Welcome to Alaska’s version of the English Premier Soccer League, where if you do not win a title the year before you are “relegated” down to a financially viable option in which you are better able to compete: the First Division, or if you are really unfortunate, the Second Division; and if you are extremely unlucky you are playing on the Sir McAlisters Footie And Chips Serving Lions.
Okay, my story is not as dramatic as that.
My story is financial, my story is enrollment, my story is... well, I am not really sure.
At last season’s Alaska School Activities Association State Softball Championships, the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears opened with a 16-8 win over Chugiak but lost in the semi-final to eventual state champion East 10-7.
The girls then blasted West Valley 11-2 and West Anchorage 7-1 to earn the chance for a rematch with East. All they had to do was beat Lathrop.
The Crimson Bears had the lead heading into the final inning.
They lost 7-6. They finished third in the state for large schools. East beat Lathrop 10-2 for the title.
The JDHS girls were one run away from that title game.
One swing, one bunt, one sacrifice, one error, one steal... one of any of these things and who knows what would have happened.
What did happen was that the returning softball girls were called into a lunchtime meeting last week and told they were playing in the small school division this season.
Parents and players were told to “suck it up,” according to one parent.
There were lots of tears that day.
A lot of players had spent the summer playing on all-star teams with one goal in mind: winning the state championship over East and beating Lathrop to get there.
Last week’s “lunch date” was a made-for-television, real-life “dramedy” gone badly.
An MTV production of Seinfeld mixed with Top Chef.
Adults telling kids they were not good enough any more, or so the youth perceived it.
“I was pretty upset,” JDHS senior Gracie Meiners said. “I think our whole team was pretty upset. We had never been small-school before and we have a really good group of seniors. It was pretty frustrating to find out we were moving down.”
In all reality, the decision was not that sinister.
ASAA looks at the enrollment of all schools.
If a school’s enrollment has dropped below or risen above the required enrollment for a sport or activity, the school is placed in either the lower or higher division.
It was automatic once JDHS’ enrollment fell below the 850 mark for the second straight year.
Football and softball are relegated to small/medium divisions by ASAA when that happens.
A school can choose to opt up.
If JDHS would have opted up, the letter would have come from the superintendent.
Juneau School District Athletic Director Sandy Wagner recommended to superintendent Glenn Gelbrich in June that the Crimson Bears play in the Southeast league.
She cited a division in the softball community on what was preferred and the financial cuts to the district budget.
“To have to send a team up north twice to have to play league games rather than Ketchikan and Sitka is a huge financial change,” Wagner said. “We figured we can save between 10 and 20 thousand dollars by playing in Southeast. That is just in the school district. That doesn’t include all the fund-raising money that would be used.”
Gelbrich supported keeping JDHS in the small school Southeast Conference.
“It was done automatically by the state,” Wagner said. “It was our choice to opt up if we chose to do so. There was no push from anybody to opt up so we stayed in the small schools.”
The spring ASAA board meeting finalized the decision in August but the team members were not informed until last week.
JDHS softball coach Dave Massey said he first discussed the move with Wagner in mid-June. At the beginning of August he was informed of the decision.
“It makes sense from a financial, academic and scholastic standpoint,” Massey said. “The competitor in me says that, come state tournament time, I wish we were in with the big schools. But while I would justify that feeling, I also could not justify the feeling of taking money away from other sports to do that.”
The JDHS softball girls had planned to petition the decision to Gelbrich. They first met with Wagner to discuss the decision and were told the team would have more games in at a better competition level than they had before.
To petition the decision, the team would have had to get the superintendent on board, the principal to sign off and agreement from all parents, coaches and players (some of whom were out of town).
“I think that it would have started us off on a bad season having our coaches and players in a potential conflict,” Meiners said. “I don’t even know. Sandy (Wagner) had a lot of good reasons. Our games in our conference last season with Wasilla and Soldotna were not as close as our games with Ketchikan and Sitka. I think that is what she was referring to. But when we were at state that is when we had our competition.”
The North Pole softball team also went to small schools. The Patriots had been opting up for years and chose to not do so anymore and are in the Mid-Alaska Conference. Their football team also chose to not opt up this season and plays in the SEC with JDHS, TMHS, Kayhi and Sitka.
There was outrage by some affected by the JDHS softball decision.
There was a rumor that just one representative from the conference would travel to the state tournament (not true, two still go).
The SEC has been dominated by Sitka and Ketchikan the past few seasons.
Sitka beat Kayhi 7-6 for the state title last year, their fourth in a row in which they compiled 14 wins and 0 losses at that venue. Last tourney they topped Kodiak 13-5, Eielson 16-1 and the Kings 12-8. Kayhi beat Hutchison 24-0, Homer 6-4 and 9-0 to earn the losing rematch with Sitka.
Kayhi won the 2009 state title, over Sitka 5-4. Kayhi won in ‘07, Sitka in ‘05 and in the final season before small/large school classifications, when all teams played in the same state level (2004), Juneau were the champs and Sitka received the Academic Award.
Since state play began in 1996, Juneau is the only Southeast school to have won softball titles involving large school opponents (‘99, ‘02, ‘04, ‘05, ‘07, ‘08, ‘10).
They will not have that chance in the foreseeable future.
They can work for one in the small school level.
The Wolves, Kings and Thunder Mountain Falcons graduated five seniors each last season, arguably the heart of their lineups, while JDHS saw just two switch their tassels from side-to-side.
JDHS lost to Kayhi a game or two last season.
The Crimson Bears side stated they “didn’t try as hard, they played down and they didn’t keep their stars in the game.”
It was, after all, a small school SE Conference opponent.
That happens a lot in Alaska sports divisions. A team often plays down to their competition.
To make matters worse, star pitcher Kayla Balovich tore her ACL during last weekend’s volleyball match against Ketchikan.
Balovich will miss the basketball and, most likely, the softball seasons.
Fans are already saying without Balovich they can’t compete, that the move makes sense now and that the injury was another reason the team should play down.
A loss of a key player is never a reason to step down... it is calling to step up, to rally around yourselves and to go out there and 10-run your opponents.
Make them better, which will make you better in turn.
The Crimson Bears can win a state softball title this season.
But guess what? They need to step it up.
They need to lift the Thunder Mountain Falcons, the Sitka Wolves and the Kayhi Kings up a level.
Because at the end of the season, when the title has been raised, someone will say they are the best in the state.
And they will be the best, in the “small-school” state, not the large.
There is a difference.
Fortunately the move to small school status was not a talent decision.
The move was money.
“With all the budget cuts this year I could not justify spending the money on travel to stay in the large school division,” Massey said. “And I am not sure I could ask the school system to justify that.”
England’s professional Premier League has 20 clubs. Since 1992 only five have won the championship: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and the Blackburn Rovers. They have not been relegated because they compete.
What is next?
Perhaps the Crimson Bears and Falcons basketball teams will cease traveling to Anchorage and save money by just playing around the panhandle.
Perhaps they will just travel with the varsity and let the JV hitchhike across town.
Perhaps they too will face relegation to the next tier down.
They have lost to Petersburg and Mt. Edgecumbe in the not-too-distant past.
There is banner proof of that on the JDHS gymnasium walls.
This coming weekend’s Region V cross-country championship also has a unique ASAA wrinkle on the 1/2/3A race.
The top three teams qualify for the state tournament.
However, one of them has to be a 1A/2A squad. So if Sitka, Mt. Edgecumbe and Petersburg finish first, second and third, the Vikings are relegated out and ASAA scrolls down the list until they find a 1A/2A team with enough runners for promotion.
Budget cuts also will limit just 10 runners per school traveling to state.
So you see, I really don’t know where this column is going or what to think about ASAA, budgets and sports.
I am buying into the conspiracy theory:
That big Government is taking away our SE budgets to impact the loss of large school sports classifications as a precursor to moving the Capital.
It is safer and makes more sense.