ASAA gets mixed review

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

The meeting of the Alaska School Activities Association Board on May 2, 3 and 4 in Anchorage featured the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good news is team sports will be getting conference names that actually make sense.

The bad news is the atmosphere of the small-schools basketball tournament has been ruined.

The ugly news is a proposal for Ninilchik students to play football at Homer was not even heard due to an inexcusable breakdown in communication between ASAA and one of its member schools.

The good ASAA's method for grouping schools has long been ridiculous. For instance, the seven-team conference in which Nikiski and Seward play basketball and volleyball is technically Region II and III, District 3, Class 3A. However, Nikiski and Seward wrestle together in Class 1A-2A-3A, Area 2 South.

Starting next year, ASAA has voted to ditch the cumbersome names in team sports for ones that coaches, athletes and media can actually keep straight. Seward and Nikiski will play volleyball and basketball in the Southcentral Conference, while the pair will wrestle in the Kachemak Conference.

Except for team sports that already have conference names, like the Northern Lights Conference in football, all team sports will now have conferences with new, handy names. Individual sports will still use the region system.

As a sports editor who never again will be asked by a reporter why the coach said his team is looking forward to regions when in fact it is looking forward to districts, I commend ASAA on its decision to clean up its naming system.

The bad ASAA also voted, beginning in 2006, to combine the small-schools and big-schools state basketball tournaments.

Previously, the small schools played a Thursday, Friday and Saturday tournament at Service and East high schools, while the big schools played a Thursday, Friday and Saturday tournament at the Sullivan Arena.

In 2006, state hoops will be rolled into a five-day event at three different venues. Small schools will play their semifinals at the Sullivan Arena on Wednesday and their championship games at the Sullivan Arena on Thursday.

The packed, sweaty, loud and stellar atmosphere that the small-schools semifinals and championships previously enjoyed with 1,000 people in Service's gym will be lost when these small schools move to the 7,000-seat Sullivan Arena.

Since the big-schools tournament was moved to the Sullivan in 2000, the cavernous arena has proven too big for the event in all but the championship games. Many of the Thursday and Friday games, especially those contested in Class 3A, have more of a summer traveling team tournament atmosphere than a high school state tournament atmosphere.

If schools with over 1,000 students have trouble creating a raucous atmosphere in the Sullivan, what chance will schools with under 100 students have? King Cove (50 students) and Nulato (39 students) faced off in the Class 1A girls final this year. How many people are going to turn out to watch that matchup on a Thursday night in Anchorage?

About enough to create great atmosphere for a state tournament final at Service, that's how many.

The ugly Ninilchik and Homer failed to get the ASAA Board to hear their request for Ninilchik students to be allowed to play football for Homer.

ASAA's bylaws allow schools with less than 100 students to form cooperative agreements. Homer has more than 100 students, so Homer and Ninilchik need a waiver from the board.

The request for a waiver had been turned down by the ASAA Board one year ago at its spring meeting. The group from Ninilchik, including Ninilchik School Principal Mike Wetherbee, decided to tighten up their procedure and apply again this year.

Wetherbee got the signature of Homer High School Principal Dr. Ron Keffer, as required in an ASAA cooperative team application. The Ninilchik principal said he then called Gary Matthews, the executive director of ASAA, and asked him what was next.

According to Wetherbee, Matthews said Ninilchik had to get the waiver approved by Region III. The Ninilchik group got the waiver approved by Region III and again set their sights on the ASAA Board.

On April 28, just days before the ASAA Board was to meet, Wetherbee called ASAA Board president Jim Hickerson to make sure the Ninilchik group had all of its ducks in a row.

Hickerson informed Wetherbee that he would need a letter of support from Donna Peterson, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent, to get the proposal heard.

Wetherbee called Dave Spence, the executive secretary of the Kenai Peninsula School Activities Association. However, Spence did not have the authority to write a letter of support because he is not even a voting member of KPSAA. Furthermore, KPSAA does not set policy for the school district, it gives policy recommendations to the school board and superintendent.

The Ninilchik group went before the ASAA Board anyway. They were told they needed the superintendent's letter and reached Peterson on a cell phone on a Sunday.

Understandably, Peterson was not comfortable taking a position for the school district because she did not have any time to study facts on the issue.

Without Peterson's approval, the ASAA Board would not hear the Ninilchik group's request for a waiver.

It is a travesty that the Ninilchik group worked so hard on the waiver only to have it turned down based not on discussion of the issue, but on an error in procedure.

Wetherbee said the first time he heard about the superintendent's letter was a few days before the meeting. He should have heard about it long before that.

Matthews said that in January, the ASAA Board, on a trial basis, decided to adopt procedures to make itself more effective. One of those procedures was that bylaw waiver requests must have the support of the school, the district superintendent, the region and then the board.

ASAA's decision to clean up procedure is commendable. It's also despicable that a group working on a waiver request was not informed of this procedure change and, as a result, had no time to get a letter of support from Peterson.

"If we'd known, we would have worked on that a long time ago," said Mike Vanderford, the parent of Austin Vanderford, a student at Ninilchik School who would like to play football for Homer next year. "We thought we'd done everything we needed to do.

"We've been working on this for a year and a half now."

Vanderford said the Ninilchik group is not going to quit and will keep pressing to find a way for Ninilchik students to play football at Homer.

In the meantime, ASAA must clean up its act to make sure a group is never treated as terribly as the Ninilchik group was treated again.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be sent to

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