AHS to play with the big boys

Ashland High athletic director Karl Kemper took the diplomatic approach when analyzing the Oregon School Activities Association state championship committee's final recommendation, issued Monday in Wilsonville.

"They did the greatest good for the greatest number in the state," he said.

For those wondering where that leaves Ashland, the answer may depend on the sport, the year and even the weather between here and Bend.

Confused? Join the club.

But one thing's for certain, according to Kemper: the next four-year time block will represent a radical change for AHS athletics.

"It's going to be very different situation," he said. "It's very challenging to figure out how this is going got work for Ashland High, because we're really not in a league and that's the bottom line. I wrote many letters and made many phone calls, publicly testified multiple times trying to find something that could make sense for us, and it's going to be challenge."

The state championship committee was charged in October with making recommendations to the OSAA executive board regarding playoff formats. That task became more complicated than usual later that month when the classification and districting committee approved an alignment which included two hybrid leagues that joined the state's top three classifications — 6A, 5A and 4A — and two more that joined the top two.

Ashland, a 5A school with an average daily membership of 1,021 students, was placed in the Southern Oregon hybrid along with current Southern Sky Conference member Eagle Point, another 5A, and five 6A schools. The SOH school with the largest ADM is Roseburg with 1,806, and Grants Pass (1,789) and South Medford (1,746) aren't far behind.

Those numbers seem to place Ashland and Eagle Point (1,122) at a major disadvantage, which is why Kemper lobbied for AHS to be placed in the 4A Skyline Conference. When that didn't happen, the next question for Ashland became:

1. What will its schedules — regular season and postseason - look like over the next four years? And "…

2. Will its placement in a hybrid mark the end of the school's trophy case-stuffing ways?

The championship committee's final recommendation, which is expected to be approved by the OSAA's executive board Monday, and a flurry of meetings between athletic directors recently have provided at least a partial answer to the first question.

In short, it depends.

The volleyball and soccer (boys and girls) programs will "go all in" with the Southern Oregon Hybrid, says Kemper, meaning the regular season schedule for those teams will consist of a round robin, or double-round robin, against the league's other six schools.

That will present a major challenge for the soon-to-be-outnumbered Grizzlies, but boys soccer coach Brad Roupp, whose team has rarely been challenged since the formation of the SSC in 2006, welcomes the change.

"For boys soccer, it's as exciting as it gets," said Roupp, whose 2008 team won its eight SSC games by a combined score of 31-0. "We will have some great competition, a reason to show up at every practice and play hard. It's going to be difficult to win, but challenge is what sport is all about, and here it is."

The AHS football program will go in a different direction, instead partnering with the 5A teams from the Midwestern Hybrid — Churchill, Marist, Marshfield, North Eugene, Springfield and Willamette.

And yet a third route will be taken by Ashland's baseball, softball and basketball (boys and girls) programs. Those teams will compete alternately against opponents from both the SOH and the Skyline.

As for the individual sports — cross country, swimming, wrestling, golf, tennis and track and field — regular season schedules will be less rigid, since qualification for the state championships will depend entirely upon season-ending district meets/tournaments. Plans are still in place, however: Ashland has partnered with the Central Oregon Hybrid schools in cross country, wrestling, swimming and track and field, and with the Midwestern Hybrid schools in tennis.

The switch isn't ideal, said Ashland head cross country and track and field coach Bob Julian Jr.

"I think most coaches are probably happy about what the OSAA came up with because there's not as much change, but for us it's a big change," he said. "At the 4A level and 6A level, the schools get to keep their conferences more or less, and at 5A we really don't.

"In cross country particularly, that conference that we're in is going to be very difficult. There's a good chance — and things will change over the years, power kind of fluctuates — that next year three of the top four teams in the state, at least in girls, are going to come from that league."

Ashland boys and girls head swimming coach Steve Mitzel will face many of the same challenges, but said the move may help his program in the long run. After all, he said, Eagle Point's decision to scrap its swimming program left the SSC shorthanded anyway.

"I love Klamath Union and Crater, and I'm going to miss swimming against those schools," Mitzel said, "but with four schools in your conference it's hard to push the limits with your kids. You kind of get complacent."

As the regular season schedules start to come together, one major question has yet to be answered: how will hybrid leagues handle all-conference honors? So far, Kemper said, no possible solutions exist, or are even being considered.

As for state playoffs qualification for team sports is concerned, the championship committee's final proposal could not be more simple: everybody's in. That's right, all 37 schools at the 5A level will advance to the postseason in every team sport. The regular season, then, will serve two primary functions:

1. To determine seeds, and "…

2. To provide data for the new power rating system, which will be used to determine where teams are placed in the final 16-team brackets (FYI: the power rating formula will be developed by a sub-committee, which has until July come up with a recommendation).

As the only two 5A schools in the SOH, Ashland and Eagle Point will be fighting for a first-round bye. The top seed will start the playoffs in the round of 32, while the No. 2 seed will face the Mid-Willamette No. 7 seed in one of five first-round contests.

The unique playoff structure will no doubt create some less-than-stellar opening-round matchups, as teams that ordinarily wouldn't qualify for postseason play will suddenly find themselves squaring off against each other for a chance to make the final 32. Mega-mismatches will also be in order. For instance, if the Ashland boys soccer team takes first place in the SOH, its first postseason opponent will be either the No. 5 seed from the Midwestern Conference or the No. 8 seed from the Mid-Willamette Conference. Scoreboard operators may have to work in shifts for that one.

On the flip side, Ashland's girls soccer program could conceivably go winless against the 6A schools in its conference and still head to state as a No. 1 seed.

Kemper addressed this possibility after his request that Ashland be placed in the Skyline Conference was shot down by the OSAA despite ADM projections that show Ashland dipping below the 5A threshold, to 792, during the next four-year time block.

"It's not about making the playoffs," he said back in October. "To me, it's about the overall experience of the kids on a regular basis. You know, the playoffs really aren't that important. To me, it's the overall experience of the kids on a regular basis. I'd rather go .500 and not make the playoffs."

The Grizzlies for the past four years — since the 2006-07 school year — have competed as a Class 5A school in the Southern Sky Conference, a five-team league that also includes Crater, Eagle Point, Klamath Union and Mazama. On the scoreboard, the union has proven to be a runaway success for the Grizzlies, who, among other accomplishments, have racked up four straight league titles in both volleyball and boys soccer, three straight in girls basketball and are closing in on a third straight SSC championship in baseball.

Baring a series of major upsets, each of those streaks will likely come to an abrupt end next school year.

"We're going to try to make the best of things," Kemper said, "to help our kids have a great high school experience."

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