New league means changes for Husky sports

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Life is changing this year for Sweet Home High School athletes and coaches with the school’s entry into the ValCo League after 24 years in the Capital Conference.

“It’s going to be interesting,” said Larry Johnson, back in the athletic director’s seat after four years of retirement and other activities. Johnson spent 17 years as athletic director at the high school before retiring in 2002.

Johnson, who agreed to return while the school district seeks someone to replace Steve Emmert, who moved to the Sherwood School District after last school year, found himself in a whole new ball game brought on by the Oregon School Activities Association’s redistricting of the state’s 287 schools last year.

The OSAA divided its member schools into six classes based, primarily, on enrollment numbers. The largest schools, with 1,521 or more students, were placed in Class 6A, the highest class, while schools with 851 to 1,520 were placed in Class 5A, and on down to 1A.

Sweet Home was moved from the Capital Conference into the ValCo League, joining Central, Philomath, Newport and Lincoln City Taft high schools. Toledo, which originally was a member of the ValCo, petitioned to move to the 3A PacWest Conference last spring, leaving five members in the ValCo. The redistricting plan was sustained in June by state schools Superintendent Susan Castillo after it was appealed by Eugene, Medford and Salem-Keizer schools, who were upset that their students would have to travel longer distances under the new plan.

Rob Younger, Sweet Home’s football coach, is in his second year as an OSAA executive board member and was part of the decision to make the changes.

He said the Toledo move happened literally at the last minute as the school’s enrollment numbers came out the day before an OSAA vote on redistricting changes and showed that Toledo had dropped below the 300 mark.

“When Toledo dropped at the last second, we couldn’t get a sixth team and that hurt us (in the ValCo League), Younger said. “Unfortunately for us, we’re one of two leagues that don’t have a lot of schools in our league.”

The Greater Oregon Conference, with four members, is the only other 4A league with less than six, he said.

The five-school league leaves the Huskies with their own set of difficulties, say Johnson and high school coaches.

Chief among these is the fact that, every other year, only two ValCo teams will make the state playoffs and that there will be no league playoffs in some sports, particularly those in which teams play each other three times.

For instance, this season, three ValCo teams will qualify for the playoffs this fall in football, but only the top two will go in volleyball. Next year, two football teams will make the playoffs, and three volleyball teams will go.

But Younger said he’s optimistic that things will change in a couple of years.

“I think there’s a pretty good chance that in two years we’ll see the possiblity of one of nine-team leagues, the Sky-Em or Capital league, (mving) some teams into ours,” he said. “I think it would have happened if (Toledo’s move) hadn’t happened at the last second.”

Another change, in some sports, is that Taft and Newport have only one gym, so ValCo teams playing sports with freshman teams as well as junior varsity start playing at 4:30 p.m., compared to 5:30 for Capital Conference teams, which all had two gyms.

“It’s going to be different, but it’s not a big thing,” Johnson said.

“I think, for the state of Oregon, I’m very excited because I think the balance of competition is much better now,” Younger said, “particularly for the largers schools and for smaller schools such as Lebanon, the Albany and Corvallis schools.”

He noted that the 4A will lose Wilsonville and Sherwood, which will move up to 5A, but otherwise the division will pretty much stay intact from last year’s 3A.

“The two divisions that actually benefit the most are the smaller 4A schools (from last year) and the smaller 2A schools,” he said.

The change in classification isn’t making much difference for the Huskies overall, Younger said, but the league change does present some changes.

“I think sometimes change is good,” he said, noting that Sweet Home already played many ValCo teams in most sports. “We’ll see some new faces. In a lot of ways, nonleague games become league games and league games become nonleague games.

Cross-country and track coach Billy Snow said that the change will bring mixed blessings for the Huskies. He said the primary change in cross-country will be the district meet, which, unlike, the Capital Conference meet, held annually at Bush Park in Salem, rotates among the ValCo teams.

“If there’s one (concern) about the league we’re in, it would be where the meet is held,” he said. “I like the idea of neutral site, which makes it fair, having it on the same course year in and year out. Over four years, a runner can compare progression, and can look to see how I did at the district meet every year. If it’s on a different course, you can’t make that comparison. It’s not quite as accurate.”

Plus, Snow said, “Bush Park is actually a better park for cross-country meet than the state course.”

But otherwise, he said, “I know all the coaches – they’re great people and they will be great to work with.”

He said that in track, the switch to new divisions may play havoc with old division records.

“How do you figure records now?” he asked. “The automatic marks are going to be interesting this year. The old marks are tougher than some schools used to have to meet (to qualify for state in their previous divisions).

“I think they went too far,” he said. “There’s no need for six classifications other than, perhaps, football.

“There are much bigger states that have fewer classifications.”

Boys soccer coach Karl Schmidtman expects the move from the Capital League to prove positive for the Huskies.

“The league we were in has some soccer powerhouses,” he said. “Players in the Woodburn area play all the time. This new league will be much more favorable for us. We get to face everybody three times, which is kind of cool.”

Volleyball coach Debbie Danielson also thinks the switch to the ValCo Conference might be a good thing for this year’s team.

In the Capital Conference, the Huskies have shown improvement but had never been able to truly develop a winning mentality. Each year, the Capital Conference seemed to be loaded and the Huskies couldn’t get into the state playoffs.

“It’s a hard thing to teach kids to be winners,” emphasized Danielson, who said she thinks a fresh start in a new league would be good for her Huskies. “Last year, I don’t think they were really sure they were going to win against some teams. The mental part of volleyball is huge.”

Johnson said each ValCo school has its areas of strength, although none are historically very dominant in wrestling. With the five-team league schedule, Sweet Home also has to find schools willing to schedule extra non-league games if coaches want to give their athletes a full slate of competition.

“We’ve competed with Central for years,” he noted. “They have very tough teams.”

He said his meetings with the other ValCo athletic directors have been positive.

“The people I have met as athletic directors are quality people, nice, who have been very welcoming,” Johnson said, noting that Taft and Central have new athletic directors this year as well.

But things will be different.

“We’ve competed with Capital Conference teams for years,” he said. “ValCo schools do things a certain way. But we’ve already met with all the fall coaches and we’ve learned about their SOP’s (standard operating procedures). We have real good lines of communication.”‘

– Sports Correspondent Ken Roberts contributed to this story.