The Oregon School Activities Association's latest reclassification proposal may be a sight for sore eyes to Ashland High supporters eager to leave behind the school's current league-less existence, but it's hardly a perfect-world solution, says AHS athletics director and assistant principal Karl Kemper.
To the ninth-year AD, the eight-team league that the Grizzlies — as it stands now — will be a part of beginning in 2014 is less of a fix and more of a trade-off. Essentially, Kemper said, the school will be swapping one set of challenges for another.
"We don't want mismatches," he said, "but it's almost too far to the 'everybody gets a chance to win' thing — and it's not really about that. We can't equalize everything. It's important to have competitive balance and competitive games, but what are we sacrificing to do that?"
The answer, for schools like Ashland that find themselves in a geographically stretched-out league, is time and money.
After Ashland High completes its current four-year time block as a member of the two-team Southern Oregon Hybrid, it will probably be part of an eight-team league that will merge three schools from the Rogue Valley (Ashland, Crater and Eagle Point) with five schools from the Eugene area (Churchill, Marist, North Eugene, Thurston and Springfield). That makes the longest road trip in the Class 5A Midwestern League, from Ashland to Springfield, 352 miles round trip. Since the cost of taking a bus is approximately $3 per mile, treks to Eugene from Ashland, and vice versa, will cost the traveling school a little more than $1,000.
The time away from home is costly as well, said Kemper, although not in the form of dollars and cents. If the Grizzlies were to attempt to play a traditional league schedule in the team sports that typically require multiple road trips per week — such as volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball — it wouldn't be long before those long bus rides would begin to take their toll on student-athletes.
"It doesn't make sense for kids to ride six hours to play a high school game on a regular basis," Kemper said. "And then we've got grown ups that kind of need to go with them called coaches, and it's already tough enough to find coaches — the time that coaches put in is beyond what people would understand unless they've done it before."
To prove his point, Kemper laid out an exhausting itinerary for a road trip to Eugene for a basketball game. The freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams would leave Ashland at 1 p.m. and arrive back in Ashland at about 1 a.m. the following day, completing a 12-hour round trip. If those games were played on a Tuesday, players wouldn't have much time to rest before their next school day begins at 8 a.m.
"Educationally, it makes no sense whatsoever," Kemper said.
Which is why a traditional league schedule in every team sport outside of football — at one game per week, football has a much lighter travel schedule by comparison — has already been deemed an impossibility for Ashland High.
"If we did it in the traditional way, it would impact kids academically and their family lives in a big way," Kemper said. "We have no intention of playing in Eugene on a regular basis … and (the Eugene schools) are more adamant about that than we are."
So how will the future Midwestern League, in its proposed form, complete a conference schedule and determine a league champion in those team sports that typically require a double round-robin schedule? Though any reclassification proposal is months away from approval, a few possible compromises have emerged. In one, schools would scratch the Tuesday matchups in favor of Friday-Saturday games. That would cut down on travel time by essentially condensing two road trips into one, but the added expense of a hotel would partially negate what schools would save on fuel.
Another possibility is to do away with regular season league games all together in favor of an end-of-season tournament, with the winner earning the league championship. In that scenario, the tournament could be seeded according to the OSAA power rankings.
"The OSAA doesn't dictate how we decide who our league champions are," Kemper said. "I mean, we can determine the league champion by playing rock-paper-scissors if we want to."
Despite the fact that the OSAA reclassification committee announced in February that it "had reached a consensus regarding staying within a six classification structure," Kemper has not given up hope that a five-classification structure will be given another chance. In a five-classification proposal made by North Medford AD Tim Sam on Jan. 28, the Grizzlies would compete as a 4A school in a conference similar to today's Class 4A Skyline Conference, alongside Eagle Point, Phoenix, Hidden Valley, Henley, Mazama, North Valley and Klamath Union.
But unless the OSAA has a dramatic change of heart soon, Ashland will have to brace itself for four years of creative scheduling. In other words, more of the same.
"We're going to make the best of whatever circumstances we have," Kemper said, "but it's really too bad for our kids. Now that we're three years into (the last reclassification), they've not had the experience of a traditional league, battling with rivals, that kids can get excited about and I think it's really hurt our school spirit in a big way.
"Life isn't always perfect, but we'll control what we can control. We're going to have to be creative to do the best thing for the kids. We can whine about it, but that doesn't get us anywhere."
Daily Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.