Bellarmine Prep could be a Class 2A school, if it chose to.
Maybe then it would run through the local public schools and compete for 2A state titles. Or it could have competed in 3A to play with the Tacoma public schools like it had since 1928.
But the private Jesuit school, which has the largest enrollment of any private school in the state, competes in 4A, the largest classification in the state.
“Tradition was the reason for years,” Bellarmine athletic director Ed Ploof said. “The primary driver now is competitive balance. We are going to get great competititon for all our programs.”
But a look into what’s happening in the 2A/1A Cascade Conference in Snohomish County has further raised awareness about how fair it is to pit private versus public schools in athletics.
At what point is the private-school advantage too great? Their enrollments span over a 50-mile geographical boundary, and if they aren’t promoting their school, then they won’t keep their doors open.
WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said he couldn’t recall another time when a school accepted forfeits from the majority of its league members — which could happen with Everett-based Archbishop Murphy in the Cascade Conference.
South Whidbey, a 1A school, forfeited last week’s game against Archbishop Murphy, citing injury concerns, and Sultan, also a 1A school, did the same thing for this week’s game — even though it is 4-0.
Both those schools are used to taking poundings by private schools. South Whidbey has lost to Archbishop Murphy by an average of 34.5 points per game since 2004, and Sultan has lost by an average of 31 points. They haven’t fared much better against King’s.
“Keep in mind, our decision not to play the game has nothing to do with them being a private school,” said Sultan athletic director Scott Sifferman, citing Archbishop Murphy’s 1,500-pound offensive line. “The issue is that our present roster is not deep enough to put a team on the field we think would be safe under the conditions of a 48-minute football game.
“There are other issues there — private-public is obviously one — but the initial concern is the safety of our kids.”
Colbrese said the issue, to him, is not public versus private, but one of competitive balance — that some schools, regardless of public or private, outplay their league or classification. And he said the WIAA is planning to take a hard look at its current structure.
Competitive balance is with the private schools. So it really is a public- and private-school issue.
George Fairhart, Eatonville athletic director and football coach
The WIAA considered an amendment in 2002 that would have created a separate postseason for 1A and B private schools. It didn’t pass.
“I was in favor of that then,” Sifferman said. “I still am now.”
A look at last year’s state football championships shows why it was brought up in the first place. Private schools were competing in half of the state-title games — Gonzaga Prep won the 4A title, Eastside Catholic won the 3A title for the second consecutive year and King’s lost to Royal in 1A. Private schools comprised almost 30 percent of all the schools that qualified for the semifinals.
PRIVATE SCHOOLS IN 2015-16 STATE SEMIFINALS 4A: Gonzaga Prep* 3A: Eastside Catholic*, Bishop Blanchet 2A: Archbishop Murphy 1A: King’s 2B: Northwest Christian of Colbert 1B: Liberty Christian *Won state title
The WIAA includes about 16 percent private schools out of the 384 high schools in the six classifications — 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A, 2B and 1B.
But were last year’s championships an outlier? Or a growing trend?
“This is a conversation we’ve had for years,” said George Fairhart, Eatonville athletic director and football coach. “Competitive balance is with the private schools. So it really is a public- and private-school issue.
“But it’s not like there is an easy solution. … I think it’s a problem, but I don’t know the solution.”
Fairhart was Eatonville’s coach when it played in the 1A Nisqually League — when it at one time included six private schools.
Eatonville switched to the 1A Evergreen Conference to compete against schools that were from similar communities — even if it meant more travel. Eatonville bumped up to 2A this past offseason and is in the 2A SPSL.
“Kids who are enrolled at private schools aren’t the same kinds of kids who enroll in public schools,” Fairhart said. “How many reduced-lunch kids are in private schools? And how many special-needs kids are in private schools? That means we’re counting the kids assuming they are all the same and they are not.”
State private schools cannot offer scholarships based on athletic ability, only scholastic achievement.
One of the issues is that the private schools are so spread out. Bellarmine Prep is one of three that competes in Class 4A — though it, Gonzaga Prep and Kennedy Catholic all have 2A-sized enrollments.
Ploof said Bellarmine has competed in the state’s highest classification since as early as the 1920s. Competing with an enrollment of about 758 students, according to the most recent WIAA figures, in a classification where the largest school has 2,024 students has helped offset the advantages of being a private school.
PRIVATE SCHOOLS — WHERE THEY’RE CLASSED CLASS 4A Bellarmine Prep (758.38) — 2A opt up Gonzaga Prep (662.50) — 2A opt up Kennedy Catholic (629.88) — 2A opt up *4A enrollment threshold for 2016-20 classification cycle: 2,024.38-1,343.29 CLASS 3A Holy Names (1,052.00) O’Dea (702.26) — 2A opt up Bishop Blanchet (660.50) — 2A opt up Seattle Prep (543.50) — 2A opt up Eastside Catholic (446.00) — 1A opt up Lakeside of Seattle (424.38) — 1A opt up *3A enrollment threshold for 2016-20 classification cycle: 1,343.16-971.72 CLASS 2A Archbishop Murphy (403.63) — 1A opt up) *2A enrollment threshold for 2016-20 classification cycle: 971.58-461.25
Eastside Catholic is one of six private schools in 3A, but it has a 1A-sized enrollment.
Archbishop Murphy is the only private school in 2A, and it has a 1A-sized enrollment.
“Once you get into creating a private-school state championship or a private-school league, then we are not member schools,” Ploof said. “Then we are different. And we are not that different. We have different philosophical systems we live by, but we are kind of all in it together. ...
“To separate us athletically just creates this dividing line that I philosophically don’t agree with.”
Cascade Christian has reached the 1A state playoffs for 10 consecutive years, including winning state titles in 2014 and 2010.
It doesn’t compete up in any classifications, playing in 1A, though football coach Randy Davis said it had certainly considered it.
“We could handle our own locally in a 2A league,” said Davis, whose team opened the season with a 32-14 win over 2A Orting. “But what would happen is when you get into the playoffs, now you are going against these big teams like Tumwater, Lynden, Prosser, Ellensburg and Archbishop. I don’t think we could handle that. It would be tough with a 240-student school going against 1,000-student schools.
Once you get into creating a private-school state championship or a private-school league, then we are not member schools. Then we are different. And we are not that different. We have different philosophical systems we live by, but we are kind of all in it together.”
Ed Ploof, Bellarmine Prep athletic director
“We’re consistently in the playoffs every year, but I attribute that to a good coaching staff. And it’s not just us. It seems to be the same teams year in and year out. What’s the answer to Montesano, Connell, Royal or Colville?”
Some states have adopted multipliers for private schools. Alabama forces private schools to multiply their enrollment by 1.35.
Indiana uses an advancement system — requiring teams in all sports to move up a classification based on postseason performance, regardless of public or private.
This year, Rochester forfeited its game to Tumwater, a public school, out of the same concerns that South Whidbey and Sultan cited in avoiding Archbishop Murphy.
Tumwater beat 4A Union last week and 3A Bellevue the previous week.
“We are undoubtedly one of the top 2A schools population-wise, so that benefits us,” Tumwater coach Sid Otton said. “But we’re not in a situation where we can recruit 50 miles around. You got what you got. So there are going to be years you have to be able to maintain what you’re doing and other years you are going to struggle.”
Archbishop Murphy attempted to join the 4A/3A Wesco this past offseason. But its application was denied, Wesco president Greg Erickson said, because the league is already so big. It added Squalicum and Ferndale, instead, and now Wesco includes 23 schools.
We’re consistently in the playoffs every year, but I attribute that to a good coaching staff. And it’s not just us. It seems to be the same teams year in and year out. What’s the answer to Montesano, Connell, Royal or Colville?
Randy Davis, Cascade Christian football coach
There certainly weren’t many Wesco schools who favored the idea of adding the league’s first private school — especially since Archbishop Murphy’s 50-mile attendance radius would include almost all of the 23 member schools.
Instead, Archbishop Murphy opened its season with a 73-0 win over 4A Issaquah (that was also the score at halftime), then won 59-0 against Bishop Blanchet (which last year reached the 3A state semifinals), and 38-0 over King’s — which played in the 1A state finals last year, but was considering whether to forfeit to Archbishop Murphy before its players voted to play.
“We are a league-driven state right now, and people have to give up some of that if we want to get some parity,” said Sumner School District athletic director Tim Thomsen, who is a member of the WIAA executive board. “And parity is about kids, not league championships.”
Ploof, a former member of the WIAA executive board, agreed.
“I think, on the state level, we have to get outside the numbers game for classifications and look for competitive balance in classifications,” Ploof said. “High numbers do not always equate with quality programs, and low numbers do not always equate with lack of quality in the program.
“I think the local level is league alignment. The state level is competitive equity.”
*Based on 2014-16 classification cycle data