Opinions mixed about St. Paul's athletic fate
ST. PAUL — With the OSAA Classification and District Committee set to hold the penultimate public hearing in its nearly yearlong effort to organize high school athletics into divisions and leagues set for Aug. 28, there have been 18 official committee proposals and eight more submitted by the public.
In the case of St. Paul, which is set to head down from 2A to 1A according to the latest supported committee proposal, there seem to be just as many arguments as to which classification best suits the Bucks.
Many of those in favor of that move stress the fact that St. Paul has traditionally been placed in the lowest division and permitted to play eight-man instead of 11-man football because of its small size. Proponents of 2A can counter that St. Paul has done well playing in the 2A Tri-River Conference and have benefitted from the higher and more consistent level of competition it has provided.
But complicating the matter is the fact that even in little old St. Paul, much like the overall effort to wrangle all of the state's athletic programs into one system despite significant geographical, demographic, competitive and even philosophical differences, one size just doesn't fit all.
The biggest reason is that the effects of moving up or down one classification have varied widely for the Bucks by sport.
There are a few programs — softball, baseball and cross-country — that will see little to no change if St. Paul returns to 1A because their sports already compete in a combined 1A/2A classification, although the composition of the softball and baseball leagues is undetermined and could change significantly.
At the opposite end, there are two cases where the choice is fairly clear.
On one hand, volleyball has done well in 2A and would face a drastic drop in competition level by going from a competitive league to one in which it would have, due to the departure of Country Christian, only one comparable team, at best, in traditional rival Perrydale. Otherwise, the Bucks would spend a large chunk of the regular season running roughshod over the rest of the Casco League, racking up unproductive blowouts that they would not otherwise have scheduled (perhaps with a few exceptions).
"I never had the 1A experience because my freshman year was our first year of 2A," senior Logan Robinson said. "It's nice knowing that every game you're going to play there's going to be competition."
On the other hand, boys basketball is the only team at St. Paul that has truly struggled to find success at 2A and, at least competitively, would clearly fit better at the 1A level.
The track and field programs are in the relatively convenient situation where the difference between classifications really boils down to how well St. Paul fares at the state level, where the girls were among the handful of top programs competing annually for a top-four team finish in 1A. In 2A, the Bucks have still been in the running for a state title in one or two events, but would likely need a truly special year in order to secure a trophy, let alone a team title. The boys have not had as much team success at state since moving up to 2A, either, but have certainly proven capable competitors in league and in a handful of events at state.
The two most interesting and debatable cases come in football, where the shift entails changing the structure of the game and is more clearly correlated to school size, and girls basketball, where the level of competition for the Bucks, in particular, is frankly worlds apart.
According to head football coach and athletic director Tony Smith, some schools that moved up to 2A were not able to field 11-man football teams, which was an indication to him and many others that the dividing line between the classifications should be moved up from 90 to 95, as it is set to do under the current supported proposal.
St. Paul appears to be one of the few teams that moved up 2A and remained competitive, in part because it has a remarkably high turnout rate.
The Bucks did have some ups in downs in 2A, including a 3-5 season in 2015 in which the team was both young and hampered by injuries. When St. Paul did have success, instead of topping out as a state-title contender as it normally had in eight-man play, the Bucks missed the playoffs on a league tiebreaker despite finishing 7-2 in 2014. Smith's team may have been even better last year after going 5-3 and finishing No. 5 in the OSAA rankings (due to the strength of the Tri-River Conference), but even then, the Bucks were overpowered 50-0 by eventual state-champion (and league foe) Regis in the second round.
So outside of a preference for the style of each format or the corresponding issue of smaller schools not being able to field 11-man teams, the choice seems to be framed around the importance of more consistent competition throughout the year versus a greater chance of success in the postseason.
Perhaps the tricky part, at least when gauging student opinion, is that no current St. Paul athletes ever competed in 1A at the high school level because this year's senior class were freshmen when the Bucks moved to 2A. Most football players, though, did experience eight-man football in middle school.
Nonetheless, junior running back Justin Herberger said there is a wide variety of opinions among players, but if he had to choose one or the other, the school would be stay in 2A.
"I guess it's going to be different with eight-man and 11-man football, but I like the competitiveness more so in 2A because you don't have 80-20 scores," Herberger said. "Most of our games have been close in 2A."
Junior wide receiver Jaidyn Jackson said he would also lean that way for the same reason, but also because his position would likely be far less significant in eight-man football.
In terms of girls basketball, the argument does seem to come down to preference in competition, as St. Paul was a regular at the 1A state tournament for years, but missed the playoffs all three years in a monumentally tougher 2A Tri-River Conference, which has a legitimate argument for being the toughest league in Oregon regardless of classification or sport after a dominating run in recent years.
However, the Bucks may have actually played at a higher level the past three seasons because they were forced to prepare and compete so much harder just to miss the state playoffs by a hair in both 2015-2016 and 2016-2017.
Similar to Herberger and their own feelings for volleyball, seniors Presley Smith, Robinson and sophomore Isabelle Wyss said they preferred 2A for basketball because of the consistency of competition, but realize it's a complex situation.
"There are a lot of athletes that play three sports," Robinson said. "It's a big mix of joy to play every sport, so it's going to be interesting to see how the loves in the sports go with the level of play they're going to be playing at."
To their credit, no matter what preference they may have personally, each player interviewed for this story said St. Paul will be fine because it won't change the way its teams approach competition.
"We just want to be the best team we can be no matter where we're at, what sport, bigger than us, smaller than us," senior Campbell Smith said. "We're going to come out and give them our best every game."