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The coaches at Cascade Christian High don't just like the changes that the statewide Oregon School Activities Association realignment have brought about.

"They are in heaven," Cascade Christian Athletics Director Dave Fennell said.

The long drives to Bandon, Gold Beach, Reedsport and Coquille? No longer necessary. Extra time for studying? Check. In the newly formed 3A Southern Cascade Hybrid, the only league traveling challenge for the Challengers is a trip to Lakeview, which Fennell said doesn't seem nearly as bad now.

"Everybody used to dread Lakeview," Fennell said. "Now, our coaches are saying it seems like a piece of cake. For us, we love (the realignment) because it moves us in a league that is closer to home."

The league is a potpourri of former 4A, 3A and 2A schools, with all but one of the non-2A schools located in Jackson County. Illinois Valley moved down from the 4A Skyline Conference, while St. Mary's and Lakeview enter from the old 2A Southern Cascade League. Meanwhile, the Challengers and Rogue River are introduced from the 3A Sunset, which now consists of Bandon/Pacific, Coquille, Glide and Myrtle Point.

Average Daily Membership figures helped determine the classification changes. ADM numbers are released annually by the OSAA and reflect the number of students that attend the school in grades 9-12.

Class 2A schools Bonanza, Chiloquin and Lost River may be part of this regular district hybrid, but will qualify for the playoffs through their league/special district. That means that Cascade Christian, Illinois Valley, St. Mary's, Rogue River and Lakeview do not have to play them, and any contests against them have no impact on league standings, championships or state playoffs.

"In our league we don't have to play any of the 2A schools in the hybrid," Fennell said. "Like in boys basketball, we have the option of playing them with our JV or freshman teams."

That said, the smaller hybrid schools offer many advantages, Fennell and St. Mary's AD James Joy agreed.

"For example, we can chose to play a school like Bonanza in sports where it makes sense for both schools," Joy said. "Volleyball and football, yes. But we could schedule a different non-league opponent that is closer like Hidden Valley and Phoenix if it makes more sense for us. It has the opportunity to work out very well."

In football, the top two teams from the Southern Cascade will automatically qualify for the 16-team playoffs. Once those squads are known, they will be placed on the OSAA bracket according to power rankings — and these rankings run consistently with the other sports.

Fennell said he likes the rankings, which are formulated by the OSAA through a combination of your team's weighted winning percentage, your opponents' winning percentage and the winning percentage of your opponents' opponents.

"You hope the two best teams meet in the final game," he said. "It is possible for you to win league and actually have the second-place team placed higher because they had a tougher schedule and are higher on the power-ranking system."

The league changes create some positive side effects, Joy said. With a better travel schedule, students at St. Mary's will have more time to study. And with schools aiming to cut their travel budgets across all sports, money is saved.

"On both sides you benefit because you get to stay in class longer, which is huge at our school, and you get back earlier," Joy said. "I know our teachers and parents are really looking forward to this from an academic standpoint."

Joy said he is also pleased that the classic league rivalry with Cascade Christian has been renewed. The two have not been in the same conference since the 2006-07 season, when they were both members of the 2A Southern Cascade.

"They have been a huge rival for years and it was odd not having them be a league mate," Joy said. "I don't know if the athletes who were in middle school a few years back realize just how big of a rivalry it is, but they soon will."

In volleyball, the top two teams from the Southern Cascade and two teams from Special District 2 earn playoff berths into a 16-team bracket based on league play on or before Nov. 2.

In track and field, St. Mary's will be required to combine with the Sunset Hybrid to advance runners to state. Rather than competing in a league meet, the Crusaders will now participate in a regional meet, with nine 3A schools combining for a chance to advance.

Golf and tennis will mostly go unchanged, Joy said.

In boys soccer, St. Mary's, Rogue River and Illinois Valley will play in the 10-team 3A/2A/1A Special District 3. Sixteen teams — including three from District 3 — will qualify for the playoffs based on league play before Nov. 6. On the girls side, Cascade Christian, St. Mary's, Rogue River and Illinois Valley are the Jackson County teams in the seven-team 3A/2A/1A Special District 4, along with Glide, Umpqua Valley Christian and Lakeview. The top two squads from the district will earn berths into the eight-team playoff bracket based on special district play on or before Nov. 9.

Both the 3A boys and girls basketball teams in the hybrid will compete in a 16-team bracket, with the Southern Cascade's top two teams advancing based on league play on or before Feb. 19. The local teams will now play most of their basketball games on Tuesdays and Fridays, as opposed to Thursdays and Saturdays.

In baseball and softball, 3A schools will play in their own leagues. The 2A programs will combine into a special district with the area 1A teams — Butte Falls, Prospect and North Lake.

In a proactive move, the Crusaders played most of their new conference opponents in non-league contests last year.

"Moving up a level can be intimidating because you're now playing against bigger schools, but our experience this year shows we will be competitive in a lot of activities," Joy said.

Fennell believes Illinois Valley — which was competing against larger schools — will benefit from the change.

"I think they will do well," he said. "It will give them more competitive balance. As their kids experience more success, it will breed success.

"When Rogue River dropped down to the 3A, they started having some success in football and picking up a few more wins here and there."

Looking back, Fennell said he had asked for a 4A/3A hybrid league.

"Going into the school year, our size is a little over 300 (students), so you have the advantage of playing tough 4A competition, but it doesn't count against you for league titles or state playoffs," he said

Now, Fennell is curious about what the future holds for local high school athletics.

"This is going to be a really interesting year from the standpoint of, 'Are hybrids a stepping stone to a five classification system?'" he said.

But overall, Fennell — and the coaches at Cascade Christian — are thrilled about the changes.

"We have a lot to be thankful for," he said.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com

Cascade Christian Athletics Director Dave Fennell, left, and St. Mary's Athletics Director James Joy sit at the Cascade Christian gymnasium. The Challengers and Crusaders will both participate in the new Southern Cascade League Hybrid this season. - Bob Pennell