Siuslaw makes tough choice

Concerns over potential dangers of fielding an underclassman-dominated Viking team against North Bend’s upperclassman powerhouse prompts administrators to forfeit this Friday’s game.

In the week before last Friday’s 43-point loss to Douglas during Siuslaw’s football league opener, Siuslaw High School officials were already discussing their concerns over the team’s upcoming game against undefeated North Bend (4-0) — a team that is literally and figuratively twice the size as Siuslaw.

It’s an equation that members of the Oregon School Activities Association Reclassification Board have been wrestling with for the past year in an attempt to level the playing field for schools within leagues where the disparity between school sizes has become more prevalent.

While watching film from North Bend’s last two games against Cascade (24-8) and Brookings-Harbor (54-0), Pool said there was another, more important equation on his mind.

“There’s always a certain level of risk when it comes to sports, but this was more like throwing our freshmen and sophomores to the wolves,” said Pool. “Not acknowledging that and putting the safety of our kids first would be wrong, no matter how unpopular.”

Of Siuslaw’s 28-man roster, 20 are either freshmen or sophomores, with only three of the team’s remaining five seniors available to play — and one of those only in his first year of football.

By comparison, the Bulldogs’ roster of 47 players fields as many juniors and seniors — 28 in all — as Siuslaw’s entire line-up.

Pool said, after a sleepless night, he contacted Siuslaw Athletic Director Chris Johnson with his reasons for wanting to forfeit this Friday’s game. By Monday morning, Johnson, along with Siuslaw principal Kerri Tatum and school district superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak were in support of the decision.

“In the Douglas game, we had one player who sustained an injury that means he will no longer be able to compete in contact sports,” said Tatum. “We don’t see the need to risk an athlete being paralyzed or worse for the sake of a game where we’re pitting kids from a school with 400 students against a school with 900 students.

“We’re not going to field a team by putting kids into a situation they shouldn’t be put into.”

Johnson agreed, saying that the love of the game and desire to compete doesn’t trump the school’s responsibility to act responsibly on behalf of its athletes.

“We’ve got a pretty talented group of freshmen and sophomores, but some of them are 100-pounds and 14 years old,” Johnson said. “Putting them up against 230-pound juniors and seniors isn’t being competitive — it’s being irresponsible.

“Doing that not only puts players at risk, it also puts the program at risk.”

The school’s decision comes amid an influx of concerns raised by a University of Boston study regarding the long-term effects of head injuries sustained from playing football, as well as autopsy results released last week suggesting a link between Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (ECT) and the suicide of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Those concerns, coupled with an OSAA districting formula that many school administrators agree needs re-vamping, seemed to be part of the reason for Siuslaw’s decision, Johnson said.

“Sure, those things are certainly in the public’s mind right now,” said Johnson. “But ultimately we would have reached the same decision whether it be today, five years ago or 10 years from now.

“Common sense tells us that the kinds of injury that could occur in this situation aren’t worth the risk.”

With a match-up scheduled at home against another Far West powerhouse, Marshfield, also 4-0, set for Oct. 6, Tatum said there is no plan to forfeit.

“We’re hoping to have all our players back from injury and to play that game,” she said.

The Vikings’ junior varsity team will still play this Monday against North Bend, beginning at 5:30 p.m.

While the Vikings won’t be taking to the field this Friday, Johnson and Tatum will be providing testimony, along with other school administrators from around the state, as the OSAA works to reach a final re-districting plan.

Currently, Siuslaw is on the bubble between 3A and 4A, with North Bend likely moving to the 5A and Marshfield remaining in the 4A.

A final decision by the OSAA is expected the first week of October.