By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Still on his Feet: In search of a true state championship

On March 26, Nick Daschel, a contributing sports reporter for The Oregonian, wrote an online article entitled, “Should Oregon follow Arizona’s lead and reduce the number of OSAA classifications?” Arizona, which has 270 schools in its scholastic governing body, reduced the number of high school classifications from seven to five, with four classifications on certain sports.

Under the seven-classification system, Arizona had a total of 114 state championship events. Now it has 67. (The OSAA oversees 96 state championships.) The reduction in expenses incurred holding state tournaments, Daschel wrote, is one point in favor of reducing the number of classifications in Oregon.

The primary point of evidence Daschel uses does not provide nearly as convincing a case. He cited an article by The Oregonian’s Jerry Ulmer that stated that attendance at the Class 5A and Class 6A state basketball tournaments dipped between 24 and 30 percent from the year before. In eight years, 30,000 fewer people across the state are attending state basketball tournaments.

To be sure, people in the state of Oregon do not care to attend a basketball tournament without a strong connection to a school or the sport. The current system of six OSAA classifications has led to a number of issues that have had a very real effect on high school sports.

However, poor attendance at the state tournament is hardly a reason to blow up the existing framework, even though I’ve advocated as much in this very space. (I personally favor the four-classification system.) It tells me that people no longer place much value in the state tournament experience in basketball. Which begs the question: are we deceiving ourselves when we crown six state champions in a sport?

What if the ultimate solution to the problem of state tournament attendance is, for lack of better phrasing, a true state tournament?

Think “Hoosiers” with a Pacific Northwest twist, a situation where Perrydale and McMinnville have equal opportunities to win it all – just as long as they win five or six games to get there.

If the idea of a true state basketball champion is crazy, consider the case of Columbia Christian boys basketball. The Class 1A Knights had a pair of NCAA Division I players on the roster in Michigan-bound Kameron Chatman and Idaho-bound Arkadiy Mkrtychyan. Columbia Christian so thoroughly destroyed Class 1A competition that a state basketball championship was deemed inevitable. Indeed, the Knights defeated Horizon Christian of Hood River on March 8, 68-49, to claim their birthright. Many neutral observers wondered how they might stack up against, say, Class 5A champion Jefferson of Portland or Class 4A champion Philomath.

Some would counter that a true state tournament would take away opportunities for really good small-school or large-school teams. And it would. When it comes to the elite of high school, however, the gap between those teams and the great teams is quite wide in boys’ sports and even wider in girls’ sports. The competition at the top, however, would be intense.

A true state champion is alluring in individual competitions like golf, tennis, swimming, cross country and track and field. It is certainly not unheard-of for, say, a Class 3A 800-meter runner to post a better time than a Class 6A runner. Or a Class 4A girls golfer to post a lower round score than a Class 5A golfer on the same course. Performances in the individual sports are less of an indictment on the schools.

The true state championship format could work in team sports spread across a great playing field, like baseball, softball and soccer. In the first two, the individual effort of a pitcher bears a significant impact on the game’s progress. Soccer is a uniquely parity-stricken game, even at the highest levels of the sport – consider the Portland Timbers losing a 1-0 match to Cal FC, a team composed entirely of amateur (unpaid) players, in the U.S. Open Cup on May 30, 2012.

In volleyball, one wonders what would happen in Class 4A Crook County – winners of eight consecutive state titles, a dynasty in Prineville – would be thrust into a tournament bracket against Lakeridge, the Class 6A state champion, or West Albany, the Class 5A state champion. Parity in volleyball is not on the level of, say, baseball, but consider: in this recent round of state championship games, three of the six featured a No. 1-seed and three featured a No. 2-seed. Just two featured a 1-versus-2 showdown. (Daschel noted that, in basketball, all 12 No. 1 seeds made their respective championship games.)

Oh, but must we address the elephant in the room? Is that truly necessary? Could I go a full high school sports column without—

Very well. I cannot conceive of a true state championship in football, and I am quite sure that any such proposal would be resoundingly defeated. The small schools will want to play the eight-man game, as they should. (Except for Perrydale and St. Paul, starting this fall.) And there would surely be a divide between large schools and small schools – does anyone really believe that Dayton and McMinnville would willingly enter a scenario where they could meet on the gridiron?

Football mucks everything up.

And therein lies the problem. Football is the sun in the OSAA’s sporting universe. When the OSAA debates classification again in four years, perhaps football should be looked to as the exception, rather than the rule.

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