WIAA tournament 2005

Connell and Medical Lake boys face off at left, as Chimacum and Chewelah girls battle it out at right in YakimaÕs SunDome on Wednesday. (BRIAN FITZGERALD/Yakima Herald-Republic)

willful (wil'fel) adj 1 said or done deliberately or intentionally 2 doing as one pleases; self-willed

arcane (är kan’) adj 1 hidden or secret 2 understood by only a few; esoteric

In a coincidence I consider both ironic and apropos, you can’t spell willfully arcane without WIAA.

Every year, when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association unveils its regional basketball lineups and, a week later, its state-tournament brackets, coaches around the state shake their heads and wonder why WIAA officials can’t ever get it right.

Perhaps they don’t know how. Or perhaps they’re satisfied with a bizarrely confounding set of criteria that often leads to championship-worthy teams meeting not in the title game, but in the first round or, worse, in regionals.

Last Friday, hours before his No. 2-ranked Zillah Leopards were going to play for the District 5 boys basketball title, coach Doug Burge was pondering the possibility — even the likelihood — that his team would insure a better regional draw by losing than by winning.

But Burge didn’t want to make a mockery of the tournament. He coached to win, and the Leopards won.

As Burge had anticipated, his team was “rewarded” for its efforts by the most difficult possible regional draw: top-ranked Lynden Christian, the only other team besides the Leopards themselves to have been ranked No. 1 at any time this season.

Burge didn’t need to worry about making a mockery of the tournament.

The WIAA’s “seedings” formula does that all on its own.

•  •  •

Five years ago, both the WIAA and the Oregon School Activities Association made sweeping changes.

The WIAA replaced its traditional 16-team tournaments with eight-team formats, primarily because of flagging attendance at the Class 4A and 3A events. The 2A-and-smaller tournaments were still quite profitable, but WIAA officials wanted a one-size-fits-all concept.

And they did it in a hurry. The concept was floated during an April 2011 study session in which athletic directors and WIAA officials were brainstorming ideas to improve tournament revenue.

A switch to an eight-team format was just one of several ideas being floated. One AD (who has never been vocal about the switch and wants to remain that way) told me, “I remember walking away from that meeting thinking about that idea, that somebody kind of planted it. And then, BOOM, in June the executive board approved it.”

The suddenness with which the WIAA made the change — in an executive board meeting, behind closed doors — contrasts starkly with the glacial pace at which the new format’s detractors have been able to gain any traction. The coaches association has maintained its furious opposition. A group of superintendents has been assessing support for a return to the 16-team format, and in a recent survey of 219 superintendents and their private-school counterparts, 81 percent wanted a return to the old format — and 69 percent were in favor of doing so even if it meant they had to pay increased fees to the WIAA.

Five years ago, WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese told me the only part of the state that didn’t favor the switch to an eight-team format was District 5 (Yakima and the Tri-Cities).

I’d say that statement was disingenuous at best.

•  •  •

Unlike those of the WIAA, the OSAA’s sweeping changes five years ago actually improved things in Oregon.

The OSAA switched to a team-seeding calculation in the primary “team” sports — football, basketball, volleyball, soccer, baseball and softball. Using a completely transparent seeding process in which the updated rankings (and the process used to determine them) are always available on its website, the OSAA ranks and schedules teams advancing to postseason play in much the same way the NCAA orchestrates its “March Madness” — in Oregon’s case, the top-seeded team facing No. 32, No. 2 facing No. 31, and so on.

Said OSAA sports information director Steve Walker, “It replaced our outdated system of predrawing our brackets, where No. 2 from this league is going to play No. 3 from that league and so on, from a draw that was done before the season.”

That “outdated system” is essentially the one the WIAA uses now.

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Contrary to what it might seem, there is method to the WIAA’s madness. At its core is the basic tenet that district champions will, at regionals, face teams that didn’t win district and not teams from their own district or league. A 1-seed should play a 4 or a 3, for example, as opposed to a 2-seed or another top seed.

The problem with that rationale is that not all districts are created alike, and some district champions got there by upsetting a superior team that would beat them nine times out of 10. If that upset happened before the district title game, that superior team suddenly becomes a 3- or 4-seed.

Like, for example, Lynden Christian’s boys.

•  •  •

The Lyncs, though, aren’t in this situation — having to travel 250 miles to face another of the state’s best 1A boys teams — by losing to an inferior team. Nor can they solely blame the WIAA for their fate.

They must also blame their own district — District 1 — which, largely to enhance state allotments in sports such as track, tennis and swimming, partnered with the Emerald City League of District 2. District 1 capitulated to the ECL’s demand that, in basketball, its league champion was guaranteed a berth in the bi-district title game.

This year, Seattle Academy’s boys and girls teams won ECL titles and advanced, without having to win even a single postseason game, into the bi-district championship, where both lost in blowout fashion. The Cardinal boys still enter regionals as a No.2 seed, while Lynden Christian — which in December had trounced Seattle Academy 67-35 — was relegated to No. 3.

The Lyncs fell into that unenviable position when they were whipped in the District 1 tournament by defending state champion King’s, which has been ranked a close third to LC and Zillah all season.

Even after that game, King’s coach Rick Skeen told me he still considered Lynden Christian and Zillah the top two teams in the 1A ranks.

“We still feel like we’re chasing both of those teams,” Skeen told me. “We lost four starters from last year and seven of our top nine. It’s a different crew than we had last year, and I think that’s what gives Lynden Christian and Zillah an edge over us: Their kids have been there.”

After Saturday, though, one of them won’t be.

•  •  •

Filling more seats at state tournaments was the WIAA’s expressed reason for switching to the eight-team state format. So why doesn’t the WIAA devise a system to insure the best teams make it to those arenas, to ensure bigger crowds?

Instead, it adheres to a system Oregon considered “outdated,” annually spewing out regional draws that make no sense.

The team Zillah beat in the district final, La Salle, drew unranked Medical Lake, whose seven losses include two to Class 2B schools. Connell, the SCAC’s third-placer, drew Cashmere.

So either Cashmere or Connell — teams Zillah has beaten by 53 and 54 points, respectively — will go to state. Either Zillah or Lynden Christian will not.

“We got the worst draw out of our league. You tell me how that’s fair,” Burge said. “It says your league and your district means nothing.”

On the flip side, Zillah’s girls — who lost to Granger in the SCAC district final — got a far more fortunate draw (Chewelah, 14-10 and unranked) than did the Spartans (Montesano, 21-3 and No.3).

On Monday, Granger girls coach Andy Affholter was approached by one of his middle-school P.E. students.

“Hey, Aff, how come you’re playing a team that’s 21-3 and ranked and Zillah’s playing a team that’s 14-10?” the boy asked him. “You’d have been better off to lose.”

Affholter’s frustration was clear the next day, even through the phone line.

“See?” he said. “Even a sixth-grader can see it.”

Which begs the question: Why can’t the WIAA?

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