When the Mountlake Terrace Hawks football team takes the field to open the 2016 prep sports season this Friday, Sept. 2, they will do so representing a student body that has been declining in overall numbers for the past 15 years.
The steady dip in student numbers has tested Terrace coaches – of football and in all of the school’s sports – in their efforts to build and sustain successful programs.
“The impact of the lower student enrollment has its effects on all sports,” said Nalin Sood, who has been involved in MTHS basketball for more than 30 years and has been the program’s head coach since 2001.
Student enrollment at Mountlake Terrace High School reached its peak in 2001 with 1,884 students, but has dropped nearly every year since.
During the 2015-2106 school year Terrace dropped to a recent low of 1,215 students in attendance.
The decline in enrollment at Terrace has led to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to change the school’s classification from 3A to 2A for the next four years, putting the Hawk sports teams in the same competitive grouping with schools such as Granite Falls, Sequim, Blaine and Wapato High Schools.
Fifteen years ago Mountlake Terrace competed as a 4A school, the classification for the state’s largest schools.
Terrace coaches nearly unanimously agree that with fewer students at the school now, the biggest change for them is in the number of students that tryout for the various sports teams.
“Each sport is different, but each sport is influenced by numbers,” said MTHS Cross Country Coach Todd Weber. “With 1,800 kids there’s definitely more of a pool to draw from. If we had 1,800 students in our school our numbers in cross country would go from 35 to 50.”
Sood agreed that with fewer student athletes, MTHS coaches face complications in fielding full teams. “We simply don’t have as many kids trying out and thus our numbers are down – which means less depth,” he said.
“Two years ago we had a bit of attrition and dealt with several injuries,” Sood offered as an example. “Thus it hurt our depth and, since our numbers were down a bit, we had to press some young men into varsity action that would have been better served continuing to play JV and work on their skills and increase their confidence.”
The MTHS boys varsity basketball team in 2014-2015 finished with a record of 6-14.
The decline in the overall school enrollment at Mountlake Terrace has had an even bigger affect on the tennis program. Coach Alberto Ramirez explained that coaches would have to cut potential tennis players from the program in the early 2000’s, but since 2008 he has only had enough athletes to field a full boys’ varsity squad and no junior varsity.
“It has taken a fair amount of my time recruiting at the middle school and at Mountlake Terrace every season in order to get enough players to field two small teams (varsity and junior varsity),” Ramirez said. “Every year we have to forfeit JV matches at the beginning of the season due to not having enough players with their required ten practices before the first match of the season.
“Right now we are relying a lot on students attending the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) program to fill our roster,” Ramirez added.
Despite lower enrollment numbers, there are some Terrace sports teams that beat the odds and find success on the playing field. The Hawk girls’ cross country team has finished in the top six at the WIAA 3A state championships each of the past three years, the girls track team has placed in the top ten at state each of the past four years and the Hawk football team competed in a state tournament for the first time ever in 2014.
While praising the high caliber of his runners, Weber tempered the recent success of his cross country program.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “In cross country, you just need five runners. We’re blessed that we go beyond that and that we’re pretty deep – both boys and girls – numbers-wise.”
The re-classification of Mountlake Terrace from 3A to 2A for the next four years will bring some new challenges for Hawk coaches. Terrace will continue to face all of their local 3A rivals during regular season play (Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood and Meadowdale among others), but then drop down to exclusively 2A competitors during postseason play.
“In the whole scheme of things I don’t think (the change to 2A) is going to matter too much – it’s not going to affect us a great deal,” said Terrace Wrestling Coach Grant Thompson. “The biggest change will be when we change from the regular season to the postseason and not being able to anticipate what to expect with the 2A wrestlers.”
Schools that Terrace would likely face early in postseason play across all sports include Archbishop Murphy, Lynden, Sehome, Bellingham and other Northwest Conference 2A schools, teams they don’t traditionally see during the regular season.
Some MTHS coaches think the move down to the smaller school 2A competition for the postseason may actually be beneficial in the long run.
“We prepare for each week’s opponent equally regardless of classification,” said Hawk Football Coach Kelly Dougan. “We feel like we can compete with the best of 2A and 3A, and could care less about classification. Ultimately, when we make the 2A playoffs we will benefit from playing 3A teams all season and will carry that confidence into the playoff games.”
While attendance figures at Terrace have seen a steady drop over recent years, the trend may be ending. Enrollment at MTHS is expected to be up for the 2016-2017 school year, possibly as high as 1,350 students once final figures are tabulated. And school officials believe attendance may reach 1,500 in the next few years based upon enrollment trends seen recently at Mountlake Terrace elementary schools and Brier-Terrace Middle School.
Even with an upswing in enrollment this year, don’t expect Terrace to go back to the 3A classification anytime soon. While WIAA classifications use to be re-calibrated every two years, the organization announced that the current school classifications will last for four years until the 2019-2020 school year.
So MTHS Hawk coaches, players, parents and fans can expect to see plenty of 3A competition during teams’ regular seasons, 2A opponents in postseasons, and a continuation of somewhat thin rosters on some of the Hawk squads for at least a few more years.
Recent Mountlake Terrace High School enrollment figures (from schooldigger.com)
1995 – 1,665
1996 – 1,665
1997 – 1,712
1998 – 1,819
1999 – 1,865
2000 – 1,859
2001 – 1,884
2002 – 1,812
2003 – 1,812
2004 – 1,756
2005 – 1,705
2006 – 1,691
2007 – 1,617
2008 – 1,627
2009 – 1,537
2010 – 1,479
2011 – 1,371
2012 – 1,284
2013 – 1,231
2014 – 1,244
2015 – 1,215
2016 – yet-to-be-calculated
–Story and photo by Doug Petrowski