Friday, March 17, 2017

NE Oregon school Hermiston hoping to join MCC

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This weekend a major groundbreaking decision for high school athletics in Washington could be made when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association's executive board convenes for a meeting at its Renton headquarters. One of the items on the agenda for the March 18-19 meetings is the application from northeastern Oregon's Hermiston High School to join the Mid-Columbia Conference, featuring the seven Tri-Cities area schools and Walla Walla.

Facing a significant boost in its enrollment in the coming years, the already travel-burdened school is facing a rise to the highest classification in the Oregon School Activities Association that would put the school in the Mt Hood Conference, which is currently comprised of eight Portland-area schools that are an average of approximately 180 miles away. The change would double its annual mileage and significantly increase the number of academic hours missed - potentially up to a third of their classes in a month.

Though the OSAA will not finalize its plan for reclassification until October, none of the options are particularly fitting for Hermiston, which currently plays in the Columbia River Conference. The conference includes Hood River, Pendleton and The Dalles for an average round trip of 170 miles. A round trip to Richland, the furthest school of the MCC would be approximately 90 miles by comparison.

Hermiston's process to make the move began in earnest in January when the OSAA listened to their idea and provided a letter of support for the school to move forward and discuss the proposition with the WIAA. In late January the WIAA executive board heard their proposal and tabled further discussion to this weekend's meeting, where there is no guarantee of a vote. To approve the move, both associations would need to amend bylaws to allow the school to finalize an affiliation change.

One of the early steps, though, was finding a league to welcome them - and it took little convincing for the MCC to open its doors.

“We met as a conference and voted, and it was a unanimous vote that if the WIAA were to allow them in that we would accept them,” Kamiakin athletic director and conference president Casey Gant told the Seattle Times. “We had a couple of things we talked about. One is that we already play them in a majority of our sports anyway; that wasn’t going to be a change. … The other thing is, we started to look at the situation that they’re in and we were pretty sympathetic.”

Currently at 1,240 for enrollment, Hermiston would likely come in as the smallest school in the MCC depending on how big a boom the school's growth spurt is. The potential bar for 6A in Oregon is 1,330 (or 1,165 if OSSA decides to go to just five classifications) and the school is expected to surpass that number in the near future. Hermiston would, essentially, be a perfect fit for the MCC as it would be the conference's fourth 3A team (Hanford moved up this academic year).

“I believe we are still facing an uphill battle with the WIAA, and we completely understand if they are hesitant,” Hermiston athletic director Larry Usher told the East Oregonian. “Something new is not always easy for any group, but this is about our kids in Hermiston and this uphill battle is certainly worth it. We have the full support of every school across the river in the Mid-Columbia Conference and certainly hope that pulls some weight with their association.”

Postseason RPI Rankings Also A Factor

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In addition to travel burden and missed class time, another significant reason behind the move is the ranking systems both states utilize. Hermiston has essentially been penalized in recent years in the OSAA system as non-league games against nearby MCC schools and lower classification in-state opponents did not count toward the OSAA's Colley Rating. On the other side of the border, the MCC schools are also now subject to similar rules under a newly instituted RPI system where games against out-of-state opponents will not count.

If Hermiston were to remain in the OSAA, they would need to schedule even more games against distant opponents to strengthen their rating for postseason seeding or continue to play more lower-level schools in eastern Oregon such as Umatilla (3A), McLoughlin (4A) or LaGrande (4A) because MCC schools will most likely choose to play more non-league contests against Columbia Basin Big Nine or Greater Spokane League schools.

Precedence in the NW - Idaho Included in Discussion 

According to the Seattle Times, the two state associations also involved the Idaho High School Activities Association in the discussions - via a conference call - and spoke with other state associations that have undertaken similar arrangements.

Five schools (Coleville, Needles, North Tahoe, South Tahoe, Truckee) along the eastern California border are playing in the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association along with a school in the southeast corner of the state (San Pasqual Valley). Beaver Dam HS - located in the northwest corner of Arizona - also plays in the NIAA. Also, a Mexican school is a member of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

“They don’t have any downside,” WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese told the Seattle Times of those examples. “They say it’s working.” However, that was countered by OSAA committee chairman Curt Shelley, who - based 'on a story he heard' - said to the Oregonian, “You were well-received by your league, but the state didn’t care about you too much once you won a state championship. If you can be a doormat, then you’re well-received."        

Other examples aside, the big concern was precedence for Oregon, Washington and Idaho, where crossing state lines could definitely be beneficial for other schools along the western border.

“Certainly as a member school our first priority is to include them as an Oregon school,” OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber told the Hermiston Herald, “but we’re a voluntary organization, we don’t require a school to remain here. But I think the bigger potential question is what does it mean to Washington to bring an Oregon school in?

“I think it could set a precedent and open some doors, and we’ve started some conversation with us and Idaho to come up with criteria to consider if this happens again.”

“It’s not the kind of decision you want an executive board shooting from the hip on,” Hermiston athletic director Larry Usher said in the Tri-City Herald. “The hurdle we have to get over is showing how this is different from any other Oregon or Idaho schools trying to come into the WIAA, or, for that matter, a Washington school trying to leave the state to go play somewhere else.”  

An example of where crossing the border could play a beneficial role for Idaho schools would certainly be in the panhandle where there are only a handful of schools in each classification. They would naturally pair up well with schools in eastern Washington, where the number of schools per classification are dwarfed in comparison to those in central and western Washington. Each tier would go from four or five schools per group to 8-10, which would be more in line with their peers to the west (see district membership tables below).