THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Area 3A schools stay put — but 1As in flux

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There could have been as many as six North Idaho schools — twice what there is now — in the 2A division in fall 2020.

That’s when the next two-year classification period for Idaho high school athletics begins.

But officials from Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, Kellogg High and Priest River High — looking at the big picture as well as the potential scene in two years — opted to remain in the larger 3A division, despite enrollment numbers which could have dropped each school to 2A.

Prior to that, however, all options were on the table.

“A discussion was had about forming a District 1 2A league with Kellogg, Priest River, Charter, and St. Maries,” Priest River athletic director Matt George said. “We all understood that it was an ‘all or none’ issue, and once we all looked at future high school enrollment it was determined that the numbers would not support a 2A league for long. That said, we all determined it would be best for everyone to ride out the lower numbers for a few years.”

“This same discussion talked about having a North 2A (Kellogg, Charter and Priest River) division and a South 2A (St. Maries, Grangeville and Orofino) division,” Kellogg athletic director Mike LaFountaine said. “Although it’s interesting to look at it that way, there are a lot of schools that would have to agree to that as well as discuss logistics of district tournaments, where would they be played — possibly at Kootenai or Lakeside. At the same time, St. Maries might bump back up to 3A someday too, and Cd’A Charter might have basketball again too.”

EVERY TWO school years, an enrollment count is taken in the fall and spring at each school for grades 9-12. The average of those two numbers is used to determine which classification a school competes in for the next two-year cycle.

Kellogg’s “number” was 303.5. Charter was at 300, Priest River 286.5.

The 3A division is for schools with enrollment from 320-639 students. The 2A division is from 160-319 students. Once their enrollment numbers are determined, schools can petition up or down for several reasons, including logistic and competitive reasons.

For Coeur d’Alene Charter, the furthest school in the IML is 90 minutes away. St. Maries, the closest 2A school, is an hour away. Grangeville is more than 3 hours away, Orofino slightly less than 3. For Priest River, it would have been worse. St. Maries is 2 hours away, Orofino just less than 4 hours away, Grangeville just over 4.

Kellogg’s trips would have been just under 4 hours to Grangeville, 3 hours to Orofino, 90 minutes to Priest River, an hour to St. Maries and some 45 minutes to Coeur d’Alene Charter.

By comparison, St. Maries’ number was 281.5, Grangeville 251, Orofino 240.

Had Cd’A Charter, Kellogg and Priest River dropped to 2A, that would have left Timberlake and Bonners Ferry as the only two teams left in the IML

Timberlake (576.5), though 62.5 students under the limit, is still the largest school in 3A. Bonners Ferry is at 432.5.

Had that happened, Timberlake AD Jim Simpson said filling out a regular season schedule would have been no problem, since all those teams probably would play each other anyway. But ...

“Where it would have made the biggest impact is representation to state,” Simpson said. “The IML generally sends two quality teams to state. If those three schools left, it would have probably been a long road, requiring a play-in game to qualify one team for state.”

MEANWHILE, THE 1A divisions in North Idaho will see some change next year.

Kootenai (56 students) and Mullan (25.5) will stay in 1A Division II, and Clark Fork (86) successfully petitioned to stay in Division II. But Genesis Prep (96) and Lakeside (123) will move up to Division I, joining Wallace (145.5).

Currently, 1A Division II consists of schools of 99 and fewer students, with 1A Division I for schools between 100-159 students. But, starting in 2020, with the numbers adjusted to help even out the two 1A classes, Division II will be for schools with 84 and fewer students, with Division I for schools between 85-160 students. That’s why Clark Fork had to petition down.

“We didn’t seriously consider it,” Lakeside co-athletic director Jerel Hight said of petitioning down. “When the IHSAA voted to lower the threshold from 99 to 84, there wasn’t really much we could do. On either way to petition down, we wouldn’t have hit the benchmarks the state was looking for. Numbers wise we would be over 20-plus students over the upper limit. On the ‘competitve equity’ guideline, we’ve had some successful years in a couple of our sports and that didn’t get us to the 75% needed to be in the bottom half of the league. After being at the most recent board meeting, however, I almost wish we had tried and let the chips fall where they may on the vote. But, because of the numbers change at the state level, we didn’t seriously consider it and there could be some changes coming to our league and district.”

Hight said the North Star League plans to meet soon to decide what to do next, with three of its teams going to be in Division I, the other three in Division II. In recent years, all six schools played in the same league, but Wallace went its way for the postseason (competing against Division I schools in District 2), and the others played in a 1A Division I District 1 tournament.

IN ADDITION to less travel, the three 3A schools that could have dropped to 2A opted to stay in 3A did so because they still are competitive in the IML.

still competitive in IML

“We also have been very competitive in our league at the varsity level,” said George, a teacher and coach at Timberlake for 10 years, who is now in his fourth year as AD at Priest River. “We sent softball, baseball, track, and boys golf to state last spring, We represented our league very well in wrestling at state last winter. Girls and boys cross country teams both qualified for state last fall, volleyball went five sets with Kellogg but fell short to qualify for state in one of the most amazing volleyball matches I have seen, and football has qualified for a state play-in game two of the last three years.”

LaFountaine said there are some folks in Kellogg who would like to see the Wildcats drop to 2A.

“We met as a coaching staff and voted to stay 3A,” he said. “In soccer, 2A and 3A already compete as one league and at the state level. In football, we’re competitive in the IML and have qualified for postseason play the last two years. Volleyball we qualified last year for state and have been competitive. Cross country is the same in each classification — top teams go and the top 3 individuals qualify. Wrestling in each classification takes top 3 from our district; we have been successful sending 6 or 7 athletes to state. Boys basketball has been competitive and been to state consecutively for a long time. Girls basketball has a good chance this year for qualifying for postseason play. Track and field is the sport that has one of the major advantages for staying 3A — top 4 go to state and top 2 relays as well. In 2A, top 2 go and 1 relay. Softball in 3A, 1.5 teams qualify and in 2A 1 team qualifies. Baseball will most likely be the same as well with 1.5 in each classification.”

Besides, two years from now, when enrollment numbers are used for the 2022-24 classification cycle, some or all three of the schools could have numbers which would have put them back in 3A anyway.

“Coeur d’Alene Charter is a different school; we are a 3A school in a large town,” Charter athletic director Aaron Lippy said. “The town has two 5A schools (Coeur d’Alene and Lake City) within 2 miles of our school. Our enrollment is fairly steady in numbers. Last year was our largest freshman class in the school’s 20-year history. In two years the issue will come up again ... we will look at the area schools and what has changed at that time.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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