Mac-Hi's plight depicted in OSAA program

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WALLA WALLA - Sitting court side in the Pendleton Convention Center a couple of weeks ago and awaiting the tipoff of Weston-McEwen's first game at the boys Class 2A state basketball tournament, I spent a few minutes browsing through the Oregon School Activities Association's state basketball program.

And in the centerfold, I discovered a full-color state map that designated the location of each and every OSAA-affiliated high school. And each school was denoted by a symbol that indicated which enrollment classification it belonged to.

Additionally, on the pages just before and just after the state map, schools were catalogued by classification and further broken down into the leagues they belonged. And every school's current enrollment figure was also listed.

It was all very informative.

All told, the OSAA has 283 member high schools that compete in six enrollment classifications spread across 37 leagues. These figures do not include four charter schools and one other high school with no district designation.

Interestingly, the classification with the greatest number of schools is also the smallest, Class 1A, which is capped at 105 students. There are 76 Class 1A schools that compete in eight leagues.

The smallest in number is Class 5A with 37 schools. Class 5A ranges from 870 students to 1,479 and includes just three leagues, although a number of 5A schools participate in hybrid leagues that are a blend of Class 6A, Class 5A and, in one case, Class 4A schools.

As I studied the classification breakdowns, enrollment figures, league affiliations and map locations, I was startled by one unhappy fact that I was, on one hand, aware of but, on the other, never fully appreciative of.

Mac-Hi, our good neighbor just south of the border, truly is between a rock and a hard place.

I sincerely doubt that there is another high school in the entire state that finds itself more isolated than does the one in Milton-Freewater.

With an enrollment of 496, Mac-Hi is positioned in Class 4A, which ranges from 400 to 869 students. While the Pioneers aren't the smallest school in their classification - 11 of the 43 Class 4A high schools list fewer students - they are clearly the smallest in the four-school Greater Oregon League.

Baker High in Baker City has 621 students, La Grande has 623 and Ontario is by far the largest with an enrollment of 766, which is 270 students more than Mac-Hi.

For the record, this disparity hasn't been a negative factor across the board in Mac-Hi's ability to compete in the GOL.

The Pioneers, in fact, have dominated in boys soccer, they are the defending league champs in girls soccer and they have reached the playoffs as recently as last year in softball and the year before that in baseball. Likewise, Mac-Hi has long been a wrestling stronghold, although wrestling, like cross country in the fall and track and field, tennis and golf in the spring, is considered an individual sport where any lack of team success doesn't block athletes from the postseason experience.

But it has been an altogether different story in football and basketball, which are arguably the two highest profile prep sports in the state. Mac-Hi hasn't qualified for postseason play in football since 1996, and the Pioneers haven't reached the state basketball playoffs, boys or girls, since 1995.

And when you consider that three of the four GOL teams advance to the postseason, Mac-Hi's is a pretty sorry record.

But what to do?

Simply stated, there are no Class 4A options.

The next-closest Class 4A school is Crook County, which is located in Prineville approximately 250 miles southwest of M-F. Madras, Sisters and La Pine are three other Central Oregon 4A schools located near Bend on the eastern slope of the Cascade range.

For whatever reason, Crook County, with an enrollment of 782, is trying to make a go of it in the hybrid Intermountain Conference with the likes of Class 6A Redmond (1,800), and a trio of Class 5A Bend high schools, Mountain View (1,330), Summit (1,292) and Bend (1,394).

Madras, enrollment 783, looks west to the Tri-Valley Conference and partners with Estacada, Gladstone, La Salle, Molalla and North Marion, schools on Portland's eastern fringe.

La Pine (495) and Sisters (502) play farther south in the Sky-Em League with Cottage Grove (779), Sweet Home (723), Junction City (517) and Elmira (428), all four located in the I-5 Corridor near Eugene.

Enrollmentwise, Mac-Hi would probably best fit in the Class 4A Far West League, where Brookings-Harbor is the largest school with 519 students and Douglas is the smallest with 431. But the six Far West schools are just that, located on or near the southern Oregon coast.

Mac-Hi fans - not to mention taxpayers - no doubt figure the Pioneers are already putting too many miles on the team bus playing in the GOL. La Grande, 78 miles away, is Mac-Hi's nearest league rival. It's 116 miles to Baker City, and a round trip to Ontario puts 368 miles on the old odometer.

The only Eastern Oregon options are to play up in the Class 5A Columbia River Conference with Hermiston (1,411), Hood River (1,228), Pendleton (906) and The Dalles-Wahtonka (947), which would make absolutely no sense, or play down in either the Class 3A Eastern Oregon League or the Class 2A Blue Mountain Conference.

The Eastern Oregon League consists of Umatilla (365), Nyssa (316), Burns (281), Vale (264), Riverside (247) and Grant Union (222), all schools that Mac-Hi has been competitive with in past settings. But there would be little to gain since schools that play down are ineligible for the playoffs in that classification.

Mac-Hi could also opt to play an independent schedule if it was willing to forfeit postseason eligibility. Which, some might argue, it's already doing in football and basketball as a member of the GOL.

A better plan, according to athletic director Bryan Miller, is for everyone at Mac-Hi to roll up their sleeves and get to work at improving those programs from the ground up. Miller holds up Mac-Hi's successful soccer programs as examples of what can be achieved.

"In order to compete against these bigger schools, you have to prepare," Miller said. "In soccer, our kids start playing together in the fifth and sixth grades, and they stick together all the way up to high school."

Likewise, Miller suggested, aggressive summer baseball and softball programs in Milton-Freewater are proving to be excellent feeder programs for the high school.

The same approach can help turn things around in football and basketball, Miller said.

"We've already started in football," he said. "We now have one coaching staff from middle school through high school, where on any given day the quarterback coach or some other specialty coach from the high school will go down and work with the middle school kids.

"What we are trying to do is get more uniformity in the program."

As for basketball, Miller said, Central Middle School principal Bruce Neil is in the process of developing a program that will involve both middle school and elementary school students in team competition as well as weekend skills sessions.

"The whole idea is to get a head start on learning basketball skills," Miller said.

It may be the Pioneers last, best option.

With an enrollment figure that is 100 students more than the cutoff between Class 3A and 4A and more than 100 students fewer than its closest GOL rival, and with no anticipated change in sight, Mac-Hi appears to be stuck where it's at.

Between a rock and a hard place.

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