For more than 80 years, Willapa Valley High School has embraced its giant-killing sports reputation.
In 1936, Willapa Valley became the smallest school ever to win an all-classification state basketball tournament (beating Hoquiam in the championship game). Even when their enrollment dwindled under 100 in recent years, the Menlo-based Vikings competed successfully against much larger schools in several sports.
But after a decade of opting up to play in the 2B classification, school administrators decided recently to compete in the 1B class in most sports beginning next fall. Valley will continue to combine with similarly 1B-sized Pe Ell to produce 2B teams in football, softball and baseball.
Acknowledging that the Vikings traditionally have been “blessed” with outstanding athletes that have allowed them to compete at a higher level, boys basketball coach and athletic director Jay Pearson said the decision to join the 1B ranks did not come easily.
Administrators surveyed athletes and members of the community. Some 82 percent of the latter group, according to Pearson, supported the move to 1B.
“It’s time for us to accept who we are and to be fair to our kids,” Pearson said.
In some respects, the decision was surprising. As a separate entity, the Vikings have earned berths in boys and girls basketball and volleyball during the past year. By the end of last week, their boys and girls basketball teams sported a combined 24-8 record in the 2B Pacific League.
Willapa Valley’s girls track team, once threatened with extinction following the formation of the softball co-op with Pe Ell, placed third in the state 2B meet last spring. Meanwhile, the Valley-Pe Ell combine continues to produce powerhouses in softball and football.
In other respects, however, the move seemed overdue. Willapa Valley’s enrollment in grades 9-11 numbers only 84 — 21 below the 2B minimum. Pearson said the school has met 1B enrollment standards for at least a decade.
“We’re not getting any bigger,” he added.
For all their success in regular-season competition, the Vikings frequently have experienced difficulty getting past the likes of such larger Central League foes as Kalama, Toledo and Napavine at district. Even merging with Pe Ell (which will also go 1B in most sports next fall) in all sports would produce relatively small 2B programs.
The final straw, according to Pearson, was the Washington Intererscholastic Activities Association’s recent adoption of an amendment that allows student free-and-reduced lunch counts to be factored into the classification process. That allows such small 1A schools as Forks easier access to the 2B ranks and, in effect, would force Valley to play up two classifications in some cases.
Pearson said the relative ease of travel within the Pacific League kept his school from previously pulling the trigger on a move downward. With Forks joining the league, that no longer became an asset.
Although details have yet to be finalized, Willapa Valley and Pe Ell likely will join a southern 1B league that already includes one-time Pacific League rival Naselle. Mossyrock, also joining the 1B ranks, is another probable league member.
“I hate to lose members, especially Pe Ell and Willapa Valley, but I certainly understand their decision,” Raymond athletic director Mike Tully observed. “It can be very difficult to compete with schools three and four times your size.”
Willapa Valley and Pe Ell are far from the only schools stepping down to the 1B class. According to figures released by the WIAA, next year’s 1B classification will consist of 85 schools — the largest in the state and 24 more than in the 2B class. The 1B numbers undoubtedly will swell in two years if, as expected, the free-and-reduced lunch formula is extended to 2B schools.
That could be disastrous for the likes of Wishkah Valley, Lake Quinault and Mary M. Knight — part of a group of very small schools for whom the 1B class ostensibly was created in 2006.
With a group of talented athletes that included Sissel Pierce and Mindy McElliott, Wishkah produced a succession of powerful girls basketball teams in the 1990s — capturing a unified Class B title in 1995. Those Loggererettes undoubtedly would have been competitive in an even higher class.
But such recent feel-good stories as Lake Quinault’s pair of state 1B baseball championships in 2008 and 2013 and North River’s improbable run to a state boys basketball tournament berth during a year (2008) in which the tiny Brooklyn school had only 12 boys in the entire high school probably doesn’t happen in the upcoming landscape.
That’s sad. And, in my opinion, wrong.
Tully hopes that a proposed lower cap on free-and-reduced lunch rates may slow the exodus to lower classifications. Pearson believes the creation of a seventh state class might be necessary.
The Willapa Valley athletic director may have put it best, however, when he reported a discussion of the issue at a recent district meeting.
“The consensus at the meeting is that it is just passing down the problem from one classification to the other,” Pearson concluded.
Reclassification inevitably produces some shifts in league alignments. While details of restructured area leagues are still being formulated, a few changes are apparent.
Evergreen 2A League: Shelton, a Class 3A school that has fallen on some hard athletic times, was somewhat controversially granted a two-year application to compete as a playoff-eligible 2A program for all sports beginning next fall.
That will increase Evergreen 2A membership to seven. With non-league bye dates staggered, it will force the 2020 Aberdeen-Hoquiam football game to be played as a season opener on Labor Day weekend — a move that could have a major impact (either pro or con) on the game’s attendance.
Evergreen 1A League: This circuit’s membership will remain at five, with Eatonville replacing Forks. Proposed mergers with the Evergreen 2A and Trico 1A leagues never materialized, but the latter league will supply the bulk of non-league contests for Evergreen 1A teams.
Pacific 2B League: This league will combine with the Central for football, but details are still being worked out.
Rivals Raymond and South Bend will join forces for football. Some observers feared that the combined enrollments would push that team into the 1A classification. But Tully said the schools used their free-and-reduced lunch deductions to continue as a playoff-eligible 2B program.