WALLA WALLA - As the Tri-Cities go, so goes Walla Walla Public Schools, Superintendent Mick Miller said Wednesday.
According to reports Tuesday, the Columbia Basin Big Nine (CBBN) decided to delay a final decision on reworking the divisions of the Big Nine and convened a seven-member committee to meet Jan. 25-26 in Yakima in an attempt to reach a scheduling compromise to keep the league together.
Miller said that the committee will attempt to build a schedule that allows the CBBN to retain its current Class 3A-4A divide, but at the same time look at ways to keep travel costs and missed school time down.
Comments from Richland School District Superintendent Jim Busey to the Tri-City Herald last week had indicated a more certain division of the league.
"We actually have a tentative meeting next Tuesday. Everybody is going to get together and talk through this," Busey said last week. "If (the North-South split) is turned down, I feel the only option is to look at an entirely new league."
But Miller said the tone of Tuesday's superintendent meeting was compromise.
"From what I know, there's just a strong desire for schools, primarily in the Tri-Cities. to be split geographically. At the same time, there are other considerations as well," Miller said. "All of the other school districts in the league would like to keep it together."
Miller said the athletic schedule that will be most difficult to reach a compromise on is football.
"In a 20-game schedule that's (reaching a compromise) pretty easy to do, in a 16-game schedule that's do-able, in a nine-game schedule, that's tougher to do," Miller said. "That will be the point where there will be compromise."
If the Tri-Cities schools were to form a new league, however, Miller said Walla Walla would look to join that league.
"We travel regardless (of re-districting), we're an hour from anyone," Miller said. "It's easier to travel to the Tri-Cities, but we travel anywhere we go. We are linked geographically to the Tri-Cities, so it would be hard to see traveling past them for league games in a league they are not in, but we are working very hard not to split up the league."
Walla Walla voted in favor of the north-south split, approved Dec. 15 in an 8-7 vote by CBBN principals, but Miller said Walla Walla was not against keeping the league as it is.
"The part that we know is Walla Walla is not on either side," Miller said. "We voted for the north-south - it is beneficial to Walla Walla - but at the same time, our heels are not dug in. We are willing and want to compromise. We have too many long-standing rivalries to just give up."
Wa-Hi Athletic Director Don Wilkins said there was no deadline for a decision to be made, but scheduling non-conference games for fall sports would become more difficult the longer the process took.
"I've had Pendleton and Hermiston call me multiple times in the last week," Wilkins said. "They can only wait so long, they have to take care of themselves, too."
In a related move, West Valley opted to move down to Class 2A Wednesday, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic, reducing the number of 3A schools in the proposed north division to just one, Sunnyside.
According to the Herald-Republic, West Valley sensed isolation and uncertainty, which played a role in the decision.
The committee's results will be forwarded to another meeting of superintendents, at which point a final decision will be made.
The CBBN is not new to reorganization; the league switched to its current format in 2010 after previously consisting of the Cascade and Columbia Divisions, two divisions organized neither by geography nor classification.
The CBBN, first started in 1965, was originally the Columbia Basin Big Eight, consisting of Walla Walla, Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, Eisenhower, Davis, Moses Lake and Wenatchee.
Since 1995 the league has added six schools as schools reclassified or were created, including Chiawana most recently in 2009.
After switching to the current format, Wa-Hi's football team has struggled, going from consistently finishing in the middle of the pack, to finishing last in its division in the past two seasons, including an 0-9 record in 2011.
Although some have advocated moving away from the current home-and-away travel arrangements for boys and girls sports and for the varsity/junior varsity football squads and moving to a doubleheader system, wherein boys and girls would travel together, Wilkins said he did not see that as a viable option.
"Doubleheaders most likely are not on the table," Wilkins said. "It does put a strain on facilities; we don't have the locker rooms to handle doubleheaders. We would have to have four to five teams in one locker room, but obviously some facilities are better equipped than others.
"Nobody can convince me that you save anything travel-wise, and probably from the standpoint of gate receipts you'd lose money," he said.
Wilkins also said that a move to north-south divisions would not significantly help Walla Walla's travel expenses. During football season, Wilkins estimated new arrangements could save Walla Walla as much as $1,200.
"It's not like some of the numbers they've been throwing out," he said. "The thing with Walla Walla is, it really doesn't matter - we're kind of out on one end, and the same with Wenatchee, Moses Lake and those other schools. We're still going to have to travel. It's not like travel's going to go away."
What's at stake if the CBBN does split into two conferences?
Although there is the added difficulty in finding schools to schedule out-of-conference matches with, the primary loss would be postseason chances. In the current arrangement, the CBBN gets two guaranteed postseason slots. The CBBN then plays a series of play-ins with the Greater Spokane League for a third playoff berth, combining for three total opportunities.
This means that if three teams from the CBBN are exceptional, there is a possibility the conference could send all three teams, provided they beat their GSL counterparts. Should the league split, that arrangement will likely not be retained, meaning that if Richland, Davis and Wa-Hi all had state-caliber teams or competitors, only one school would get a postseason bid.
"I can't guarantee what would happen," Wilkins said, "but there's probably a good chance that our opportunities to go to state go from three to one."
Wilkins played for Wa-Hi when it belonged to the Columbia Basin Big Six in the early 1960s.