SPORTS: Costs keep Port Townsend in the bigger Olympic League

NOBODY LIKES MONEY playing a role in high school athletics.

The idea that Class 1A Port Townsend can’t afford to move from the predominantly 2A Olympic League to the 1A Nisqually League doesn’t sit well with some.

Unfortunately, that was the takeaway when Port Townsend School District Superintendent Gene Laes handed down his league alignment decision last Thursday.

A group of students, parents and coaches about two dozen strong gathered outside the district office Friday morning to protest the decision.

But that won’t stop the inertia of financial setbacks that forced the very same district to cut its middle school athletics program a year ago.

Port Townsend will stay in the Olympic League for the 2012-14 classification cycle.

And regardless of whatever other mitigating factors were raised by Laes in a letter explaining his decision — among them, established relationships within the Olympic League and increased time out of class — topping the list are the same budgetary problems that plague districts throughout the state.

“The financing atmosphere that we’re in is the worst in my [28-year] career as a superintendent in this state,” Laes said during a phone interview.

“I had to engage in the largest reduction in force last year . . . as I have in my career. We’re going to take another financial cut this year for next year [in the neighborhood of $160,000 to $200,000].

“We’re just scraping by. We get no state funding for sports programs, so it’s extremely tough to have such a high percentage of your decisions based upon the finances.

“When there’s some limited dollars there’s some tough decisions that have to be made.”

A majority of the head coaches polled by high school athletic director Patrick Kane — 6 of 9, including football, baseball and boys basketball coach Tom Webster — wanted to move to the Nisqually for competitive reasons.

The Nisqually is made up of schools of similar size, while the Olympic includes five schools with projected enrollment figures more than double that of Port Townsend (370).

The other three schools in the Olympic — Sequim (725), North Mason (621) and Klahowya (544) — are significantly larger as well.

“I think it’s a complete slap in the face to the coaches and the teams and the kids who did want the opportunity to compete at our own level,” Port Townsend girls basketball coach Randy Maag said of Laes’ decision.

“There’s a couple of different issues. One is there’s the obvious constant beatings that we’re getting by these bigger schools.

“It’s hard to get and keep players interested when they are getting beat on a regular basis. It’s hard to build a program when you’re not competitive at that level.

“The second part of it is if we do have a little bit of success we have no representation in the Nisqually League, so we get completely shut out during the playoffs.”

There’s little disputing the raw deal the Redskins get come playoff time.

Port Townsend often must finish ahead of three 2A schools in the Olympic League in order to get into a pigtail playoff to the 1A tri-district.

It must place in the top two to avoid that same play-in game.

That hardly seems equitable for a school playing above its level.

That being said, it can be argued — and it has by Laes and others who supported staying in the Olympic — that Port Townsend can compete in the Olympic League.

Redskin programs have been able to do so in the past, most recently when the boys basketball team won Olympic League titles in 2008 and ’09.

The Nisqually League is no picnic either, with the 2012-14 edition expected to include six private schools inside the talent-rich Pugetopolis. Those schools can, and often do, recruit athletes.

Cascade Christian won the 1A football championship in 2010 and was the runner-up this fall. It also claimed the 1A boys basketball title in 2010 and ’11.

Port Townsend’s football team has competed in the Nisqually League each of the past four years and has made the playoffs just once.

During the last two years, the Redskins haven’t even won a game.

“Teams and schools have rebuilding years and currently [Port Townsend] is experiencing this,” said first-year Redskin girls soccer coach Ryan Moss, who also once played soccer for Port Townsend when it was in the Nisqually.

“It may take a year, two or even three before [Port Townsend] has all teams succeeding, but this is something all high schools experience at some point.

“Adding on, if making the move to the Nisqually would make things more ‘even,’ then what happened to this year’s football team?

“They were experiencing a rebuilding year . . . and the same goes for the [Port Townsend] teams that have or currently are competing in the Olympic League.”

Maag, Webster and other coaches like volleyball’s Nettie Hawkins would argue they’ve been rebuilding for several years now.

And how can one rebuild when their program is the subject of loss after loss at the varsity and junior varsity levels?

Basically, it’s a chicken or egg argument that may not be answered during the next two years.

In the end, finances and proximity guided Laes to keep Port Townsend in the Olympic League.

All eight of the other schools in the Olympic call either the Kitsap or Olympic peninsulas home.

The farthest drive is 60 miles to North Mason in Belfair, as opposed to several trips across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the Nisqually.

Kane said his school’s annual travel budget would rise from approximately $33,000 to somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 if the school were to leave the Olympic for the Nisqually.

Students, parents and coaches offered to raise funds to make up for whatever the differences there may be in the budget.

Without any ironclad guarantees that the funds would be there, however, Laes said he could not allow the district to commit to spending that money.

“Arguments on both sides of this issue were compelling and emotional and there wasn’t a ridiculous point of view from either side,” Laes said.

“Every single argument had some validity.”

Added Laes, “My job is to make decisions. Not all of my decisions throughout my career have been viewed as favorable by everyone, but I’m not in a position to make everyone happy.”

Indeed, it appears clear that one side will be unhappy with this decision for some time to come.

It didn’t help that a student group that met with Laes on Thursday alleged he told them he was still undecided after the meeting even though he’d already sent an email informing Port Townsend coaches the school would stay in the Olympic in 2012-2014.

________

Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column regularly appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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