Sports

Coupeville High School battles being smallest school in conference

Like the smallest sibling in a family wrestling match, Coupeville High School athletic teams have to work hard to stay off the bottom of the Cascade Conference pile.

The Wolves are at a disadvantage each year in conference play because they are the smallest school by enrollment in the league.

Theoretically, the more students a school has, the more athletes it will field because it has a larger pool from which to draw. That is why the state divides its high schools into six classifications based on enrollment; thus, leveling the playing field and increasing each school’s chance to be competitive.

Coupeville, for geographical reasons, plays in the Cascade Conference. However, five of the eight schools are 2A in size (having between 468 and 918 students). Coupeville, King’s and Archbishop Thomas Murphy are 1A (188-476 students). ATM has “opted up,” meaning it has chosen to move up one classification for the playoffs. Schools may opt up one classification; they cannot opt down.

King’s and Archbishop Murphy are also private schools and have students and athletes from outside of their “boundaries.” Students, for example, cannot compete for Coupeville unless their legal guardians live in the Coupeville School District. A Coupeville student, though, could choose to attend ATM and would be eligible to compete athletically without penalty.

This gives private schools an advantage in attracting athletes from outside of its area. Regardless of how attractive attending Coupeville may be to someone outside of its district, a student cannot just signup and go to school there and compete for its athletic teams; his or her guardians must permanently move to Coupeville.

While private schools aren’t hindered by district borders, just being a private school doesn’t guarantee wins. Coupeville boys’ basketball coach Randy King said, “The private schools in our league are very competitive on a statewide scale at most sports, but not all privates statewide have great athletic success in sports. Just being private doesn’t predicate success for sports teams.”

Dave Ward, football coach at Archbishop Murphy and former Oak Harbor coach, said private schools can be at a disadvantage, too. ATM’s high level of academic expectations causes some students, and athletes, to leave their program.

He added, “But it is the same high standard of college prep training that gives us an advantage when it comes to recruiting. This program really does prepare students for success after high school.

“Recruiting is not a bad word around here; it is a way of life. Once we identify students and families that are interested in our school, through their contacting us or coming to an open house, then we encourage them to apply.”

Coupeville baseball coach Willie Smith said the private versus public school issue is “always touchy.” He said, “I believe that this is a statewide issue, not just a CC League issue. Are the playing fields level? No, but unless the WIAA (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the state agency responsible for regulating school sports) creates a separate classification, then we continue to put our best against their best.”

Therefore, in the Cascade Conference, Coupeville stands alone -- the only 1A public school.

The last official state counts for classification purposes took place in 2008. (A new count is currently taking place.) Coupeville had 271 students in the top three grades; King’s, 320; Archbishop Murphy, 376; Granite Falls, 523; Lakewood, 524; Sultan, 549; South Whidbey, 586; and Cedarcrest 654.

Even Granite Falls, the smallest 2A school, is nearly twice the size of Coupeville.

There are a handful of advantages and disadvantages of playing against bigger schools.

The primary advantage is it provides a stiffer level of competition, thus forcing Coupeville athletes to elevate their game to be competitive. As CHS volleyball coach Toni Crebbin said, “We have to work harder.”

Girls’ basketball coach Blake Severns said, “Not all of our success is due to our competition against larger schools, but it has raised the level our athletes must compete at in order to succeed.”

Smith said, “Our kids have made some significant jumps in the way they approach athletics since we’ve joined the CC league.” He said that there is greater participation, commitment and effort in the off season conditioning programs. He added, “Our kids believe that not only can they compete each night, they are really beginning to believe that we can win each night.”

Smith said the change has affected more than the athletes: “Our coaches have also changed their approach. As a whole, our staff has become more cohesive and worked together to make our athletic programs successful. They have attended clinics, adjusted their level of intensity and commitment, and have really worked hard to get the most out of our kids.”

Another advantage is preparation for the playoffs. After a regular season of facing 2A schools, Coupeville and King’s drop down to 1A for the postseason and are primed for the competition.

King’s football coach Jim Shapiro said, “When you compete at the 2A level, stay healthy, and then go to the 1A playoffs, you are ready. The 2A schools prepare you in a good way for 1A football.”

This is all well and good except for one hitch. Coupeville and King’s must meet up with the 1A schools from the Northwest Conference in subdistrict to qualify for the “official” first round of the state playoffs, tri-district. Those schools, Meridian, Lynden Christian, and Nooksack Valley, compete in 3A/2A/1A league and, like Coupeville, play against a higher level of competition all regular season as well. Coupeville, therefore, may be knocked out of the playoffs before it ever faces a team that has played at only a 1A level all year.

Smith said, “Playoffs are interesting, to say the least. Because of our league and the Northwest League being mixed classifications, it requires us to play extra games to get into a our tri-district tournament, and this can be a real detriment. It forces us to play more than we should and very often we don’t have the depth or recovery time which would allow us to play each playoff game at a full level.”

The biggest disadvantage of playing against 2A schools all year is it is difficult to consistently win.

Severns said, “We don’t have as many athletes as the other schools, and the more athletes you have the easier it is to compete and succeed.

“Any time a team is strugglng to win games it can be disheartening to the players and fans. This is true for any school in any sport.”

Shapiro said, “Us and Coupeville carry about 45 kids on our (football) rosters. The 2A schools carry 65-plus, some have 80. Football is a numbers game. Depth at various positions is an issue. When our starting lineman goes down, we are usually backing him up with a freshman or sophomore. The bigger schools have older kids in those positions backing up their starters. Due to higher numbers, they usually have a larger selection of bigger kids or athletic kids.”

Shapiro sums it up by saying, “It is less about the x’s and o’s and more about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s. When you have a good mix of kids, when you have enough kids to field a solid team it doesn’t matter what division you are in -- 1A can play with 2A and 2A can play with 3A.”

Smith said the transition period when Coupeville first joined the Cascade Conference four years ago was rough, but that the athletes and coaches have adjusted and become more committed.

He said, “This fall is a great example of the respect and ground that we have gained in the CC League. Our football and volleyball teams were both ranked at the bottom of the pre-season picks. Volleyball finished third and our football team finished in fifth ahead of Sultan, Granite and Lakewood. Two of our coaches this fall, Ron (football coach Ron Bagby) and Toni (volleyball coach Toni Crebbin) were selected as coaches of the year, and we had pretty good representation of our athletes throughout the all-conference teams.

“Overall, I believe that it has been good for us to be in this league.”

Crebbin said that it would be best for Coupeville if it could be in a league of only 1A schools, those which meet in subdistrict.

However, the Whatcom County schools don’t want to break away from playing their traditional rivals and want to stay in the Northwest Conference.

Therefore, Coupeville is “stuck” in the Cascade Conference, and, as King said, “It’s great to be in a league as opposed to being independent.”

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