When high school football kicked off Thursday night, it began a new era for the sport in the city of Bellevue.
For the first time in, well, since anyone can remember, conference shakeups have tossed aside familiar foes and fierce rivalries.
With enrollment reaching 4A levels, Newport, Issaquah and Skyline high schools left the KingCo 3A ranks and joined a new-look KingCo 4A Conference, which is split into Crown and Crest divisions. The three new 4A teams will join the Crest division.
Juanita dropped from KingCo 4A to 3A this season, giving the new 3A conference seven teams, one of which, Interlake, will be playing as a 2A team in the conference, and will participate in that classification’s playoffs.
As a result, Newport no longer will play Sammamish, Bellevue or Interlake, rivalry games that have been played for as long as Knights head coach Mike Miller can remember.
“It’s strange; those are some games that we’ve played every year since this school has been open,” Miller said. “I don’t see us going back to 3A anytime soon, this school is just bursting at the seams.
“I don’t know how long it will be until we’ll see those rivalries back.”
The Knights likely face the biggest transition of all the teams affected by the moves; Newport went 7-4 last season and reached the playoffs before being knocked off by Bellevue, but return only two starters on each side of the ball. The Crest division looks on paper to be the tougher of the two; games against Issaquah (3A playoff team), Skyline (3A state champions) and Eastlake (4A playoff team) will likely make for a bumpy road for the Knights.
“I think we were in a tough conference before with KingCo 3A and that helps us in the sense that this year is going to be equally tough, if not tougher,” Miller said. “It’s not like we’re coming out of a weak league to a strong league. We know what to expect.”
The Crown division features 4A playoff teams in Woodinville and state runner-up Bothell, which means during the conference’s cross-over games for playoff seeding at the end of the regular season, there will be no easy road for Newport to return to state.
“There aren’t going to be any breathers,” Miller said. “You have to be on your ‘A’ game from start to finish.”
While the Knights may struggle with the changes, some KingCo 3A coaches, like Sammamish’s Edd Webb, aren’t exactly shedding a tear to see the schools go. In fact, Webb may be the happiest coach in the league; last season Newport, Issaquah and Skyline defeated the Totems by a combined score of 155-34.
“Those are some great guys and some great teams, but I am not upset about not playing them,” Webb said with a laugh.. “We match up better with these teams, but it will still be a tough league.”
With the departed teams taking their combined record of 27-8 (and a state title and three playoff appearances), some may think the KingCo 3A league lacks bite this season. But don’t tell that to Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff, whose Wolverines are looking to return to the state playoffs this season.
“Honestly I think we’re in a pretty good league,” Goncharoff said, who led Bellevue to an 11-2 record and a state semi-final appearance. “I think Mount Si is going to be awesome and Liberty also will be good. There are some good teams in 3A this year, it’s really going to be a battle.”
One thing Interlake won’t have to worry about is where they finish in the conference. Since the Saints will participate as a 2A team, all that matters for the team is amassing wins.
“We’re used to playing those top teams, the Issaquahs, the Skylines, the Newports,” said Interlake coach Sheldon Cross. “All we need to worry about is that every week, every game is huge to us.
“Every other team has to be seriously worried,” Cross continued, “because there are going to be some darn good teams left out of the playoffs.”
Joel Willits can be reached at 425-453-5045 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.