June 13, 2001 11:00 pm
START OF SOMETHING GOOD: La Grande High School's girls soccer team ran its record to 16-0 before losing to eventual champion Catlin Gabel in the state semifinals. The team made the state playoffs at the Class 4A level for five straight years but was 1-5. (Observer file photo/C.J. GISH).
START OF SOMETHING GOOD: La Grande High School's girls soccer team ran its record to 16-0 before losing to eventual champion Catlin Gabel in the state semifinals. The team made the state playoffs at the Class 4A level for five straight years but was 1-5. (Observer file photo/C.J. GISH).

By C.J. Gish

Observer Staff Writer

Class 3A proved to be the right fit for La Grande High School in more ways than one.

A year after dropping from the Class 4A level, where La Grande was the second-smallest non-private high school, the differences in athletic and activity competition have been phenomenal.

The Tigers ended the season with more hardware than a True Value store: three state titles, two third-place trophies, one fourth-place and two seventh-place finishes, one team advancing to the state semifinals and three more in the quarterfinals.

In all, La Grande had 13 programs end in the top 10. That success, coupled with a strong academic showing, earned the Tigers the prestigious OSAA Cup, which combines sports, activities and academic achievements and compares it with every other 3A school

in the state.

Last year, only four teams advanced to the state playoffs. The girls basketball team was the only one that earned a trophy.

Once the kids got over the initial shock of being demoted from the 4A, I think most of them have changed their minds about (the 3A) now, choir director Michael Frasier said.

Frasiers choir program, along with the band and boys swim team, brought home state titles.

We havent done a whole lot differently. It just shows how we do compared to schools our size, band instructor Jim Howell said. The secret of competition is to find people you can beat.

This more closely reflects who we are as a high school. Ive always felt this was a good high school; we just didnt have the hardware to prove it.

Frasier and Howell have consistently put together strong programs, but when they advanced to state at the 4A level, the numbers game took its toll.

We were majorly outgunned, Howell said.

And even though Dave Demings boys swim team was also a little outgunned numbers-wise at the state meet, his five swimmers had enough quality to outdistance the rest of the 3A/2A/1A competition for first-place honors.

To make it to the state meet regardless of the number of kids was an accomplishment, Deming said. We would not have done that at the 4A (level).

Over the past decade, La Grande had participated in one of the toughest swim divisions in the state. The 4A Intermountain Conference had swimming powerhouses at Bend, Mountain View and Redmond.

Last year only two Tiger swimmers advanced from district to state, so earning a boys state title and the girls finishing third was an overwhelming feeling.

I think we bring competition to the 3A, Deming said. From the swimming standpoint, all the coaches in our special district welcomed us. They knew wed be good competition.

Coming into the season, the kids were more enthusiastic than in years past because we knew we had a good shot at doing some good things.

Actually, not a single program backslid from the move down. Upon entering the Greater Oregon League, La Grande captured nine district titles compared to one last year in the IMC.

It was exciting to get to the state tournament instead of exiting after the first round (of state), volleyball coach Teresa Dowdy said.

The Tiger volleyball team would have probably advanced once again to the 4A postseason this past year, since it beat both Hermiston and Pendleton during non-league matches, but the opportunity to be one of the top eight teams in the state was worth the trade.

We beat Pendleton and they took second in the IMC, Dowdy said. But my kids were just as happy when we got 14-0 (in the GOL). And it felt pretty great bringing home the seventh-place trophy regardless of the division we were in.

Teams that have been on the bubble success-wise throughout the years, such as in baseball, golf, boys basketball and both soccer teams, were able to come alive.

The girls soccer team didnt lose a game all season until it fell in the state semifinals to defending champion Catlin Gabel.

From a competitive perspective, you always want to play the best, so I prefer to play at the 4A, girls soccer coach Alex Steenstra said. But these rules of (school) enrollment are hard to argue with, so I guess were where we belong. Id love to be at the 4A level, but itd be a disadvantage being a smaller school. Its fun now being able to go for a state title.

Both the boys and girls soccer teams, along with the boys basketball team, captured league titles, which have eluded them over the past few years.

The baseball team managed only its third playoff berth since the OSAA started keeping tabs in 1946. Last year, La Grande finished in fifth place in the IMC, one spot from a state playoff spot.

Theres nothing like success, because it breeds success, baseball coach Dennis Young said. More kids will come out for sports because they know theyre not going to get buried.

But once again, it could have been the Tigers year on the diamond even if they had remained in the IMC.

We beat Hermiston twice and they finished second in the IMC, Young said.

Both golf teams came on late in the season and topped it off with district titles. The girls went on to capture fourth at state and the boys finished 10th.

I could tell from the beginning of the season that these girls had a good attitude and they came to play, coach Candy Brooks said. This year we were playing with a caliber of players similar to our capabilities and skill level. It was still competitive, but it gave the girls a chance.

Boys golf coach Don McAndie could sense a change in play, too.

(The move) was more relaxing. We didnt seem to be under as much pressure, he said. The intensity was still there, but we knew we had a good shot (to succeed) and that helped.

La Grande athletic director Verl Miller pointed out that another big advantage in the move has been less time missed from school and shorter road trips.

Our students are more successful because they spend less time out of the classroom, he said. And were saving money in transportation.

With positive results being reflected in academics, athletics and other activities, school spirit took a dramatic upswing.

Im happy the kids have had the opportunity to experience success. It helps the whole tone at school, former football coach Orv Goddard said. It develops school and community pride. Its all been very positive.