Responding to the requests of athletes, coaches and parents, the Sitka School Board on Monday voted unanimously against a proposal that would have changed Sitka High School's classification for sports and activities.
The proposal before the board would have put Sitka into the 3A classification, intended for schools with enrollments between 100 and 400. With 428 students, Sitka is the state's smallest school in Class 4A, which covers schools with more than 401 students. Juneau-Douglas High School has approximately 1,700 students. Juneau and Ketchikan (647 students) are the only other Class 4A schools in Southeast.
The Alaska School Activities Association recently adopted a special rule that would have allowed Sitka to choose 3A status, because the school falls within 10 percent of the enrollment cutoff.
Twice the board took comments on the classification change, first at an April 8 public meeting and then at a work session Monday. The overwhelming sentiment among high school athletes and coaches was in favor of staying in Class 4A.
At both forums, Sitka basketball player Mark Manuel spoke in support of staying in Class 4A, saying that Sitka athletes thrive on the chance to upset much larger Juneau teams. Each school has the same number of players on the field regardless of school size, he said.
"I'm the smallest person on the (basketball) team, and it doesn't bother me. I still compete with it. It doesn't back me down. I just compete," said Manuel, who - though 5-foot-3 - occasionally started for the Wolves last season.
"All of our sports, we look forward to playing Juneau. That's what makes us better, that's what makes us stronger," Sitka junior Camille Skannes said at the April 8 meeting.
At that forum, Sitka boys basketball coach Mike Blewett made a lengthy presentation to the board in support of staying in Class 4A, and at Monday night's meeting his predecessor, Bob Potrzuski, joined him in defending Sitka's 4A status.
Potrzuski, who was not present at the April 8 meeting, disputed the argument for 3A that was made at that session by former School Board President Fred Reeder. Reeder had stated that Sitka's boys basketball team was 10-90 against Juneau in their last 100 meetings. But Potrzuski said that even if that win-loss record was correct, the 10 wins were the most memorable wins Sitka has ever had.
"Even if we're 0-100 against Juneau ... I'd prefer that to being 100-0 against Haines," he said.
Potrzuski, who coached the Sitka boys basketball team to the state tournament three years ago, said he could not see how so much had changed in such a short time that Sitka could go from losing by five points at state to the eventual 4A state champions to a situation where people thought they could no longer compete on the 4A level.
Blewett said on April 8 that good athletes are made and not born, and if Sitka wants competitive sports teams they need to have strong sports programs from grade school on up.
Sitka would be the largest Class 3A school in Region V, which could cause resentment among the other 3A schools who would fear losing state tournament bids as a result, Blewett said. At the same time, he cautioned, moving to 3A would not guarantee easy wins for Sitka.
School Board member Scott McAdams was among the strongest advocates for switching to 3A, saying that it was unfair for Sitka athletes to have to compete against Juneau. McAdams compared the Sitka-Juneau competition to a boxing match between a heavyweight and a lightweight.
On April 8, Reeder argued that nowhere else in the country would a school Sitka's size be in the same competitive league with a school as large, by comparison, as Juneau.
"It simply is not fair for the smaller schools to compete on a regular basis with the large schools," Reeder said. "Try to give them the fairest scenario for success. This is not just measured in one loss column, but their aspirations."
At Monday's work session, School Board student representative Megan Lehmann was in the minority of Sitka students to say there was merit to being in Class 3A, as she said she thought the cross-country team, which went to state last year in Class 4A, could have a better showing at the state meet if it was in Class 3A.
One of the main arguments for switching to 3A was to allow Sitka wrestlers to compete in the fall schedule, as opposed to the lengthy winter 4A schedule that precludes wrestlers from participating in basketball. But Sitka activities director Lyle Sparrowgrove said the ASAA is looking into switching 4A wrestling to a fall sport next year anyway, which would end that conflict.
Earlier this year the Sitka wrestling team petitioned to the ASAA board to put Sitka wrestling in class 3A. The board denied the request, and instead issued a ruling to allow Sitka as a whole to opt down to class 3A for all sports and activities.
Among students addressing the School Board, the support for Class 4A was almost unanimous.
"People supported a move, but when it came to who testified the choice became clear," McAdams said.
In making the decision, the School Board also considered how a change in Sitka's classification would affect other Southeast schools, recognizing the move would leave Juneau and Ketchikan the only Class 4A schools in Region V - opening up the possibility the two schools could be grouped into a conference with schools up north.
Juneau officials were glad to hear of Sitka's decision.
"We're happy that Sitka's staying at 4A," JDHS activities director Sandi Wagner said. "It's the best for our community and our kids."
"I think it's good for our conference," JDHS boys basketball coach George Houston said. "Had they voted to go 3A, I don't know what steps the state would have taken."
Sitka School Board members said the issue could come back next year, and they hope there is further discussion by the student body at large.
Juneau Empire sports reporter Andrew Krueger contributed to this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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