Beginning next year, the Echo Cougars will be competing in a new league.

The Oregon School Activities Association recently approved a new classification format to be used for the next four years, starting with the 2014-15 school year. The Echo Cougars will be making the biggest transition of the area schools as they will be joining the 1A Old Oregon League.

Currently, there are 105 1A schools in Oregon, more than double of any other classification. To create more of a balance between the 1A and other classifications, in its recent decision, the OSAA reduced the number of 1A schools to 90, Echo Principal and Athletic Director Jake Bacon said.

“The 1A classification is unique,” Bacon said. “There are so many more schools in this classification than any of the others. There’s a big fluctuation of school enrollment in the smaller schools in eastern Oregon, which makes it a constant battle.”

Dropping the number of 1A schools to 90 didn’t impact Echo as it will still compete at the 1A level. The OSAA decided to re-district the 90 schools in its 1A classification and that is where the changes for Echo took place.

The Cougars currently play in the 1A Big Sky League for all sports except football. The Cougar football team plays in a special district made up of some schools from the Big Sky League.

The special district is needed because not all Big Sky League schools have football programs. Echo has been a part of the Big Sky League since its creation.

The current members of Big Sky League are the Condon Knights, the Dufur Rangers, Ione Cardinals, South Wasco County Redsides, Central Christian Tigers, Sherman Huskies, Griswold Grizzlies, Arlington Honkers and the Horizon Christian Hawks.

The Old Oregon League the Cougars will be joining next season will include the Griswold Grizzlies, the Joseph Eagles, Nixyaawii Eagles, Pine Eagle Spartans, Powder Valley Badgers and the Wallowa Cougars.

The Cougars’ new league schedule will likely include more travel time with seasonal trips to Wallowa, Halfway and Joseph on the schedule. Those schools are at least two hours from Echo, with Joseph and Halfway each closer to three hours away. Bacon said more travel isn’t actually the case.

“When I first saw the new league proposal, I thought the travel would be too much,” Bacon said. “After researching how often our teams would actually be traveling to these new locations, I determined it’s about the same as when Echo played in the Big Sky.”

One concern Bacon expressed was more travel time in the snow.

“Unfortunately, someone is going to have to do it,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable. We’d rather not do it, but it makes the most sense for us to do it.”

Another issue for Bacon was Echo losing out on the league rivalries the school has built up during the last 50 years.

“We’re losing some great league match-ups,” he said. “They’ve been around as long as I can remember. It’s special for the people of this community.”

Those rivalries won’t be totally lost however.

“All we are really doing is flipping our league and non-league schedules,” Bacon said. “We’ll still get to play the same schools we’ve always played. Even though they won’t be league games, those rivalries will still exist. It will actually make a lot of our non-league games much closer, which will help to eliminate some of the travel expenses.”

Bacon said if Echo had its way it would stay in the Big Sky League but noted the move wouldn’t be as problematic for the school as first anticipated.

“We’d have liked to stay where we were, but it makes a lot of sense for us to join the Old Oregon League logistically and athletically, as well,” Bacon said.

Echo’s move to the Old Oregon League has already been approved. The last matter of business is for the OSAA is to formulate a plan for schools that play 1A football.

Currently, the Echo football team and volleyball team play at the same location on the same day to help limit travel costs.

Under the new format, that wouldn’t be the case. The football program will compete in a special district that looks much like the current Big Sky League, while the volleyball team will compete in the Old Oregon League.

“Now we’ll have football and volleyball going separate directions on Friday nights,” Bacon said. “That means double cost for our school district. Smaller schools like Echo can’t handle that financial burden.”

Bacon helped create a new proposal that is more cost-effective for Echo and other local schools.

“The current special district proposal has eight special districts,” he said. “With the move down to 90 1A schools, seven districts makes more sense.”

In Bacon’s plan, each of the seven districts would get two seeds into the 16-team state tournament, with the two leftover seeds going to the two highest-ranked teams not already in the bracket according to RPI ranking.

Bacon said the OSAA will meet three more times on the matter of specials districts. For now, Echo is moving ahead with its plan to join the Old Oregon League.

“We’ve begun talks with the Old Oregon League in regards to scheduling,” Bacon said. “We have a great working relationship with the schools in that league already. At the end of the day, we wish we could have stayed in the Big Sky, but it’s not the end of the world. Everything is going to work out just fine.”

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