MILTON-FREEWATER - Mac-Hi will play its first postseason prep football game since 1996 Friday night when the Pioneers travel to Baker City to face the Greater Oregon League rival Baker Bulldogs in one of 16 Oregon Class 4A play-in games that will determine the division's field of 16.
How, you may ask, does a team with a 1-7 regular-season record qualify for any form of postseason play?
The answer is the Oregon School Activities Association's new postseason format, now in its second year, that uses a ratings performance index (RPI) to designate playoff qualifiers in addition to those that qualify through league play.
Mac-Hi's Class 4A RPI is 434.89, which ranks 31st among the 42 schools in the classification. The Pioneers apparently drew 6-2 Baker, which ranks No. 8 with a 475.89 RPI, because OSAA officials attempt to keep the first-round matchups as geographically logical as possible.
Ontario, for instance, which finished second behind Baker in the final GOL standings with a 5-4 overall record and a No. 9 RPI ranking of 570.42, entertains the Crook County Cowboys of Prineville in Friday night's first round. Crook County, 3-6, plays an independent schedule and is No. 27 in the RPI rankings with a 456.74 score.
But because there are so few Class 4A schools in Eastern Oregon, La Grande, the GOL's third-place team with 3-5 mark and a No. 23-ranking of 490.77, travels to Stayton for its first-round game. Stayton, located 12 miles south of Salem, was 4-5 during the regular year and ranks 15th with a 541.06 RPI.
According to an OSAA spokesperson, a team's RPI is determined by its won-lost record, its opponents' won-lost records and the records of each opponent's opponents.
In addition to its games against its GOL rivals, Mac-Hi apparently bolstered its RPI by playing a worthy non-league schedule.
The Pioneers lost at undefeated Nyssa, the No. 8-ranked team in Oregon's Class 3A division, and at home to Weston-McEwen, also undefeated and ranked No. 6 in Class 2A. The Pioneers also lost at 2-6 Tillamook, the 35th-ranked Class 4A school, and at home to Medical Lake, which stands 24th in Washington's Class 2A rankings with a 4-4 record.
Mac-Hi's lone victory this season came at Umatilla when the Pioneers defeated a Vikings team that is ranked 24th among Oregon Class 3A teams. Umatilla finished with a 3-5 regular-season record.
There are, of course, many who would argue vigorously that Mac-Hi doesn't deserve a playoff game and has no business facing a Baker team that is the defending Class 4A state champion and pummeled the Pioneers 67-22 when the teams met Oct. 14 at Shockman Stadium in Milton-Freewater.
Just don't count Chuck Pease, Mac-Hi's third-year head coach, among them. Pease, a former Pioneer athlete, is determined to restore his school's football reputation that has been tarnished by one losing season after another since the Pioneers reached the Class 3A quarterfinals under coach Barry Wofford in 1996.
"I was as surprised as anyone when I heard Monday morning that we had been selected," Pease said. "One of my assistant coaches called and told me not to collect the gear, that we had another game to play.
"And I look at it as a good thing for the program," the coach added. "It's a positive. This whole week is going to be a positive. The players, the ones we still have out, are enthusiastic and committed."
And despite his team's record this season, Pease is confident the program is headed in the right direction. The numbers, he says, are proof positive.
"My first year, we had 22 kids out," Pease said. "When we started this year, we had 54, varsity and junior varsity combined, and we still have 44. And we have good numbers in our younger programs. You have to build the base first. It's a culture change."
Culture certainly may be one of Mac-Hi's gridiron obstacles. With somewhere close to a 50-percent Hispanic enrollment, many Hispanic athletes naturally gravitate to the school's successful boys and girls soccer programs.
Pease recognizes the issue, but insists that he and boys soccer coach Jose Garcia fully support one another.
"Sure, I watch the soccer games and see some kids out there who could really help our football team," Pease said. "But at the same time, I am sure there are kids playing football who would be a big help to the soccer team as well."
Pease just wishes Oregon would follow Washington's lead and play its boys soccer season during the spring and not compete for athletes with football. That, he noted, would give athletes the option to play both sports.
In the meantime, Pease and his assistants will try to put together a game plan that gives them an opportunity to pull off an upset of unthinkable proportions Friday night.
Mac-Hi hasn't defeated a Greater Oregon League rival since 2004 when the Pioneers beat Burns 34-14 and Riverside 23-17 and finished 4-4 overall under coach Dick Bunker. Riverside dropped down to the Class 3A ranks that year and Burns followed suit a year later.
Mac-Hi fans who trek over the Blue Mountains for Friday night's game can count on one thing. Uncomfortable weather conditions.
The season's first snow is expected to blanket the Baker City area tonight, and the temperature is forecast to dip as low as 14 degrees Friday night.
"We think the weather will effect Baker more than us," Pease said, looking for all the positives he can find. "They like to throw the ball all over the place and we are more of a running team.
"We just know this is a step forward for our program," the coach added. "In a way it's unfortunate that it is Baker that we are playing, but then again maybe not.
"Who knows, maybe we are destined to be a Cinderella team?"
Contact Jim Buchan at firstname.lastname@example.org.