During the 2017-18 school year, the Oregon School Activities Association developed a program designed to breathe new life into struggling football programs.

Schools which had consistently had poor results in their assigned classifications, if they met certain criteria laid out by the OSAA’s Football Ad Hoc Committee, would be allowed to play one classification lower for a two-year period. The hope was for programs to enjoy more success, which could in turn help increase turnout for those programs and boost community interest.

“People were concerned about what was happening with the football program, if there was any way we could get it turned around,” said Siuslaw (Florence) Athletic Director Chris Johnson, whose team dropped from Class 4A to 3A for the 2018 season. His Vikings had just one win in two years —consistently losing by 40-plus points — before going 6-4 and reaching the Class 3A state playoffs this season.

“For the community it’s been night and day. It’s like we have a heartbeat again.”

Twenty schools, including 2019 3A runner-up Hidden Valley, took advantage of that opportunity to drop down for the 2018 and 2019 seasons with varying success.

In this program, schools with a 66.67-percent winning percentage or which had won a state playoff game in that two-year window would automatically be moved back into their original classification. Next fall, only four of those schools — Hidden Valley (4A), The Dalles (5A), Warrenton (3A) and Pilot Rock/Nixyaawii (2A) — will go back to their original leagues.

Among those schools eligible to drop down next season were South Umpqua and Douglas, who have had rough sledding at Class 3A and were granted the option to play two years at the 2A level starting in 2020.

As of Monday’s deadline to notify the OSAA of their intentions for next fall, South Umpqua Athletic Director Cody Watkins said the Lancers are staying put. Douglas’ decision could not be confirmed by press time.

“We talked to the coaching staff, (coach Steve Stebbins) reached out to the parents, and we just felt that we wanted to stay at the 3A level,” Watkins said.

Watkins said that while the Lancers program is full of youngsters now, it’s just a matter of weathering the storm for another year or so before the program gets a fresh infusion of talent.

“We have a handful of sophomores who started (on varsity) for us, we’ve got a good group of freshmen, and our eighth grade group at Coffenbury is huge, too,” Watkins said. “We’re going to hope the storm blows over and we get these young kids up and ready to go in a couple of years.”

The situation at South Umpqua is extremely similar to that of Siuslaw two years ago. A very strong group of eighth-grade athletes won their league championship, but as incoming freshmen — with a half-dozen sophomores and only five or six upperclassmen — it was rough sledding.

“We had lost a legendary coach (Tim Dodson), the offense changed a couple of times, and we had a class come through that really didn’t participate,” Johnson said. “It just made a bunch of sense for us to drop down.”

Living in Florence, I remember there being quite a buzz around the program about the incoming class of freshmen, almost every one of which were either starters or major contributors in 2018. I couldn’t wait to go catch a look at them and went to their home season opener against Elmira. Siuslaw trailed 54-0 early in the second quarter of a 74-6 loss. The rest of the season didn’t go much better.

With a new head coach and a new energy around the program, that turnaround continued, with Siuslaw flipping the script on almost every opponent from the year before. Of their four losses this past season, two were against Santiam Christian and Hidden Valley — state championship game combatants — and one was an ugly regular season finale at Sutherlin. The first was to that same Elmira team, which scored a last-minute touchdown to beat the Vikings, 30-26.

Despite their success this past fall, the Vikings did not meet the OSAA’s criteria to return to Class 4A. Given the option, Johnson declined.

“It just didn’t make sense to go back next year,” Johnson said. “The schools we’re playing now (in Class 3A Special District 2 North) are just about our size. It makes a lot more sense for us to stay down for now instead of going back and playing against schools like Marshfield and Marist and Cottage Grove.

“That would have felt like we were going backwards.”

At South Umpqua, the hope is to have the same kind of turnaround without having to drop down a level.

“The big thing was allowing teams to drop down and rebuild and get kids re-excited for football,” Watkins said. “If it saves the program, it saves the program.

“We have a good future here. With this eighth grade group we’ll have the numbers for a full JV schedule. The numbers are starting to get a little higher. It was like, ‘Let’s not change anything and see what happens.’”

Donovan Brink can be reached at dbrink@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4219.

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