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In the aging Joe Albi Stadium, North Central football players celebrate a score against East Valley on Sept 19, 2019. NC will move down to play 2A football next season under the WIAA’s new classification guidelines. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

WIAA classification adjustments mean big changes for Greater Spokane League and member schools

The state’s governing board for high school sports, the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), approved the classifications for athletic teams for the upcoming four-year cycle, starting with the 2020-21 school year, at its meetings in Renton on Sunday.

The WIAA incorporated the changes they implemented last year, allowing schools to reduce their enrollment number for classification by their percentage of students above the state average (47%) receiving free or reduced lunches.

With the adjustments to classifications, the Greater Spokane League will look drastically different next year.

This season, the GSL is comprised of six 4A schools and four 3A schools.

Next year, Central Valley, Lewis and Clark and Gonzaga Prep – opting up from an enrollment that would qualify as 2A – will stay at 4A.

The other three – Mead, Ferris and University – will move down a level and join Mt. Spokane, North Central and Cheney (moving up a classification) at 3A.

“We’re going to play where the numbers dictate,” Mead athletic director and GSL football coordinator John Barrington said of the shift.

“I think, personally, whether we’re a 3A school or 4A school, competing against the other 3A or 4As in our new league, I think that’s gonna look pretty much the same, from our perspective.”

Shadle Park and Rogers will align with the remaining four teams from the Great Northern League – East Valley, West Valley, Pullman and Clarkston at 2A.

North Central’s petition to play down a level for football only was approved by the WIAA, and the Indians will play football in league with the other 2As.

Though the structure of the GSL will be 4A/3A/2A, the league will not require any 2A school to play a 4A school in a league contest.

The merger has been agreed to but is still awaiting finalization from member schools.

‘Nothing’s been done’

The enrollment ranges between 3A and 2A, when factoring in the adjustment, shifted considerably from last year to the approved numbers, causing NC to stay in 3A otherwise.

“Quite frankly I’m disappointed,” North Central athletic director Dave Hall said. “It’s not what NC had in mind from the beginning.”

Once NC was made aware of the shift, it could have petitioned for the entire athletic program to move down to 2A, but the school’s administration didn’t think that petition would be accepted by the WIAA.

“We could have petitioned 2A across the board, but we had such a narrow window we didn’t have the time to think it out better,” Hall added.

“Our coaches are going ‘this is going to be really hard.’ ” Hall said. “We’re not moving away from what we did before. When you look at each individual sport, nothing’s been done to improve our situation.

“It’s no one’s fault, that’s just where the numbers ended up.”

Looking ahead

Things will change yet again when the new Central Valley School District high school, Ridgeline, opens in the fall of 2021.

Most expect Ridgeline to qualify at 3A immediately, with Central Valley’s enrollment dropping to a 3A level as well.

If that becomes the case, under WIAA guidelines CV could petition the WIAA to play at 3A after the second year of the four-year cycle. If CV were to move to 3A, Gonzaga Prep might consider moving to the classification with more district/state berths available.

The number of allocations each WIAA district is permitted depends on how many schools of each classification play in that district.

The GSL is part of WIAA District 8, along with the Mid-Columbia Conference. This season, District 8 receives two berths to state for both 4A and 3A. If there are fewer than eight teams in the district, that number could drop to one.

In the MCC, Walla Walla dropped from 4A to 3A but Kamiakin moved up to 4A, so there will be eight 4A teams in District 8 (down from 11) – for at least the first two years of the next cycle.

How playoff berths between the two leagues will be decided hasn’t been sorted out yet.

“That part’s kind of unknown for me today,” Barrington said. “We need some answers quickly about what we’re going to do as a district. I think, as a league, we’re sort of solid on our scheduling, even though some aren’t produced yet.

“But as a district, us and the MCC, and how we’re going to treat our postseason, we’re meeting here within the next couple weeks. That’s going to be an important meeting to sort through all that.”

State tourney impact

There’s another complicating factor when considering state berths.

Another WIAA amendment approved for the next cycle imbalances the number of schools in each classification. Originally, the board set a 52-school threshold to maintain a 16-team state playoff tournament.

But the Board approved a two-year adjustment of the range for a 16-entry tournament at 50-68 member schools. This was done to ensure schools that opted up and/or landed in classifications affected by appeals would not be negatively impacted due to the appeal process.

“I think moving that state tournament line certainly helped out the 4As,” Barrington said, “Because they would have lost an allocation. I think right now they’re safe with the 51 schools.”

If at some point there are fewer than 50 schools in a classification, the state tournament would accommodate just 12 teams. For classifications with 69-83 schools the tournament would accommodate 20 teams and 84 and up would have a 24-team tourney.

Over 29% (15 of 51) 4A schools for the next cycle are “opt-ups,” including Gonzaga Prep and several other private schools – and four Big 9 schools that would have otherwise qualified for 3A.