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For Madras and Crook County football, the road to a high school state championship will now run through Eastern Oregon.

PMG FILE PHOTO - When Crook County and Madras met last season, they did so as part of the special district consisting of mostly Tri-Valley Conference teams. Now, the Cowboys and White Buffalos are heading east as part of a new special district with teams from the Greater Oregon League, which includes Baker, La Grande and Pendleton., Central Oregonian - Sports The Crook County and Madras football teams will now play against Eastern Oregon teams in a new 4A special district. Crook County, Madras football going east for new special district

Following the latest round of redistricting by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA), the high schools in Madras and Prineville are slated to join up with four others from around Central and Eastern Oregon in a new special district for football.

Instead of the Tri-Valley Conference, where Crook County and Madras will be calling home for all other sports starting next fall, the Cowboys and White Buffalos will be joining Baker, La Grande, Pendleton and The Dalles in the Greater Oregon League for one sport: football.

The athletic directors at both Central Oregon schools are looking forward to tackling the challenges that this new district will bring about, both from a logistical standpoint and an on-the-field perspective.

"We're good with it," said Rob Bonner, athletic director at Crook County High School, about playing football in the new special district. "We're excited about the next four years there."

"Once all the dust settled, we were happy with where we were at," said Madras High School athletic director Daniel Barendse. "We're taking it on. There's a lot of work that went on across the state — they had to look at all things, consider all things, and this is where we landed."

The work that Barendse described has been going on behind the scenes for months, and this latest twist of the redistricting Rubik's cube comes via the OSAA's Football Ad Hoc Committee. The committee's final proposal for new football special districts was forwarded to the OSAA State Championship Committee on Monday, April 18, after which time it will be sent to the OSAA Executive Board for final review and official adoption on May 2.

Tracking the moving parts

The decision to send Crook County and Madras out east for football is the direct result of more than a dozen OSAA committee meetings over the past eight months.

Those deliberations started back in August 2021 when the Classification and Districting Committee began redrawing the leagues for all athletics. The OSAA reviews and updates its districts every four years, and this latest round of redistricting will remain in effect from the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year until the end of the 2025-26 spring season.

Many of the biggest changes that took place during the redistricting process directly affected the biggest schools in Central Oregon. Alterations in how the OSAA calculates average daily membership (ADM) — the metric used to gauge school size — caused a ripple effect that reshaped the region.

Some of the most impactful shifts in the first round of redistricting included:

• Caldera High School opening in Bend, which lowered ADM projections for Bend, Mountain View and Summit, resulting in all four schools dropping from Class 6A — the state's highest classification — to Class 5A and joining the Intermountain Conference (IMC);

• Crook County, Pendleton and The Dalles leaving the IMC and dropping down to Class 4A as a result of the new ADM calculations and changes to the thresholds for determining a school's classification (6A through 1A);

• Crook County and The Dalles joining Madras in the 4A Tri-Valley Conference (TVC) to create a more balanced league geographically, with three teams on either side of the Cascades; and

• Pendleton joining the 4A Greater Oregon League (GOL) to replace McLoughlin, which dropped down to Class 3A, keeping the GOL's membership at four schools.

While the Classification and Districting Committee determined the home districts for every school in the state, that process was only the beginning of further redistricting efforts for football.

Further changes for football

After the formal approval by the OSAA Executive Board of the Classification and Districting Committee's final recommendation, the work of the Football Ad Hoc Committee was able to begin in earnest.

That committee was charged with coming up with special districts for football, the only sport for which Oregon high schools can petition to play at a lower classification level. These petitions are generally made when a school has struggled to find success at its regular classification. Both Crook County and Madras have made so-called 'play-down' requests in recent years, though both will be competing at their regular 4A level going forward.

While the Buffs and Cowboys are now ready to tackle level-appropriate competition, play-down requests from four other schools around the state were crucial in determining which special district Madras and Crook County would join.

The biggest shake-up came when Ontario High School requested to play down in Class 3A, which reduced the size of the Greater Oregon League to just three teams — not quite enough to have a regular football season.

"The goal of the committee was to create viable leagues within each classification level," said Brad Garrett, assistant executive director of the OSAA and the governing body's liaison in the Football Ad Hoc Committee. "Putting three schools together and calling it a league was not something they supported at any point."

The GOL did, in fact, play with only three teams in both 2021 and 2018. For Baker, La Grande and Ontario, the majority of those seasons were spent playing in non-league games — often against 3A schools in Eastern Oregon or even Idaho schools, simply because those were the ones they could get on the schedule.

"There's issues with the size of the GOL," said Bonner. "They need a league as well."

With so few 4A schools in Eastern Oregon, the GOL was happy to receive Pendleton as a new member thanks to the latest redistricting efforts; however, the good times were short-lived once Ontario dropped its football program down to 3A. That move shifted the GOL's gaze squarely upon Central Oregon, and specifically at the Tri-Valley trio of schools in Crook County, Madras and The Dalles.

Elsewhere, three schools from Class 5A — La Salle, Parkrose and Woodburn — made their own play-down requests to the Football Ad Hoc Committee. Those three programs are all in close proximity to the western half of the Tri-Valley Conference, which includes Gladstone, Estacada and Molalla.

With the GOL hoping to lure three Central Oregon teams away from the Tri-Valley to bring its membership to six — and with the OSAA attempting to re-home three others that so happened to be in the TVC's geographical footprint — the writing was on the wall.

The Football Ad Hoc Committee's charge, broadly, was to look at the greater good of the entire state. For Crook County, Madras and The Dalles, the greater good means going to the Greater Oregon League.

"The focus of the Ad Hoc Committee was always global," added Garrett, "and the characterization of 'greater good' applies certainly in this case."

Why special districts?

Special districts have become a major aspect of Oregon high school athletics.

Because not every school can field competitive teams in every sport, the OSAA uses special districts to consolidate schools together for certain sports to minimize potential imbalances in league size, competition level and geography.

The OSAA uses these districts for football, soccer, cross country, swimming, wrestling, baseball, softball, track and field, tennis and golf. In fact, volleyball and basketball are the only team sports where special districts do not come into use in any of the six classifications for Oregon schools.

In many cases, these special districts include combining classifications together. For example, while Class 6A and Class 5A compete as their own separate entities in swimming, the lower four classifications are grouped into one massive pot and then divided into smaller special districts. In wrestling, only Class 2A and 1A are combined in such a way; however, Classes 4A and 3A both use special districts to group schools within their respective classifications.

As for football, the six classifications are all kept separate, but within those classes, special districts remain critical for maintaining as much competitive balance as possible while also accounting for the logistics of travel and scheduling.

While special districts do provide a mostly elegant solution to a complex set of problems, they are not without their drawbacks.

The athletic directors at Crook County and Madras each expressed a desire to keep their football programs within their regular district, the Tri-Valley Conference. Neither is disappointed with the end result of redistricting, but both administrators noted that staying in the TVC for football — or, more accurately, a special district made up of Tri-Valley schools — would have been the most preferable outcome.

"We would've preferred to stay in the Tri-Valley for all team sports," said Barendse. "But there's a different mission happening with this reclassification and this Football Ad Hoc Committee."

That mission is to create a comprehensive plan in the best possible interest of every school in the state — and it is one that both Barendse and Bonner were happy to help facilitate.

In perhaps the most telling sign of the schools' willingness to work toward the greater good of Oregon sports, neither Crook County nor Madras provided official testimony to the Football Ad Hoc Committee during the redistricting process. Instead, they let their silence serve as tacit approval of the move.

"I enjoy working with those committees and with the OSAA," said Bonner. "You always feel heard. You may not always get your No. 1 outcome, but you're always listened to. If you're able to see the big-picture outcome, you always see why the end result is what it is. I really appreciate that about the process."

Looking at the logistics

Regardless of whether playing out east was the first choice for Crook County and Madras, the task for both schools now shifts to figuring out how to make this new league work from an administrative perspective.

As far as travel, the schools in this new special district will be racking up plenty of extra miles on their team buses over the next four seasons. The three Portland-area schools in the Tri-Valley — Estacada, Gladstone and Molalla — are all closer to Madras and Prineville than the schools in Baker City, La Grande and Pendleton. From Jefferson County, each of those TVC campuses are within roughly two hours of driving; from Crook County, no more than three.

Now that the Cowboys and Buffs will be making frequent trips to Eastern Oregon, though, those drive times are about to become considerably longer.

The trek from Madras to Pendleton is the shortest one for either Central Oregon school, coming in at roughly three and a half hours — a full half-hour longer than the drive from Prineville to Molalla, which is currently the Tri-Valley's longest road trip. Most of the bus rides to and from Crook County and Madras will take at least four hours each way.

If it were only the varsity football teams traveling, there would not be much issue with all the extra driving time. Those games are usually played on Friday nights, which even makes staying overnight a more reasonable — if more expensive — consideration.

However, both athletic directors noted that the new district will pose some challenges for sub-varsity teams. The junior varsity (JV) and freshman squads generally compete earlier in the week than the varsity teams do, so the athletic departments must figure out how to get their sub-varsity rosters out to Eastern Oregon — and back — on a school night.

These riddles are by no means impossible to solve, but these travel costs and time constraints come into play as schools endeavor to build their varsity and sub-varsity schedules.

Of course, it is worth remembering that these issues all go both ways. The Eastern Oregon contingent in the new district will have to make these same road trips, too, and they must also figure out how to book officials for their home contests. As such, each member school in the district should be motivated as they work together to find elegant and efficient ways to clear these hurdles.

How the teams stack up

The challenges with this new special district do not stop in the athletic directors' offices, either.

For both Crook County and Madras, two schools that are currently working on building their football programs back up, the new district presents difficult new opponents.

Pendleton, which also fields players from the Nixya'awii Community School and Griswold High School in Helix, finished last season as the No. 6 team in Class 5A. La Grande, meanwhile, was the No. 6 school in Class 4A. Though neither the Buckaroos nor the Tigers made it past the quarterfinals in the state playoffs, these will likely be the two teams to beat over the next four seasons.

As for Baker and The Dalles, those schools are seemingly much closer in level to Madras and Crook County — which could make for some great competition in the district.

Despite finishing with overall winning percentages below .500, both Baker and Madras made it to the Class 4A playoffs last season. Each team fell in the first round and, coincidentally, each lost to schools that would eventually meet in the state championship game three weeks later. Meanwhile, a young Crook County team was a better squad than its 2-7 overall record would indicate, and The Dalles will likely be more competitive in their new home after going 2-6 in Class 5A last season.

With Pendleton and La Grande likely serving as the two strongest programs in the league, the rest of the district could end up in a very tight race for the league's third and final automatic bid to the playoffs.

"There's some great football being played throughout Central and Eastern Oregon," remarked Barendse.

Those games are still many months away, though.

For now, the athletic departments at Crook County and Madras are focusing on getting all the logistics lined up. Once all of that is figured out, then the teams can settle the rest on the gridiron.

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