NORTH BEND — The Bulldogs were at an unprecedented point in the school’s athletic history.
It was 2018 and North Bend had won 10 state titles in the last five years. Up to that point in the history of the school, championships had not been easy to come by. North Bend won one single title in the 20th century — wrestling in 1979. There was a brief run of success from 2005 to 2011 and now titles were no longer an exception but the rule. The school was up to 18 blue OSAA championship trophies in the awards case.
North Bend poses with its championship trophy Saturday at Mount Hood Community College. The state title was North Bend's first after moving up…
But then the news came: North Bend was moving to the 5A classification. The great success that had come with the help of being one of the biggest schools in Class 4A was now going to be tested as North Bend became one of the smallest schools in 5A.
“Well, of course everyone in North Bend thought it was the worst thing in the world,” said North Bend athletic director Mike Forrester.
The decision from the Oregon School Activities Association came at the start of the 2017 school year and despite appeals from the school, the Bulldogs were headed to the unknown of a new league and a new classification.
“The fear is we’ve been really competitive at the 4A level in a lot of different sports,” said Forrester. “We had a number of people come and say, ‘You know, we’re not going to win in anything.’ And of course that wasn’t right but that’s the fear that people have.”
After a year in Class 5A, and one state title to show for it, North Bend is ready to compete.
The quickest worry for the change to Class 5A was the level of competition. And while that was the first thing to come to mind for most, for Forrester there was a more pressing issue: travel. Before the move, the North Bend teams still had to travel far. But the two-hour treks to Brookings-Harbor and South Umpqua were made at least somewhat easier when paired with trips across town to Marshfield or up the coast to Siuslaw.
With the move into the Midwestern League, suddenly, the closest league opponent was now located in Eugene with the farthest league opponent located in Ashland (Redmond for football). The time on the bus for each team was slated to increase and as the miles went up, so, too, did the travel budget which was an additional $80,000 this past year.
Part of the upgrades from last year included getting laptops to go along with WiFi that was added on the school’s charter bus so that students can get work done while they are missing time in the classroom.
“One of the things we kind of prided ourselves on is not only are we successful athletically but our students are great in the classroom,” said Forrester. “I think there are a lot of schools that might maintain a decent GPA but their kids are not taking the toughest classes. But there are a lot of kids that are not only taking classes to get high school credit but college credit, too.”
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Despite more time away from the classroom, all 23 of North Bend’s OSAA-recognized programs finished with an average GPA of 3.0 or higher. This fact makes Forrester especially proud of not only the student-athletes at the school but proud of all those who play a role in their academic success.
“The teachers in our school have been great. I think if our teachers just said, ‘Well, tough luck.’ you know, I think our kids would be in trouble,” said Forrester. “And I think our coaches are great about making sure our kids are staying on stuff. And our coaches understand that we have student-athletes not athletic students. Our coaches are on top of kids' grades. We’re not perfect but we try to be.”
With the academics and travel in check, then there was the actual competition itself. At 697 students, North Bend entered Class 5A as one of the smallest schools in the classification. Willamette High School, at 1,253 students, is now a league opponent.
“I think a lot of people, whether the community, the school or the state, probably didn’t think we would fare as well moving up,” said North Bend head football coach Gary Prince. “But our kids, again, they played beyond their abilities a little bit, worked hard and had a lot of success.”
For Prince, and all the coaches at the school, there were two significant challenges facing the teams of the Midwestern League: not having years of research on the team and not having as many players as their opponents.
After establishing a history, game plan and understanding against teams in Class 4A, suddenly everything was new at the next level. Every scouting report started from scratch. And then, in a sport like football, Prince noted that they were now going against teams that had 22 different starters on the roster. These two factors changed how North Bend saw how their games were going to be played.
“If we’re going to compete, then we’re not going to win simply because we have more athletes and we’re bigger, stronger and faster anymore. It’s going to require more work,” said Forrester.
The on-field success for the Bulldogs last year ran the gamut. The football team was able to show winning was possible at this level with a 7-3 season. For Prince’s team, this continued run of success that has now reached Class 5A all comes down with only worrying about what they can control.
“We’re just trying to play good football. I always tell the kids, you know, we’re going to win and lose with the kids we have,” he said. “We won’t worry too much about the kids who aren’t here and that’s what it is. Just hard work.”
But other fall sports struggled as the boys soccer, girls soccer and volleyball teams combined for one league win. The swim teams continued to show the strength they had in Class 4A, each winning state trophies. Basketball, baseball and softball trended toward .500 finishes — Forrester’s girls basketball team and the softball team reached the playoffs — before the year was capped off with a boys state track and field title.
That crown was the 19th state title in school history and made it seven years in a row for North Bend claiming a championship. Despite the jump to the higher level, the Bulldogs seem to be doing all right.
“We’re not going to win as many state titles at the 5A level but when we have the athletes, we have coaches that are leading our teams and going to help us be successful. I think we will be able to compete in a lot of sports,” said Forrester. “It may not be every single year like it has been at the 4A level but we’re going to be fine.”