Change is coming to the athletic landscape at North Salem High School.
The school’s petition to the Executive Board of the Oregon School Activities Association to move down a classification was unanimously approved Feb. 13.
Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, Salem’s oldest public high school will be in a different league than the other five Salem-Keizer public high schools. Though it is a decision that will impact the school as a whole, the current athletes it impacts are freshman and sophomores.
Reaction has been mixed.
It has yet to be determined what conference the Vikings will join, but they will not be competing at the biggest and most athletically competitive level of Class 6A for a four-year block from 2018 to 2022. A landing spot for North Salem could be in a league that includes current 5A schools like Central, Dallas, Silverton and Wilsonville.
Sophomore middle infielder/pitcher Will Tsukamaki realizes North Salem won’t be in the Greater Valley Conference his senior year, but he has more pressing concerns like preparing for next month’s season opener.
“As long as I get to play. It’s not like a huge difference,” Tsukamaki said. “There’s some good teams over there, too.”
The OSAA’s Classification and Districting Committee is expected to have a projected outlook this spring, with a final decision regarding six and five-classification options in October, according to OSAA executive director Peter Weber.
If the OSAA decides to remain at six classifications, North Salem would move down to 5A. A five-classification format would put the Vikings in 4A.
Pros and cons
“It’s disappointing, to say the least. I just think it sends the wrong message,” said Brett Evert, a 1999 North Salem graduate who was a basketball and baseball standout in high school. “I think there’s ways to improve the situation and it feels like it’s just a way of giving up.”
The Vikings reached the state quarterfinals in baseball Evert’s junior year and the state championship game in basketball his senior year.
But in recent years North Salem has struggled to remain competitive in many sports.
In the past three years, only North’s baseball team had a .500 record among the OSAA-designated team sports of football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, baseball and softball. The girls programs – volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball – had a combined record of 33 wins and 220 losses during that time span, a winning percentage of .130.
North Salem met all four criteria established by the OSAA to move down and play against smaller schools. Among Salem-Keizer public high schools fellow GVC member McKay also met the standard to move down, but elected not to petition the OSAA to play down.
First-year North Salem athletic director Brodie Cavaille was initially opposed to moving down a level. He understands the passion behind traditional rivalries in athletics, particularly with South Salem, and recognized that a move down would be viewed negatively in some circles.
“Those traditions are strong, they’re important. I think they’re very valid,” said Cavaille, a 1998 North Salem graduate who participated in football and baseball in high school.
Numbers tell the tale
But a closer look at the numbers reveals that it’s a constant struggle for North Salem to compete against schools that have a higher percentage of their students participating in sports. It’s especially evident in football.
The Mayor’s Cup Trophy football game between North Salem and South Salem has been dominated by the Saxons, although the Vikings won last season for the first time in nine years.
Cavaille estimates that North Salem draws between 300 and 400 student-athletes annually who participate in at least one sport, and “many of the other (GVC) schools have at least a couple hundred more than that.”
“It’s a good move for our school,” said Jeff Flood, who has been head football coach at North Salem since 2008. “If you look at all of our programs and the amount of participation we have I think we’ll be competing against schools that have a similar number of kids that are participating in athletics.”
Offensive lineman Austen Munoz, the only sophomore to start on the football team in the 2016 season, supports the move other than lamenting about rivalries he’ll miss leaving the GVC. He’s heard mixed reactions from teammates.
“There are some people that are truly for it and think it’s gonna be a good change, but then there’s others that think it’s not,” Munoz said. “They don’t see the whole picture. They just look at all of the cons instead of the pros with us moving to 5A.”
The baseball team has remained competitive under coach Chris Lee, but participation levels have declined to where the Vikings only field varsity and junior varsity teams.
Lee said he initially “had some big reservations” about moving down a level.
“Some of the people that have the vitriol in our decision, they’re thinking of the school how it was when they were here,” said Lee, who is in his 17th season. “The school is different from when my son graduated in 2011, in 2005 when my daughter graduated, and from 1995 when I started teaching here.”
Socioeconomics has played a role.
More than 75 percent of North Salem students are eligible to receive a free or reduced-price lunch. Many of them can’t afford the cost of playing sports year round, which can include summer traveling teams.
Potential student-athletes from Houck Middle School and Parrish Middle School don’t always elect to attend North Salem. In-district transfers have also impacted the school’s success in athletics.
North Salem did not field a girls varsity basketball team this season and played a JV and freshman schedule. First-year coach Anna Marchbanks said 24 girls went out for the team and 15 remained in the program by season’s end.
“I think this was the best thing for them,” said Marchbanks, a McKay graduate and former women’s basketball standout at Oregon State. “For me, growing up in this city and being a player, you have to instill confidence. I didn’t want to put my girls in swimming pools and expect them to swim and have them drown.”
The girls basketball team had a winning record this season and will play a varsity schedule in 2017-18.
Marchbanks has mixed emotions about moving down a classification, but she understands the reasoning.
“At the end of the day I wanted what was best for the girls. It’s not my playing career,” said Marchbanks, who played at North Salem as a freshman. “I wouldn’t wanna move down if I was playing because I always wanted to play at the highest level, but I think they’re OK with it. They’re more into winning because North has been such a losing program for so long. It’s not fun when you’re losing every single game.”
North Salem has experienced its share of athletic success recently, but it came in individual sports.
Sophomore sprinter Rebekah Miller is the defending Class 6A state champion in the 100-meter dash.
The wrestling team finished third in the GVC district tournament last weekend and advanced five wrestlers to the OSAA Class 6A state tournament.
“I understand why we’re doing it,” said sophomore Ian Carlos, the district champion at 145 pounds. “I just feel as a school and as a team they shouldn’t have moved from the 6A. I feel that was the toughest (classification) out there. I want to compete against the best.”
The best athletes a level down will still provide stern competition, and there’s no guarantee that North Salem will thrive in 5A or 4A.
But this much is clear: The Vikings will be competing on a more even playing field.
“The core of this is we want to give our kids the best opportunity to succeed,” Cavaille said.
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com, or Twitter.com/ghorowitz