Whether you describe it as bizarre or challenging, there's no question that the landscape Ashland and Eagle Point found themselves in once the dust settled from statewide realignment is an intriguing one.
When the Oregon School Activities Association denied each school's request to drop to the Class 4A level, that essentially put them in no man's land as the only Class 5A programs in Southern Oregon — and among only a handful south of Corvallis.
So what does that mean? It means there will be no more important games in the state than when Ashland and Eagle Point square off, if only for the fact that such meetings will be winner-take-all matchups as far as the OSAA is concerned.
When it comes to team sports, the Ashland-Eagle Point winner automatically qualifies for the state playoffs as the Southern Oregon Hybrid's No. 1 seed, while the loser advances to the play-in stage in the all-inclusive OSAA plan.
"It's bizarre, there's no question about it," said Ashland Athletics Director Karl Kemper. "We're essentially independent teams who have automatic bids to the playoffs but we get seeded on how we do against each other."
The oddities only increase from there, with some individual sports for the two schools aligned in a special district with the 5A schools in Eugene and Coos Bay and others aligned in a special district with the 5A schools in Bend.
And to make it all work in terms of scheduling, Ashland and Eagle Point had to call upon their Class 6A Southern Oregon Conference counterparts and those in the 4A Skyline Conference to help make ends meet.
"That's just insane what they did to those guys," said South Medford AD Dennis Murphy. "That's just so wrong. Poor Ashland and Eagle Point might as well call it the 'Left Out League' because that's what (the OSAA) made them."
As you can imagine, it's been an interesting summer for the local 5A teams as they've tried to prepare for the 2010-11 school year.
"We feel like we understand what's going on but until we get into this thing and wrap our minds around it, it's hard to imagine what it'll be like," said Eagle Point AD Brian Winter. "Whether it's a good situation or not for us, who knows? I think on some levels we're excited and feel like we have an opportunity to compete and close the gap a little. We'll just have to throw it up and see what happens."
The two schools fought for a spot in the 4A Skyline Conference for different — but legitimate — reasons. Kemper said his school district expects a steady decline in enrollment figures and has projected that Ashland will meet the 4A criteria before the current four-year time block concludes. At Eagle Point, Winter said enrollment figures weren't as much of an issue as often being overmatched on the playing field.
"It would've been good for us at this point and time to jump-start our programs because there hasn't been a lot of success in most sports at Eagle Point," said Winter, who is also the Eagles' boys basketball head coach.
The biggest issue the schools have had to deal with is in scheduling.
"It's been a nightmare," said Kemper. "I can't tell you the number of hours I spent working on schedules. I don't think it's us being a victim when you're saying Ashland and Eagle Point have a unique situation unlike anyone else in the state. There's no nice and clean deal for us like you'd have if you were in a regular league with eight teams."
"For us it was like building an independent schedule because we didn't feel like we could go all-in in all sports with the 6A programs," he added. "We had to go program by program to make it work. We were really left hanging on the deal so we had to be very creative in how we did it."
To wit, the varsity football teams at Ashland and EP will be playing against the 5A teams in Eugene's Midwestern League, but Kemper said those schools weren't interested in having their junior varsity and freshman teams travel as well so the local 6A and 4A schools here stepped up to fill that void.
"I can't emphasize enough how Southern Oregon, from the 4A through the 6A schools, has banded together and all the schools have really worked to help each other out, particularly Ashland and Eagle Point, who were asking much more than we had to give," said Kemper, echoing a sentiment Winter had as well. "They all could've said, 'Yeah, you're in a bad situation; I don't know what you're going to do,' but they haven't."
The bulk of Ashland and EP's schedules in soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball are comprised of games against the SOC and Skyline teams, with cross country, swimming, golf and track also aligning with the 5A Intermountain Conference schools. Wrestling will compete locally as well as with teams from Eugene and Bend, while tennis is aligned with the Midwestern Conference.
"At the end of the day," said Winter, "I feel like we've got a good mix. I know in some sports it's going to be difficult to compete consistently with North Medford, South Medford and Grants Pass and some of those really established programs, but some of our teams are really excited about playing those schools once again from back in the days of the old SOC."
A particular benefit to the sweeping changes made by the OSAA for Eagle Point is that everyone has a chance at the state playoffs, be it through automatic qualifying or through play-in games.
"There's a lot of optimism here, I think, and that's partly because of the opportunity to get into the playoffs," said Winter. "It's been a long dry spell at Eagle Point for team sports. We didn't have a team last year qualify in anything, and the year before only the volleyball team got into a state playoff game."
Winter said he anticipates that opportunity will help keep teams focused as they venture through their schedules, regardless of how many wins or losses pile up.
"It keeps kids going and keeps them going harder at practice when the playoffs are within reach," he said. "Obviously it becomes more of a challenge when things are heading south in terms of keeping kids motivated, but it gets better every week when there's still that carrot out there."
Kemper, however, said too much was made of the playoffs by OSAA officials. Ashland won the most SOC championships in the year before a move to six classes was made in 2006. It only gained in prominence the ensuing four years, but Kemper insisted winning titles isn't what it's all about.
"The whole thing about this deal from the OSAA and their committees is they throw you a bone about the playoffs but I don't care about the playoffs," he said. "That is not the big picture. The high school sports experience for most kids is their regular league season. That's what you remember, the rivalries and the rubber-match games between Crater or whoever that people get fired up for. Whatever injustices done (by realignment) are supposed to be balanced by the playoffs, but that's a disconnect as far as I'm concerned."
Unlike Class 6A, the power rankings don't come into play for 5A team sports until only 16 teams remain after two play-in rounds. The final 16 teams are then seeded by power ranking and placed in a state playoff bracket.
Individual sports have their own criteria, which typically involve placement at their respective district meets/tournaments.
Still to be determined is how athletes earn postseason honors since Ashland and Eagle Point meet with their Southern Oregon Hybrid peers for league matters but obviously don't compete with their 6A foes on a regular or league basis.
"The OSAA says we're in a league but we're not," said Winter. "It's not going to say in the Mail Tribune in the basketball or baseball standings that we're part of the SOC because it's not like we're competing against them for a league title. I don't know how the all-league stuff is going to work, especially considering we're all spread out, playing different teams a different number of times. It's an interesting dynamic."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com