COMMENTARY | Biannual conversation about Narrows League’s future set to resume

South Kitsap nearly joined the South Puget Sound League before Yelm's enrollment figures made it a Class 4A school

The biannual conversation is set to resume.

South Kitsap will kickoff its 35th anniversary as a charter member of the Narrows League when the Wolves open Sept. 6 at Kentridge. But will it be the last?

Two years ago, South appeared poised to join Kentridge — and many others — in the Class 4A South Puget Sound League. Mount Tahoma was set to move to 3A Narrows with the other Tacoma Public Schools (excluding Stadium), along with Shelton. Those defections threatened to leave 4A Narrows with just six members — a number that South athletic director Ed Santos felt was too small to remain a viable league.

That supplied the impetus for South and four others — Bellarmine Prep, Central Kitsap, Gig Harbor and Olympia — to seek admission to the SPSL. According to SPSL president of athletic directors Rick Wells, South and Central even submitted applications to join the league.

Enter Yelm.

Officials at that school thought enrollment numbers would keep the Tornados in the 3A classification. But when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which calculates classifications by percentages every two years to avoid imbalances, released its preliminary enrollment numbers Dec. 6, 2011, Yelm had a dozen students more than 1,304 cutoff for 4A. Schools with the top 16 to 17 percent enrollment, such as South, are recognized as 4A. There also is the option to “opt up” to classifications with larger enrollments.

At the time, Yelm athletic director Thad Nelson said they were “in the process of double checking all of our numbers and making sure they’re completely accurate.” And after watching several of his programs, with the exception of wrestling, struggle through the transition to 4A Narrows, expect Nelson to do the same when the WIAA again releases enrollment counts later this year. In 3A Narrows, the Tornados might have played for a state-playoff berth. Instead, they needed a win over lightweight Mount Tahoma in the Narrows’ crossover game just to finish 5-5.

Think Yelm would not be excited to return to 3A Narrows?

Without the Tornados, it is difficult to envision 4A Narrows continuing. None of the teams in 3A Narrows were close to the 4A cutoff two years ago and that is unlikely to change. If Yelm returns to 3A Narrows, South and the rest of the league’s 4A schools would have the option to join them in a multi-classification league. But outside of Stadium, whose administration prefers remaining with the other Tacoma Public Schools, that option does not resonate well with 4A Narrows schools. Santos and others have maintained that a multi-classification Narrows comes with a risk of diminished competition when they play smaller schools regularly during the season and face similar-sized ones in the postseason.

But a move to the SPSL presents some negate features, as well. Longtime Wolves’ fans expressed disappointment when the old Bay and Bridge division format prevented them from playing rival Bellarmine during the regular season from 1997 to 2007. Adding six schools would give 4A SPSL 24 teams. Regardless of the divisional numeric arrangement, which theoretically could be anywhere from two to four, South and others regularly could miss playing traditional rivals in football.

There also is the matter of geography. For Kentwood and Mount Rainier, roundtrips to Central, Olympia and South would be more than 90 miles.

Those are the primary downsides to a potential move. The biggest asset in a move to 4A SPSL would be competition. The Wolves regularly meet those schools, particularly in boys and girls soccer, with state berths at stake. Kentwood has won two of the last four state baseball championships and the Conquerors perennially are a title contender in several sports. Several other 4A SPSL schools have been successful at state, as well.

Joining the SPSL also could solve some inequalities — or at least perceived ones — too. For example, former South baseball coach Jim Fairweather groused in 2011 that despite being a higher seed than Kentwood before the West Central District Tournament, his team faced the prospect of playing Conquerors at Kent Memorial, which is their home field. That did not come to fruition as South played Puyallup at Kent Memorial, but the point remains.

“We’re slappies,” Fairweather said at the time. “They think they’re that much better than we are. Now they’re even loading the table more by putting all of the playoff sites in their backyard. Nobody crosses this bridge, ever. We could go up to the [Kitsap County Fairgrounds] and play.”

But with South and others having an equal voice in the same league, that might not be an issue. Perhaps we will see the Wolves hosting Federal Way or Tahoma at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds.

For now, the only certainty is South will open its football season in four weeks at French Field in Kent. And that might be a regular occurrence — with playoff implications — in the near future.