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IMC: Here We Come

A sport-by-sport look at what to expect

   How will the White Buffalos do?
   Will it be fun to find out, or will the lumps be hard to take?
   After about a decade and a half of competing in the Tri-Valley League -- one of the strongest overall 3A leagues in the state -- Madras this fall is moving up to the Intermountain Conference and the new 5A classification.
   It's road trips to Bend instead of Beaverton, Prineville instead of Wilsonville. It's cruising I-84 to Hermiston and Pendleton, instead of dashes down I-205 to Sherwood.
   The classification change -- announced last fall but only recently finalized following challenges to it -- brought a lot of hearty gulps through the halls of MHS. Coaches in sports that had been winners in the 3A level contemplated how to make success translate. Coaches in programs that struggled at that level had to figure a step even further backwards was awaiting.
   Yet, after the initial concern about the move up, resignation soon set in. And after a winter and spring playing in the now-defunct Tri-Valley, most MHS onlookers came away thinking that there isn't a huge falloff between the likes of Wilsonville, Sherwood and Gladstone, common Tri-Valley powers, and Crook County, Hermiston and The Dalles-Wahtonka, future IMC foes. In fact, Wilsonville and Sherwood are joining Madras in moving up to the 5A class.
   However, there is talent differential fueled by enrollment between the likes of Mountain View, Summit and Bend highs in comparison to Valley Catholic, Estacada and LaSalle. While each of those three Tri-Valley schools have a sport or two they could compete in at the 5A level (Valley Catholic in softball and Estacada and wrestling, for example), they aren't capable of competing across the board.
   Madras should avoid that fate -- taking last in sport after sport.
   The general perception is that Madras will compete stronger in the interactive team sports -- football, soccer, basketball, baseball/softball -- than in more individually focused team sports, like golf, tennis, track and cross country. If that's the case, it won't represent much of a change to what's been taking place in recent years in the Tri-Valley.
   As far as numbers go, Madras faces a double challenge. It will be the smallest school in the new 5A classification, with 882 enrollment figure. The class ranges from 851 to 1,520. What's more, Madras High has among the smallest athletics participation rate of any school in the state. While the school's enrollment has increased steadily over the years, its participation level has not.
   For instance, even after winning the Tri-Valley League baseball title, being rated as high as No. 2 in the state and making the state quarterfinals, the Madras baseball program couldn't get more than seven kids to turn out for summer ball. Coach Kevin Cave had established a good schedule, with several tournaments, but the program had to be nixed.
   Those low participation numbers are part of the reason -- certainly not all of the reasons -- that the Buffs have struggled in those "individual performance" sports, like track, golf and tennis. The programs' shortcomings will be all the more obvious against the bigger schools, many of which specialize in those pursuits.
   Here's one onlooker's assessment of where Madras program are as the fall seasons beckons:
   Football - Under Coach Dan Hiatt, Madras has competed well in the Tri-Valley League, which in the past couple seasons has been very good at the top, very bad at the bottom, with Madras in the middle. In the IMC, numbers will be hard to overcome, though Pendleton, with just 933 students, manages to continue its historically strong program. The league will get four playoff teams. Redmond won't be missed. They've been a dominant force of late. Seriously competing for a playoff spot would be an accomplishment; getting one is possible, but it may take a few years.
   Following last season, in which the Buffs made the 3A playoffs before losing in the first round, Coach Hiatt had this to say about moving up: "It concerns me that we're the smallest school. Football is a numbers game, but we'll do our best and work hard and see what happens."
   Volleyball - Madras may have better luck winning an IMC match this fall as they did a Tri-Valley match in 2005. Last year's team went 0-12 in league, 1-16 overall. Last year's Buff team was very young. New coach Caron Smith hopes improvement comes quick. Mt. View and Crook County have both established strong programs. Like the Buffs, Bend won just one game overall last year. Success would be staying out of the cellar.
   Soccer - The IMC is not a soccer power conference, and Madras has shown steady improvement. The boys program won its first ever playoff game last fall, and the girls program has also tasted the playoffs in recent years. Though league titles are, at this point, a reach, the Buffs should be in the IMC mix immediately. Bend and Summit dominated both the boys and girls standings last fall.
   Last fall, boys coach Paul Brown viewed the jump to the IMC this way: "I think it will be fine. Competition in (the Special District 7 which the Buffs competed in) is not quite as strong as in the IMC, but we will hold our own and I think we'll rise up to the next level."
   Boys Basketball - While state championships have been elusive, state playoffs game have been an annual occurrence for Buff boys basketball. Keeping that tradition alive will be a challenge. MHS rarely has height, and against schools with substantially more enrollment, that will even more of a problem. Coach Evan Brown's high-speed/full-court press/platoon style is designed to attack and wear out taller, maybe more talent-filled squads. Both Summit and Crook County beat MHS, on the Buffs' court, early last season, when the team was still learning the system. Madras will have a senior-dominated team next winter, and should compete for one of the four state playoff spots. Redmond's departure will open a spot, though Mountain View could very well go unbeaten in league.
   Girls Basketball - Unlike the boys team, the girls are rebuilding. Second-year coach Becky Burchell has a talented leader in point guard Briana Stacona, and a lot of speed, but little height and little proven scoring capability returning. But the younger girls did get a lot of playing time during last year's 8-15 season (3-9 league), so improvement should be evident.
   Wrestling - Coach Paul Brown has built his program into one of the best in the Tri-Valley. Prepare for some culture shock. The IMC is a very strong wrestling league, with perennial powers Crook County and Pendleton always managing to rebuild. Last year, Hermiston topped all the field to win the title. Madras should stay out of the cellar, eventually win an individual district title or two, and build toward team success. If they can do it in the IMC, they can do it anywhere.
   Baseball - Madras may very well have won this league in 2006. They certainly would have made the state playoffs. But the Buffs had one of their best teams ever. The challenge now will be to stay at or near that level. Coach Cave returns a solid bunch next year. If the pitching comes through, this will be the Buffs' best shot at a league title.
   Softball - The strongest MHS girls program is on the diamond as well. The Buffs bring back nearly all of their state playoff team from this past spring, and most of them will still only be juniors. Hood River Valley, which dominated the IMC in going 16-0, will be leaving the conference. Softball was The Dalles-Wahtonka's strongest sport in last year as they finished second in league at 12-4.
   Cross country, golf, track, tennis - the Buffs have struggled at the 3A level as teams, though a handful of individuals found success. MHS will initially be pressed to seriously compete at the 5A level. Each program has had team success in the past -- including state titles in golf and cross country -- and a return is always possible, and made all the more likely as our community grows.
   Heading into the 2006-07 season, this prep fan would prognosticate the programs' chances as such:
   State playoff bound: Boys basketball, baseball, softball.
   Middle of the pack: Football, boys and girls soccer, wrestling.
   Toughest road: Volleyball, girls basketball, cross-country, tennis, golf, track and field.