By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Salem schools ensnared in schedule controversy

Wanted: two (2) football programs from either Oregon, Washington, California or Idaho. Varsity team must play at level approximate to Oregon School Activities Association Class 6A; programs with junior varsity and freshman teams preferred. Must have one of Sept. 19 or Oct. 17 available.

“Do you have somebody to play?” West Salem High School Athletic Director Bryan Sutherland asked. “You got contacts?”

West Salem and Sprague High School of Salem, two members of the new conference McMinnville High School will join this fall – the Class 6A Greater Valley Conference – are in a scheduling bind for football. The Titans have an open date on Sept. 19 that they are actively looking to fill with a nonleague game. (Football’s regular season will adhere to a strict nine-week schedule for the first time in OSAA history this fall, with the week 1 game on Sept. 5 and the week 9 game on Oct. 31.) The Olympians’ opening is on Oct. 17, or week 7 of the season; Sprague was slated to host a nonleague game but may have to travel if no better option presents itself.

Sutherland and Sprague Athletic Director Craig Swanson have been in contact with schools as far away as Sacramento, Calif.; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; and Yakima, Wash., in their quest to fill the scheduling hole. Both Sprague and West Salem are seeking two-year home-and-home agreements with nonconference foes to guarantee a home game.

“It’s not desirable (to play an out-of-state opponent), but not playing a full schedule is less desirable than that,” Swanson said. “Anything within reason to be able to field that, that’s what we’re exploring.”

The Greater Valley Conference is asking the OSAA for help. Principals and athletic directors of the conference’s nine member schools – Sprague, West Salem, North Salem, South Salem, McKay, McNary, McMinnville, Forest Grove and West Albany – signed a letter, dated Feb. 24, to OSAA executive director Tom Welter and OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett asking for the OSAA’s intervention into the matter.

“It’s extremely important that the OSAA helps us resolve this issue because we’re on a four-year cycle for reclassification,” McMinnville Athletic Director Mark Hinthorn said. “Knowing that the bye weeks will change from year to year, different schools will be impacted over time, which is why we are unified in our approach.

“We don’t want Sprague and West Salem to fight the battle this year because it could be South Salem and McMinnville in 2015.”

Of the six Class 6A leagues created by the OSAA’s classification and districting committee for the 2014-18 school years, the Greater Valley Conference is the only one with nine football-playing members. The Three Rivers League has nine members, but the all-girls St. Mary’s Academy does not play football; the newly reconstituted Portland Interscholastic League also has nine members, but Benson announced it will not play football in 2014.

To allow for a non-league game, the GVC instituted a “floating bye” during the season, in which each school has an open date for one of the nine weeks of the season to schedule a nonleague opponent. (McMinnville cannot release its 2014 football schedule due to the incomplete nature of Sprague’s and West Salem’s schedules, but the News-Register has learned that the Grizzlies landed week 8, or Oct. 24, as its 2014 floating bye. McMinnville will play Class 5A Parkrose, which, yes, is not how Newberg is spelled.) The floating bye changes every season, so West Salem will play a conference game in week 3 and Sprague will play a conference game in Week 7 in 2015.

Theoretically, the nine GVC teams would have filled each date on their football schedules at the Feb. 18 statewide scheduling meeting. That did not happen in practice.

“As a conference, we adhered to the state scheduling agreement that precluded scheduling games of any sort before the states scheduling meeting itself, in hopes that other conferences would be willing to adjust their conference schedules and move their bye weeks off of weeks 1 and 2,” the GVC schools’ letter to the OSAA states. “We trusted the scheduling process and made a good faith effort to fill our schedules there at the table. Unfortunately, because of a number of factors and despite our efforts, two schools were unable to construct a full schedule. This year, it is Sprague and West Salem High Schools. These two schools are the only 5A and/or 6A schools without a complete football schedule of nine games.

“This occurred despite testimony from what was then the Central Valley Conference, primarily in the person of Ron Richards, athletic director at McNary High School. Mr. Richards, as the athletic director overseeing football for the CVC, testified in several different public forums, including in the presence of the reclassification committee at least twice specifically about this issue. His testimony seemingly fell on deaf ears.”

Garrett, the OSAA assistant executive director, told the News-Register that he had not seen the letter when reached by phone Thursday. Welter was unavailable for comment.

Garrett said that the concerns addressed in the letter would likely be placed on the agenda of a closed OSAA executive board meeting, which will take place either Wednesday, March 12, or Thursday, March 13, at the OSAA Class 6A basketball state championships in Portland.

“It boils down to one issue,” Garrett said. “That’s a football issue. It doesn’t affect any other activity.” (GVC athletic directors confirmed to the News-Register that no other sports are affected by this issue.) “Tom will get that letter in front of (the executive committee) during that meeting; we’ll issue some type of response to the league. I don’t know where they’ll go with it.”

The most likely option is, if Sprague and West Salem cannot find games on their own, that those will become permanently open dates in the Olympians’ and Titans’ schedules. It is also the least palatable.

“There’s two things from an educator’s perspective,” Sutherland said. “My kids are going to lose an experience, playing a game out of our league. The second thing they’re going to lose, we’re going to be put at a competitive disadvantage. We flat-out won’t have as many games as anybody else.”

That would extend to the junior varsity and freshman ranks – the varsity football players of the future. Athletic directors interviewed for this story expressed a desire to play games at all three levels to maintain a traditional player development track.

“I’m sure their kids are paying participation fees to play,” Garrett said. “They expect to play nine games. The OSAA as a governing body doesn’t have anything to do with the participation fees that Sprague and West Salem set.”

For Swanson, who expected the Olympians to play a home game in their floating bye date, gate revenue from paying spectators could be lost. The Salem-Keizer School District pools the gate revenue from its football-playing members and distributes it equally, an important source of revenue in a time of shrinking budgets.

“We’re going to bring in anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 in receipts per game,” Swanson said. “For us to take a $5,000-10,000 hit because state scheduling doesn’t allow us to play a game is something we’re fearful of.”

Playoff spots and seeding are also at stake. The top four teams out of each league will automatically qualify for the Class 6A state playoffs. Eight teams will be chosen for at-large bids according to their RPI ranking, which is calculated by the OSAA and determined by their matchups against other Oregon schools. (Play-in games have, mercifully, been eliminated.)

One possible solution is a special OSAA exemption for Sprague and West Salem to play “zero-week” contests on Aug. 29. The OSAA has stayed away from zero-week games in part on the recommendation of its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, a group of medical professionals that advises the OSAA on concussions, injuries and other related matters.

“The OSAA, that’s a big chance,” Sutherland said. “If you go against the advisory committee and, God forbid, something terrible happens, you’ve just opened yourself up to enormous liability.”

“That would be unlikely, I’d imagine,” Garrett said. “Could it happen? I guess that has to be an option on the table.”

Another option – with even longer odds – is for the OSAA to call every state school back to a special scheduling meeting and remake the entire schedule to assure that Sprague and West Salem are afforded nonleague contests.

“That’s way out there,” Sutherland said. “That’s not something the OSAA has ever done before. That would be a radical change.”

Regarding the possibility of calling a second state scheduling meeting, Garrett said: “I guess every possibility is on the table. That’s a fairly extreme measure.”

The GVC letter calls for “immediate assistance” from the OSAA Executive Board in resolving the matter. “This was a problem clearly brought to the attention of the OSAA and it was seemingly ignored,” the letter states. “Our conference and these two schools specifically, as well as their athletes and families, should not be forced to bear the competitive disadvantage of a short-sighted decision.”

Immediate assistance could be extended to the OSAA actively intervening on behalf of Sprague and West Salem in scheduling games for the schools’ open weeks. Garrett likened this to “the nuclear option."

“The OSAA is not involved in any way, shape, or form with the scheduling of contests,” Garrett said. “It never has been. Could it end up that the (Executive Board) does nothing? Absolutely it could. Could the board mediate it somehow? Certainly, that could happen. I couldn’t even guess right now what would come from that.

“Have we had teams not have a game in the past? The answer is absolutely, we have.”

Not playing a ninth football game, the GVC principals and athletic directors argue, will have far-reaching consequences for their schools.

“I think that the attitude of the OSAA classification committee is, somehow this will work out,” Sutherland said. “Mathematically, it just can’t.”





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