Travel doesn’t daunt the veterans at Twin Falls High School.
For most of the previous decade, Twin Falls athletic teams competed in the 5A classification, and they played in a conference with Idaho Falls, Highland, Madison and Skyline. Highland was the closest conference opponent to Twin Falls, requiring a drive of about two hours, while the furthest foe (Madison) was nearly three hours away.
The Bruins dropped to 4A in 2009, when Canyon Ridge opened, to join a Great Basin Conference that included Burley, Jerome, Minico and Wood River. Travel decreased and rivalries heated up.
For the first time since then, the conference will change.
In October, the GBC agreed to add three schools from District 5 — Century, Pocatello and Preston — and Mountain Home. The additions will go into effect in the fall of 2018.
While every school agreed to the changes, one factor did give some administrators pause. Soon, the schools will get a taste of the travel demands Twin Falls faced throughout the previous decade.
“Change is hard for a lot of people, but it’s also exciting and challenging,” Minico athletic director Ty Shippen said.
October’s decisions were made for a handful of reasons, but there was one through line: state representation. Right now, the GBC qualifies 1 1/2 to three teams to the state tournament, depending on the sport. With 10 teams, they’d likely send at least three to state.
The state tournament benefits don’t end there, Century athletic director Steve Anderson said. The Boise-based 4A Southern Idaho Conference currently has eight schools, the most of any 4A conference, and it will have nine next fall.
The SIC’s size led to more state seeds than any other 4A conference, but that will likely change because of the 10-school GBC.
“The more teams we can send over there and make their lives more miserable, the better it is for us,” Anderson said.
Magic Valley schools were happy to trade travel for more state representation, so they welcomed Mountain Home and the District 5 schools with open arms. But those additions hinged on a few factors outside of the GBC’s control.
Right now, Century, Pocatello and Preston are in a six-school conference with Blackfoot, Idaho Falls and Skyline. In 2018, three more District 6 schools — Bonneville, Hillcrest and Shelley — are slated to join the 4A conference.
When the District 5 schools were finalizing their move to the GBC, Mountain Home wasn’t in the picture. So in essence, the District 5 schools were turning down one nine-school conference for another.
On the surface, this made little sense. Idaho Falls is about 50 miles north of Pocatello and 120 north of Preston. Twin Falls is approximately 110 and 180 miles east, respectively, of each town, so the move to the GBC added travel without improving their state tournament outlook.
The District 6 schools told District 5 that the relationship would likely be short-lived, according to Anderson. District 5 wasn’t being booted from the conference, but District 6 saw instability in its future.
Idaho Falls had to petition to remain in 4A for the 2018-20 classification cycle because it has the enrollment of a 5A school, according to the Idaho High School Activities Association. Skyline is the third-largest 4A school behind Idaho Falls (Skyline’s crosstown rival) and Canyon Ridge, and Shelley will be the state’s smallest 4A school in 2018-19. Bonneville and Hillcrest are dropping from 5A to 4A due to the opening of a new school, Thunder Ridge, in their district.
In 2020, several of those District 6 schools might move to new classifications.
The same six schools have competed in the GBC since 2009, and only Canyon Ridge currently has an enrollment near 5A. The District 5 schools were encouraged by that stability.
This past fall, Mountain Home petitioned to move down from 4A to 3A, but the IDHSAA denied it. Instead of remaining in the SIC, the Tigers tried to join the GBC. The Magic Valley is only slightly further from Mountain Home than the Treasure Valley, and the GBC has lower enrollments and historically less dominant teams than the SIC.
“We’re still actually gonna be one of the smaller 4As, but it’s a lot better than when we were completely outmatched, in terms of numbers, in the SIC,” Mountain Home athletic director John Clark said. “Across the board, it’s a good move for our kids.”
The new GBC will be split into two five-school divisions. The west pod will be made up of Mountain Home, Canyon Ridge, Twin Falls, Jerome and Wood River, and the east pod will have Burley, Minico, Century, Pocatello and Preston. Travel budgets will rise, especially when trips to Preston are involved, and faraway games can affect other other areas, such as academics.
“We definitely missed more school when we were 5A,” said Mike Federico, who was the athletic director at Twin Falls from 2007 until last spring.
But Magic Valley schools have scheduled Mountain Home and District 5 opponents throughout the years in multiple sports. Wood River’s road trips are long no matter where they play, and the same goes for the GBC teams traveling to Hailey.
Before 2009, Pocatello was the closest conference destination for Twin Falls. The heavy travel and late nights weren’t easy, but the Bruins viewed them as obstacles to overcome. And Twin Falls was the only 5A school within school within 100 miles in either direction, so it had no choice but to travel for conference games.
To varying extents, all 10 schools in the new Great Basin Conference want to be there.
“I’m willing to drive a little farther to be more competitive,” Clark said. “That’s what’s good for our kids, and that’s the purpose of what we’re doing.”