the competitive discrepancy exists. Whatever the reasons are, I’m sure they are myriad and can’t be remedied with a quick fix.

It seems the fair thing to do would be to not make the 3A schools play the 4As every year, but that’s probably easier said than done.

Here are a couple of the more interesting ideas I heard kicked around while discussing the matter.

GSL merges

with MCC

This might seem crazy on the surface, but the more you think about it, the more it could make sense.

Both leagues are in District 8 and have to play through each other anyway to qualify for state playoffs, so why not simply combine the two leagues’ 4A members and 3A members at this point?

There are five 4A schools in the Mid-Columbia Conference and four 3A schools. An 11 team GSL-MCC 4A league would be tough to schedule for football, but not impossible. Things would be easier and more fair to schedule in an eight-team 3A league.

In 4A, make the six GSL schools play four league games inside the GSL, then play three league games against an MCC team. That would give everyone seven league games and two nonleague to schedule as they wish.

In 3A, both leagues have four teams so just schedule seven league games and two non-league games.

Then week 10 would be the same as it is now, with the top three teams from each of the 4A leagues facing each other for three playoffs spots, and top two from the 3As.

Folks might complain about travel, but really, we’re talking about just one or two road trips to the Tri-Cities every season. It’s not like schools don’t play out of area to find nonleague games anyway.

GSL merges

with IEL

This one is tricky but intriguing.

For this idea to work, the Idaho schools will still invariably want to play in the Idaho playoffs, not in Washington.

No problem.

There are four Inland Empire League 5A schools and three 4A schools. That would give us a 10-team top division and seven-team lower division. In both cases, we could make sure everyone played a balanced schedule, where each team plays each other once. Then the league would “break” for playoffs, with the team’s in-state record seeding them as it does now.

And it’s not like this isn’t happening in some form already. All four IEL 5A teams play against GSL teams in early-season nonleague games.

Bottom line

Something has to happen. No one is benefiting from this arrangement right now. Players aren’t getting better. Leagues and schools aren’t making more money. Stadiums, especially decrepit Albi Stadium, sit empty while blowout after blowout gets played.

Of course, the area is getting a new high school too, and with planned capacity of up to 1,600 students, that would put the new school eventually in the 4A classification as well. Who knows how a new school would affect league and classification alignments?

Regardless of the situation, “tradition” is no excuse to allow the 3A schools continue to absorb beatings on athletic fields of play. It’s time to look for a way to level the playing fields for these schools.