Community Education Sports

Gig Harbor, Peninsula could play in different divisions of same league next year

Posted on February 19th, 2024 By:

Every four years, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association reviews the classification of high schools across the state with the goal of creating equitable competition in sports and other extracurricular activities, like music and debate.

The WIAA’s reclassification of competition levels is based on size, with Class 4A schools being the largest and 1B schools the smallest. The 2024-2028 reclassification numbers were finalized in January and will go into effect this fall.

Peninsula and Gig Harbor will remain Class 3A high schools. But they most likely will play in separate divisions of the same league, meaning fewer games against one another.

Cross-town competitions will continue

The two schools will be part of a new 3A league formed by a merger of the South Sound Conference, to which they belong now, and the Pierce County League, according to WIAA West Central District 3 Director Joe Keller.

Peninsula School District officials did not directly address what the new league configuration and divisions might mean for Fish Bowl, the much-anticipated annual football competition between the two schools, or Fish Basket, featuring boys’ and girls’ basketball. But Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory said the district is committed to having “cross-town competitions” continue in all sports.

Factors in league realignment

WIAA oversees nine districts within the state. Each represents an approximate geographic area and is made up of multiple leagues aligned by classification (school size) and geography. Schools may petition to play up or down from their assigned classification.

West Central District 3 encompasses most of the Olympic Peninsula, Kitsap County and the South Puget Sound region.

According to Keller, after the WIAA issues reclassification numbers for the new cycle, athletic directors and league presidents meet to discuss the upcoming seasons. They may decide on a realignment of leagues based on a number of factors.

In this cycle, for example, enrollment changes on the east side of the state mean five districts there will now become three. That affects postseason tournament allocations, Keller said. The number of schools in a given league, scheduling and travel considerations are some of the other moving pieces league members consider as they come to a consensus.

“It’s not one person’s decision,” Keller said.

New league details emerging

The 2024-2028 WIAA reclassification reduces the Class 4A enrollment threshold from 1,300+ to 1,201+. The current 3A range is 900 to 1,299; the new range is 900 to 1,200.

Starting in the fall, 60 schools will play in the 4A classification, up from the current 51. The number of 3A schools will decrease from 79 to 73, with changes in other classification levels as well.

Keller confirmed that the South Sound Conference and Pierce County League will merge. The new league will have two divisions, pending final approval by ADs and principals of schools from both current leagues.

“It’s almost cast in stone,” he said.

Keller said he didn’t have details on the two divisions, but the Tacoma News Tribune in late January reported the likely makeup of the new North Division (name TBD) as Central Kitsap, Silas, Bellarmine, Mount Tahoma, Lincoln and Gig Harbor. The South Division could include Timberline, Capital, River Ridge, North Thurston, Peninsula and Lakes.

Advantages of merger

The new league is in the final stages of formation, according to a joint statement by Peninsula High School Athletic Director Ross Filkins and Gig Harbor High School Athletic Director Blair Suek.  ADs are “actively working on determining schedules and other league management decisions.”

The ADs with their respective principals (Mike Benoit for Peninsula, Michele Suiter for Gig Harbor), forwarded a joint statement to Gig Harbor Now through the district’s administrative office: “As we collaborate with other 3A schools in the West Central District, we are committed to staying in the same league, which is potentially expanding to two divisions, and choosing to be in different divisions.”

Playing in separate divisions doesn’t mean the two schools will never play each other. Typically, teams play twice within their own division and at least once in the other division, Keller said. Schools can also decide to schedule non-league games.

The ADs and principals cited advantages of the divisional split as follows:

  • Improved access to postseason for both comprehensive high schools
  • Increased opportunities for sub-varsity competition
  • “Fiscal responsibility.” District officials expect an increase in league revenue through league tournaments and crossover games
  • Continued opportunities for competition between Gig Harbor High School and Peninsula High School
  • Opportunities for schools to support each other at games and tournaments
  • Reduced travel cost for both schools

Questions about rationale

Earlier in January, the TNT reported on the league merger with a mention that Peninsula School District Superintendent Krestin Bahr pushed for separate divisions to calm rivalry between the two high schools.

Fish Bowl 2023, on Sept. 15, was marred by widespread unsportsmanlike behavior that boiled up into a near riot following the injury of a Gig Harbor player. Ill will and finger pointing on both sides prevailed during and after the game.

The district reprimanded both teams’ head coaches — Gig Harbor’s Darrin Reeves and Filkins, who is both AD and head football coach for Peninsula — along with several assistant coaches following an investigation.

The debacle following allegations in January 2023 of racist remarks during a girls’ basketball game between Gig Harbor and Peninsula. An ugly dispute among students and parents quickly festered on social media. An investigator for the district was unable to substantiate the allegations.

Separate divisions

The News Tribune in a Jan. 5 article noted it seemed odd that both high schools would be slated for separate divisions, given both lie west of the Narrows Bridge. According to the story, “multiple sources told the TNT that Bahr wants the two high schools playing in different divisions to limit how often they compete against each other.”

Not true, Bahr said in an emailed statement to Gig Harbor Now.

“As Superintendent, I did not request our district’s two comprehensive high schools compete in separate divisions. The Gig Harbor and Peninsula High School Principals and Athletic Directors made recommendations to Assistant Superintendent Daniel Gregory and myself, and we supported their recommendations,” Bahr wrote.

Fish Bowl still in play

Bahr side-stepped a direct question from Gig Harbor Now about the fate of Fish Bowl and Fish Basket under a two-division system, but left the door open for those events to continue.

“We discussed options for league realignment while maintaining the opportunity for our high schools to compete against each other, regardless of whether or not they end up in the same league or division. The current two-division recommendation aligns with what the Athletic Directors and Principals originally presented and we supported,” she wrote.

A statement by Gregory kicked the door open wider.

“Our district is excited about the formation of a new league and the opportunities it presents for our students,” Gregory wrote. “We understand that our students and our community look forward to competitions between our two high schools, and we are committed to doing whatever we can to continue these cross-town competitions in all sports.”

District tackles sportsmanship

Fish Basket 2024 went off without a hitch but not without a lot of advance planning.

The district has undertaken a comprehensive effort to rein in poor sportsmanship and promote positive competition, Gregory reported to the school board on Dec. 12.

Last spring, district leaders, principals and ADs did some soul searching on sportsmanship.

“We were not at a level we wanted to be,” Gregory said. “And we wanted to make a strong effort to increase our level of sportsmanship and have more healthy competition.”

The district brought in consultants, including a lawyer who specializes in sports liability, to train building administrators, ADs and school safety officers. At a sportsmanship summit in September, coaches, ADs, administrators and students from both comprehensive high schools got a template for creating a positive culture around sports.

Steps taken to date

Suiter was unable to make the Dec. 12 board meeting, but Peninsula High Principal Mike Benoit reported on steps both schools have taken to put experts’ advice into action.

  • Weekly meetings of leaders from both schools to plan for upcoming events, including the biggies like Fish Bowl
  • Weekly meetings within each school to review staffing and security for upcoming events
  • ADs from both schools have held parent meetings to convey the district’s expectations around appropriate fan behavior, including online
  • Coaches have received “safe schools training” and updates on referee rules, including a new “stop play” rule from the WIAA. A ref or school official can stop play if they observe or hear inappropriate behavior from players or fans. The game will be suspended until order is restored.
  • The district scrutinizes security before a big event like Fish Bowl and beefs it up according to the crowd expected and size of the venue. Officials communicate with families and students in advance about “expectations.”
  • Sportsmanship banners with positive messaging will adorn school hallways and sports facilities. ASB students from all three high schools, including Henderson Bay, joined to produce good sportsmanship videos. The district now has “sportsmanship covenants” as part of its messaging plan.
  • The district is doing away with themed events, like cowboys or construction worker games. They’ll keep it simple, “Go, Seahawks,” “Go, Tides.”

Fish Basket success celebrated

The school board on Tuesday, Feb. 13, heard a lengthy report on school safety, including at sports events. The district is gradually making upgrades to equipment and updates to emergency response systems in accordance with its 2021 School Safety Plan, reported Kris Hagel, executive director of digital learning. Funding from the district’s Safety, Security and Technology Levy and the addition of two School Security Officers have been key to forward momentum, Hagel said.

Hagel thanked school staff, students and parents for a smooth if spirited Fish Basket this year. Benoit and Suiter commented on the positive impact of the district’s sportsmanship initiative.

“Our district leadership showed up for us big time on all our games, and I really appreciated that support, as well,” Suiter said. “We just felt very cared for, and it was great.”

On the topic of event safety, Hagel reported the district has a contract in place with Gig Harbor Police Department. The district has an “ad hoc” agreement with Pierce County Sheriff’s Office and expects a contract with that department for next year. The district is considering and likely will move to a clear bag policy and metal detectors for large sports events, which is a trend nationwide, Hagel said.