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Crook County and The Dalles are set to join Madras in a new-look Tri-Valley with a strong Central Oregon constituency.

    -     According to the final redistricting proposal released last week, Crook County is slated to drop down to the 4A classification and join Madras in the Tri-Valley Conference.

The move is a surprising late development in the months-long redistricting process. OSAA Executive Board will finalize the league structures for the 2022-2026 time block on Monday, Dec. 13.

Over the duration of the redistricting process, Crook County had tentatively remained a member in the 5A Intermountain Conference. However, the OSAA decided to look at projections rather than current numbers for average daily membership (ADM) — the metric by which school size is determined — and subsequently moved the larger Bend schools down from 6A due to the opening of Caldera High School.

That move would have put four Bend teams in the IMC, a change that would have benefitted Crook County in terms of travel, with Hood River Valley, Pendleton and The Dalles leaving the league. A stronger IMC may have also resulted in competitive imbalances against the Cowboy and Cowgirl athletic programs, though.

Now, it appears the 5A Intermountain Conference will be a six-team league based exclusively in the Deschutes County cities of Bend and Redmond. As for the 4A Tri-Valley, the conference takes on a Central Oregon look — a major win for Madras in terms of travel burden.

"I think the advantages are you have two closer-proximity teams," said MHS athletic director Daniel Barendse. "I think that's a plus for us, for travel. It leaves us in the 4A (classification), which I think is a good level across the board for all of our athletics competitively. Out of all the proposals, I still believe (the Tri-Valley Conference) is the best fit."

Barendse added that the coaches at Madras High School expressed a desire to remain in the 4A classification.

"The biggest thing is that our coaches believe that, too," he said. "That's really the thing that matters most. They're the ones that have to go out and compete and coach."

In addition to taking on Crook County, the Tri-Valley would also bring in The Dalles from the 5A IMC should the final proposal goes through. Conversely, the TVC would lose current members Corbett and North Marion. Corbett is projected to move down to 3A, while North Marion moves to the Oregon West Conference.

For Barendse, those moves do come with inherent risks to competitive balance, but it is not a major problem in this case.

"You're always concerned about what that looks like when teams come down (from 5A)," said Barendse. "But we already play Crook County in a lot of things currently. They've been in our football league, and that's usually one of the big (issues). Soccer, too."

Current members Estacada, Gladstone and Molalla would join Crook County, Madras and The Dalles to form the final six-team Tri-Valley. For weeks, it looked as though the league might also add Parkrose, but the Broncos lobbied to play in 5A despite their low ADM, and the OSAA has granted the request.

As Barendse noted, the change won't be completely foreign for Crook County. The school already plays against their new Tri-Valley compatriots in football and soccer, for instance. Without the Redmond teams around, there will not be as many quick trips on the schedule, but the Cowboys and Cowgirls can at least forget about those regular four-hour jaunts to Pendleton.

"Yeah, it causes a lot more travel than the Bend school proposal," said Crook County athletic director Rob Bonner of the move back to 4A, "but we were in the Tri-Valley for four years before this reclassification anyway, so it's kind of going back to where we were. And it was a good fit then."

For Madras, the school gets not one but two new neighbors east of the Cascades. In the penultimate proposal, The Dalles was put into the Tri-Valley. Now nearby Crook County joins up, too. That saves the Buffs a significant number of trips over the mountains. The league will get tougher overall with the addition of two former 5A schools in place of Corbett and North Marion, but competitive balance should remain generally intact.

While the move could lessen the intensity of the rivalries between Crook County and the Redmond schools, it could rekindle the Crook County-Madras rivalry. Historically, Crook County has bounced between classifications, alternating competition with generally larger schools (Bend and Redmond) and the smaller-school leagues (which usually included Madras).

While Madras is unlikely to outgrow the 4A classification anytime soon, a larger student population could translate into a stronger athletics profile for the school. Now that larger schools such as Crook County and The Dalles will be included in the 4A classification, that growth could help level the playing field.

"It will be interesting to see where the growth goes over the next four years," remarked Barendse. "Community growth, school size growth. It seems like people keep pushing further away from Bend and Redmond because of costs. It seems, in my mind, to bode well. You're already seeing some of that development in Madras."

The OSAA Executive Board will meet on Monday, Dec. 13 in Wilsonville to review written testimony regarding the final recommendation of the Classification and Districting Committee. Following those discussions, the board will enact the finalized leagues for the next four years, beginning in the 2022-23 academic school year. The changes will be in effect until the end of the 2025-26 academic year.

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