Editor's note: Woodinville High School students Samantha Pell, Helen Lee and Nina Braddock collaborated on this article.
It’s all about the win. With 1,300+ students, 4A schools have the best range of students to choose from. 4A schools are in the elite division in high school sports—and it shows in the caliber of their players.
There are obvious advantages to playing in the upper divisions. Better funding, more press coverage, and increased skill level are just a few of these. But some perks aren’t as obvious. Just ask junior Blake Fernandez of Mountlake Terrace (3A), who appreciates another benefit: more attention--"from the girls.”
The majority of people living in the Puget Sound area associate high school basketball with the major players: Skyline, Bothell, Redmond and Garfield. Recaps of games are inclined to be about 4A or 3A schools.
“The sports coverage is pretty slim in general because of the reality of economics of newspapers, but they [the newspaper editors] put in stories and names of schools that they know people will read and be interested in,” says Skyline Athletic Director Ryan Gilbert.
Skyline High School, a 4A school, is widely known for its athletic programs. At a glance, Skyline’s vast resources and impressive equipment are overwhelming. As senior point guard Will Parker puts it, “Our facilities are unbelievable. We have four gyms.” The gyms, along with their recently updated weight room, provide a high standard for Skyline’s players.
Regarding the 4A-1A divisions, Skyline Head Coach J. Jay Davis says, “There are some really good 1A teams that probably would be competitive, but it [the idea of a 4A playing a 1A] would be the equivalent of our varsity playing someone’s JV. It’s just that separation of talent and ability.” This separation is what defines most 4A schools: such competitive environments, in which winning is everything.
The bar is high when you have “the best player in the state, and one of the best in the country.” Bothell High School’s reputation as one of Washington’s foremost basketball programs weighs on Zach Lavine, a junior. Bothell was ranked second for the 4A division at the beginning of the season. As of right now, they are headed to the State competition.
“With Zach comes a lot of recognition and there will be a lot more. … He brings a lot of notoriety. ... He’s handling it well, though, it’s only going to get bigger from here,” says Coach Ron Bollinger.
“I don’t feel like it [the attention] is overwhelming," Lavine says. "The pressure … you always need pressure to do good, so to me, it’s good pressure.” In a comparison of 4A to 1A schools, Lavine says that 4A schools must be better than 1A schools because of larger amounts of funding for the 4A division.
Junior Perrion Callandret, a transfer from O’Dea (3A), says Bothell’s facilities are on a whole new level from his old school. “Bothell’s facilities are way better. At O’Dea, everything is old. Everything here is new. It’s an underdog story for everybody who comes out of there.” Callandret also talks about how the pressure, motivation, and fans are bigger at a 4A level than at the 3A level.
Matt Henry, who transferred to Bothell from Granite Falls (2A), says 4A schools are on a whole other playing field in terms of competition. “The competition here is way bigger. The game is faster, and I mean, you don’t see guys like Zach at a 2A.”
While not as successful as other 4A schools, Woodinville benefits from the 4A level. Woodinville High’s Head Coach Jamie Rowe emphasizes that “The competition is great for the players. They get a lot of exposure playing in these high-level games.”
Woodinville’s John Villaseñor, a junior, says Woodinville's facilities “are decent. I mean, I thought they were great until I went to Skyline.”
4A schools are the best of the best. But Mountlake Terrace (3A) has another opinion. They pride themselves on hard-core defense and tough practices; they scrutinize films of their games. Ranked in the top 10 for 3A schools in The Seattle Times, Mountlake Terrace “values everything about the program,” according to Head Coach Nalin Sood.
Less attention from the press? More time to focus on the game? The 4A division may be the big leagues, but some 3A schools think they are better off. “I think it’s more the competitive drive that the 3A schools have to beat the 4A teams or any team in general so we want to play harder,” says junior Marquis Armstead of Mountlake Terrace.
The lower divisions, 2A and 1A, play for a love of the game. Because of their size, lower division schools receive far less attention from the press. This does not deter them from having aspirations for college level basketball, however. As Cedarcrest (2A) Head Coach Mark Prince puts it, “One of our goals is to get Cedarcrest on the map a little bit and to be known throughout the state as one of the top basketball programs.”
Attending a lower level school shouldn’t affect a player’s determination or competition, Coach Prince said. “If you have aspirations to play at a higher level, scouts and colleges will find you wherever you are at.”
Cedarcrest senior Chris Dowd says, “Regardless, when you are playing with your teammates, your friends, you are going to have fun. It’s about winning at the end of the day, but you got to have fun while playing, too.”
Fewer students means fewer players to choose from. However, Overlake (1A) Head Coach Justin Prohn makes no excuses. “When it comes to high school athletics, the talent that you get … you work with it. You build it into a team to the best of your abilities.”
Senior Dean Poplawski says, “The 4A schools, they take basketball and sports a lot more seriously. At smaller schools, I think it’s more of a fun thing.”
Regardless of division, basketball is played for the win. School size undoubtedly changes the playing field, for better or worse. Advantages in the 4A and 3A divisions lead to fiercer competition. But, says Skyline's Gilbert, at the end of the day, “It’s still just high-school sports.”
Authors' Note: To understand the varying levels of high school basketball programs, we sat in on basketball practices of multiple high schools and interviewed coaches and players. This gave us an in-depth, up-close, and personal look at some of Washington’s basketball programs, from 4A to 1A schools. The research for this article was gathered in an attempt to answer questions regarding press coverage, the different competitive levels and player perspectives.