One constant in Idaho high school athletics remains its ever-changing leagues and classifications.
This year is no different.
Rule changes shuffled what levels Idaho schools competed in starting last fall. But another rule change passed Wednesday, and fresh enrollment numbers from the Idaho High School Activities Association already have schools across the state eyeing a new future.
The next classification cycle starts in the fall of 2020, so no changes are imminent and none become official until the state activities board hears final appeals at its Sept. 24 meeting. But the latest information provides an early outline of the new landscape.
Here are the highlights:
THE LARGEST 5A SIC EVER?
The raw enrollment numbers from the IHSAA show the 5A SIC swelling from 10 to 13 teams starting in the fall of 2020. That would increase to a record 14 teams when the West Ada School District’s new high school, Owyhee, opens in the fall of 2021.
Kuna, Nampa and Caldwell are projected to move up from the 4A ranks based on their population. They would join Boise, Borah, Capital, Centennial, Eagle, Meridian, Mountain View, Rocky Mountain, Skyview and Timberline.
The IHSAA allowed Kuna, Nampa and Caldwell to drop down or remain in 4A last fall despite 5A enrollment numbers (1,280 or more students) as part of its new classification process. But Kuna Athletic Director Dave Beymer confirmed the Kavemen (1,613 students) won’t try to petition down again.
“We feel comfortable going where our population numbers are,” Beymer said. “We are going to be close to 1,700. We fit in with everyone in 5A. It’s where we should be playing.”
Nampa (1,475) and Caldwell (1,453) couldn’t make the same promise. Nampa Athletic Director Ty Thomas said his school is still collecting information, while Caldwell Athletic Director Jonathan Hallock said the Cougars will try to petition to stay at the 4A level. He believes the Cougars would qualify through the state’s tougher competitive equity standards passed Wednesday.
The only time the league fielded 13 teams came before the creation of the 4A classification for all sports in the 2000-01 school year. It has never fielded 13 football teams at the same time, nor has it ever fielded 14 teams in any sport.
Exceeding 10 football teams would force the conference to return to the pod, or division, format it used from the 2014-15 to 2017-18 school years when it had 12 teams. It also used pods from 2008-09 to 2010-11 when it had 11 teams.
Other changes across the state in 5A could include the return of Idaho Falls (1,301) and the elevation of Canyon Ridge (1,285) of Twin Falls. Canyon Ridge Athletic Director Lonnie Ahlquist confirmed his program will try to remain 4A, citing increased travel costs as the only 5A school in its district, its crosstown rival (Twin Falls) playing at the 4A level and that it’d become the state’s smallest 5A program.
Idaho Falls Athletic Director Pat Lloyd said the Tigers are exploring their options.
A SHRINKING 4A SIC
All the movement up to the 5A SIC would come at the expense of the 4A SIC as it shrinks from nine teams to six: Bishop Kelly, Columbia, Emmett, Middleton, Ridgevue and Vallivue.
The IHSAA granted Columbia an exemption to play at the 4A level last fall despite 5A enrollment based on its on-the-field struggles. The Wildcats won’t need to pursue another exemption as their enrollment numbers (1,232) came under the 4A maximum (1,279) this time.
The depleted league could open the door for Mountain Home to return to its traditional home. The Tigers moved to the Twin Falls- and Pocatello-based Great Basin Conference last fall. Mountain Home Athletic Director John Clark said his school is considering a return.
No new teams are projected to join the 4A classification. If the raw enrollment numbers held up, 5A and 4A would have 23 teams each. Currently, the 5A classification has 18 teams and the 4A has 28.
3A SRV, 2A WIC BOTH GROWING
After 10 seasons at the 2A level, McCall-Donnelly (351.5 students) will return to the 3A classification in 2020-21. The maximum for 2A is 319.
McCall-Donnelly Athletic Director Bryan Joyce confirmed his program won’t chase a petition, creating a six-team 3A Snake River Valley with Fruitland, Homedale, Parma, Payette and Weiser.
But the Vandals’ departure won’t shrivel the 2A Western Idaho Conference with Compass Charter (217.5) and Ambrose (161) growing and projected to join an eight-team league. The maximum for 1A Division I is 159 students.
Compass Charter Athletic Director Grego Cordero said he’d pursue a petition to remain a 1A Division I program, citing competitive concerns at the 2A level. But Ambrose Athletic Director Amy Yenor said her private Christian school won’t fight the move.
“Even though we just made the count, we are growing,” Yenor said. “... I want us to have good competition for a lot of our conference games. I think the 2As will give us good competition for most of our conference games.”
Neither Ambrose nor Compass Charter field a football team, leaving a five-team league in the sport for Cole Valley Christian, Marsing, Melba, Nampa Christian and New Plymouth.
SHIFTING 1A LINE
The IHSAA board also changed the dividing line between 1A Division I and Division II as a first reading Wednesday. A second and final vote follows in August.
The line moved down from 100 to 85 students. Any schools with 85 to 159 students would play in the 1A Division I ranks. Any schools with 84 or fewer students would be 1A Division II.
That would push private schools Genesis Prep and Lighthouse Christian up to 1A Division I. Lighthouse Christian has won four of the last seven 1A Division II volleyball state titles, while Genesis Prep won back-to-back boys basketball championships before Lighthouse Christian claimed the crown this season.
Small, rural programs have long complained about competing against the two private schools from Coeur d’Alene and Twin Falls. But IHSAA board member Tol Gropp, who sits on the classification committee, said the goal was to even the number of teams in the two divisions, not punish two programs.
Currently, 28 schools compete in 1A Division I and 39 in 1A Division II. The 1A ranks typically see several schools petition up and down, but the raw enrollment numbers put 31 in 1A Division I and 32 in Division II.
PETITIONS NOW TOUGHER
The IHSAA finalized a new process to petition down a classification Wednesday, making it tougher for schools to move down based on their competitive history.
The state activities association entered a new era last fall when it included factors outside of enrollment numbers when classifying schools. The IHSAA board still makes final decisions, but it added the school’s past two years of on-the-field success in every varsity sport as information the IHSAA board could weigh when voting on petitions.
Schools whose team sports (football, basketball, soccer, etc.) win 33% or fewer of their games 75% of the time would qualify. So would schools whose individual sports teams (wrestling, track, cross country, etc.) finish in the bottom 50% of their district 75% of the time.
Pursuing the competitive history route will now require an advisory vote from the state’s superintendents, letters from the new and previous leagues, and the four-year history of a school’s varsity, junior varsity and freshman programs.
But the IHSAA’s board of directors still will make the final decision. For example, Caldwell did not meet the competitive history standards in the last classification cycle, but the IHSAA board unanimously allowed it to stay in 4A.
“It helps the board have a better, clearer understanding of what the league is thinking so we are not just jumping into it based on limited knowledge,” Gropp said of the changes. “Last time, we had less information to go by. So that put us in a situation where we had a couple schools that maybe should have stayed 5A.
“I don’t know for sure if that’s the case, but probably. Looking back, it probably made more sense to keep a couple of those up.”
The IHSAA created the competitive history plan to allow struggling programs a chance to compete. But it has led to mixed results in its first year and plenty of grumbling from 4A programs competing against schools with 5A-level enrollments.
Five of the 19 state titles in the 4A classification went to teams with 5A enrollments, and another four state runner-up trophies went to those same schools.
Idaho Falls thrived after dropping down to the 4A classification, winning state championships in boys basketball, boys cross country and girls swimming. It also finished as the state runner-up in baseball and softball.
Results in the Treasure Valley have varied with Kuna, Nampa, Columbia and Caldwell.
Kuna won a 4A state wrestling championship and earned a fourth-place trophy in volleyball, but it didn’t earn a trophy in any other sport.
Caldwell won a state title in boys soccer and finished second in girls basketball. But it didn’t qualify for state in any other team sport or finish inside the top 10 in any individual sports.
Neither Columbia nor Nampa won any state championships. But Columbia finished second in wrestling, reached the state quarterfinals in football and won a boys basketball district title. Nampa reached the state football semifinals and only had one other team (girls cross country) qualify for state.