Nothing has been set in stone yet but curious and nervous rumblings have been emanating out of South Lewis County for months now.
These tremors have nothing to do with Mount Saint Helens but they are related to the former, and oft forgotten, Mt. St. Helens High School. That failed attempt to permanently combine Winlock and Toledo high schools in the late 1970s is just one mark on a long and growing list of grievances between the twin communities.
Now, like the yearbooks and memories from that short lived combined education effort, the cooperative effort between Toledo and Winlock in prep sports that’s existed in recent years appears headed for the dust pile.
Earlier this spring the Toledo School District sent a letter to the Winlock School District stating its intent to cease combining for high school cross country and wrestling beginning in the fall. That letter triggered a wave of rumors that bounced back and forth between communities regarding petty beefs and possible retaliatory efforts. First and foremost among those rumblings has been a fear from United futbol fans that the combined soccer program will also wind up being terminated out of spite.
Where cross country and wrestling operate as cooperative programs, the United boys soccer team is a true combo team. That means that while runners and wrestlers practice and travel together they compete individually representing their particular school. However, by its nature soccer requires more of a commitment with players shedding their school identity in order to fly the United banner together as a cohesive unit.
United is coming off an unprecedented run of success over the last four years that includes 62 wins, three league titles and three district titles. This year the team made a run all the way to the 1A state championship game. That history of success coupled with their recent time spent in the spotlight has only served to exacerbate the fears onboard the United bandwagon that the team’s loss in the state title game may wind up being the final game in program history.
However, Winlock superintendent Dr. Rich Serns has a different story to spin. While Serns did concede that there is a plan in place to terminate the cooperative agreements for cross country and wrestling, he insisted that there is currently no plan in place to split the soccer teams up for good.
“We’re definitely planning on continuing with the combined soccer team,” Serns said on Friday.
Back in March, Serns said it wasn’t entirely clear why Toledo had requested to end the cooperative agreement between wrestling and cross country. Things hadn’t changed much over the past two months.
“It didn’t really say. Sometimes combinations work well and sometimes they don’t. I think they probably work better with team sports, like our soccer team which has been very successful over the last several years,” said Serns. “All of us as district leaders want to provide as many opportunities for kids to participate in the things they want to participate in as much as possible. It’s just a case by case decision from year to year.”
Serns said that a final decision is likely to be handed down by the end of June when budgets are due for the following year. He also cautiously doubled down on his insistence that the United soccer program will survive the impending divorce of the other sports programs, noting that, “I haven't heard any information from anybody that they are looking at doing that. I mean, it’s always a possibility but I would be very surprised.”
If you read carefully though, you can see a crack in the foundation that could lead to a more serious split in time. Recently retired United coach Horst Malunat is one person who does not share Serns’ confidence that the soccer program is on safe ground. He believes that old grievances are coming into play and fears that the Winlock School District will decide to end the combined boys soccer program out of spite for ending the other cooperative programs.
“I feel like we’re going to have a pee-pee measuring contest and nobody’s going to win” said Malunat.
Malunat pointed out that there would be several seemingly insurmountable challenges to the soccer program if the two schools disbanded and then tried to continue playing separately. As a combination school they play as a 1A school in the TriCo League in the spring. However, if they split up each school would be classified as a 2B. With no 2B boys soccer league in the area they would be forced to petition for acceptance into a league in the Nisqually area. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that 2B boys soccer is played in the fall which means the sport would be forced to fight with football for players.
Malunat added that he and the other coaches and supporters of United soccer have put in more hours and effort than can be measured over the years and he would be heartbroken to see their labor of love evaporate into thin air.
“It’s a lot more work to make a combined program work than I think a lot of people realize,” Malunat explained. “I wish that the adults in this situation would use logic to make the decision that’s best for the kids but I’m afraid that’s not what’s happening.”
Toledo athletic director Grady Fallon declined to comment for this story, noting that all of the decision making process has occurred above his pay grade. However, outgoing Winlock athletic director Ben Suhriber, whose final day on the job was Friday, did not hold back when asked for his thoughts on the slow roiling situation between rivals turned awkward allies.
“I didn’t even get word about this until April but apparently this is something that has been considered since earlier in the year,” Suhrbier said. “I am not clear on why we are breaking up. I’ve never been told.”
He noted that dwindling participation numbers by Winlock athletes in cross country and wrestling has contributed to the likely demise of those programs but tried to remain positive about the future of the soccer program.
“When it comes to soccer I think that program is still a combine as of now. I think we have about a dozen kids here who want to play. At Toledo the numbers are very low. I think they only have a handful of kids who are interested. We’re trying to figure out a way to keep that program going,” Suhrbier said. “I think it would be a significant loss for the kids.”
Still, Suhrbier was obviously frustrated with the decision making process and the lack of input that both athletic directors have had to this point.
“I”m sure they’ve got valid reasons for what they’re doing but when people ask me I can’t give them an honest answer because I just don’t know,” Suhrbier added. “It wasn’t our decision, and I know it wasn’t Grady’s either, to change anything. And that needs to be known. This was not an AD decision. It’s always been above our heads.”
Rusty Jordan, the most recent coach of the Toledo-Winlock cooperative wrestling program had his own qualms with the way things have apparently come unraveled in recent months.
“I put in an incredible amount of work to make this program go. I ran practices at six different facilities this year and it’s incredibly frustrating to just have the plug pulled all of a sudden,” said Jordan.
Jordan noted nearly all of his wrestlers last year came from Toledo. As such, he has applied for the head wrestling position at Toledo but has not received word yet on whether he will be hired again.
“From my perspective neglect and a lack of communication led to the split. Toledo sent the letter to our superintendent, Rick Serns, and he chose not to respond. Then Toledo pulled the trigger and split away from wrestling and cross country. This happened without ever sitting down as a group and discussing what it would mean,” added Jordan in a follow up email. “One of my goals when I took over was to eventually build the program enough to separate the two programs. I told everyone I would like to look at it in five years. Splitting them now could ultimately end with Toledo cutting the wrestling program too.”
Jordan said he believes that the combined wrestling program was beneficial to both schools while it lasted. He pointed out that Toledo’s Andrea Jones was qualified for state this year and her only female partner for practice was Jeletsa Cuadra from Winlock. Without Cuadra in the program, Jordan explained, Jones would have been forced to wrestle boys who were 20 pounds heavier than her on a daily basis.
Ultimately, Jordan fears that personal vendettas are driving the changes that he believes will cost student athletes at both schools the chance to succeed, or even participate, in their preferred endeavors.
“This has gone on for close to a decade,” wrote Jordan. “I could write a book. It all led to Toledo throwing up their hands and saying we've had enough.”
For his part, Serns has continuously offered up a more measured response even as the uncertainty and frustration has mounted.
“Sometimes it works to your advantage and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Serns. “There’s been no discussion or any indication that anybody wants to separate soccer. The other two I haven’t formally responded to but because the numbers are so small I think we probably would have been looking at them anyway.”