Juan Llamas' players trickled out of class as the clock neared 10:30 a.m. on a recent October Tuesday. Llamas is the head boys soccer coach at McKay High School in Salem.
Boys in blue windbreakers shuffled through the empty hallways, bags slung over shoulders. Llamas greeted them warmly.
“I like your tie,” he’d say, pointing to their bare necks. (They’re supposed to wear ties on game day, Llamas said.)
A charter bus idled in the parking lot ready to take the team 130 miles through the Cascades into the high desert of Central Oregon, where they would play Bend’s Summit High School, the second-ranked team in the state.
Midweek trips over the mountains are becoming routine for McKay and seven other high schools from Salem and Bend who, for at least the next four years, find themselves in the same athletic league.
The Oregon School Activities Association (or OSAA), the independent nonprofit that governs school sports in the state, adjusts athletic leagues every four years to accommodate enrollment changes.
Deschutes County schools Bend, Mountain View and Summit have outgrown their local competition, forcing them to look west of the Cascades. Salem schools had what some saw as the misfortune of being the closest evenly matched opponent to Bend.
Long-distance travel is part of the deal for student-athletes in Oregon and across the American West. States are just bigger here.
But that travel has long been reserved for sparsely populated areas — those sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of towns — not cities like Salem and Bend.
Like overcrowded schools, the new league arrangement is another side effect of how Oregon is changing. The state continues to grow and its population centers are growing denser. That results in swelling communities that are sometimes far apart.
The trip to Summit was McKay’s second time going over the mountains this season. These excursions require strict adherence to a schedule.
The nearly three-hour trip to Bend meant the boys would skip their last two classes of the day. The trip back meant homework probably wouldn’t start until close to midnight.
“They’re kids, so when I say, ‘Hey, we’re leaving at 11 a.m.,’ they’re all excited because we’re leaving from school,” Llamas said. “But little do they know, school doesn’t stop. They still have homework; they’re missing class.”
Any hiccups can set off a chain reaction for students that can affect their entire school week. The longer they’re on the road, the less time they have to study or sleep or recover. Forgoing any of that could mean falling behind in class, suffering on the soccer field — or both.
Back at the high school, Llamas moved through the hallway trying to corral his boys into the lunch room. He found Angel Nuñez, 16, one of his captains, in the hall and handed him keys to the locker room. Nuñez set out to retrieve the soccer balls and fill a water cooler.
In previous years, the farthest Nuñez and his teammates had to travel for league games was Forest Grove, a little over an hour north. Nuñez has adjusted his daily routine for Bend trips to avoid falling behind.
“So a few things I do as quick as I can — like eat quick and get my things quick — so that I have time to study,” he said. “Because last year it was mostly like everything was calm, not too much pressure, and I had time to do everything I had to do.”
Nuñez found fellow captain Noah Sanchez, 17, in the locker room to help him with the water. Sanchez shoveled ice from the machine into a bright orange Gatorade cooler before the boys hoisted it to the tap.
The captains then lugged the gear through labyrinthine locker room hallways all the way to the cafeteria where the varsity and JV teams had gathered. A boisterous cloud of banter in English and Spanish echoed off the empty lunchroom walls.
At 11 a.m. Llamas waved his boys on to the lunch line, where staff had opened early to get them out the door with something to fill their stomachs.
“Hurry up, get food,” Llamas instructed. “Don’t complain about what it is. Let’s go.”
The boys grabbed burgers, fruit, milk and cardboard baskets of fries. After swarming condiment pumps, they juggled food, iPhones and earbuds close to their chests as they hauled gear onto the bus. Junior forward Cesar Gandara helped Llamas stow balls, cones and water in the cargo hold underneath.
Coaches called roll to make sure all the boys were aboard. The brakes hissed, the door closed and with a guttural roar the bus was on its way to Bend.
* * *
When OSAA assigns leagues, its job is to find competitive balance, without overburdening students with travel. The process, called reclassification, can get really confusing really quick.
OSAA’s goal is to find a situation as fair as possible to as many schools as possible — though some schools are bound to feel shorted.
The latest reclassification actually reduced travel for many schools. For example, nine of 10 Willamette Valley districts contacted by OPB said they saw improvement or no change to travel under the new arrangement.
OSAA divides school sports into six classes based on enrollment: 6A is for the biggest schools (1,260 students and up), while 1A is for the smallest schools (89 or fewer students). The idea is that bigger schools have a deeper talent pool and are thus more competitive.
“Most schools want to be just below that cut-off,” said OSAA executive director Peter Weber. “You’d rather be the biggest school in the lower class than a smaller school in the higher class.”
Smaller schools can petition OSAA to “play up,” meaning join a higher class to face theoretically tougher competition. Jefferson High School in Northeast Portland is a prime example, playing in 6A with an enrollment less than 500.
Each class is then separated into divisions based on geography. The aim is to keep teams as close as possible to their divisional opponents.
OSAA will in some cases grant schools geographic exception, which allows them to play up or play down to avoid excess travel.
For years, Bend, Mountain View and Summit high schools have earned geographic exception.
In the latest reclassification, though, competition ultimately outmatched geography.
Bend is the largest Oregon city east of the Cascades and one of the fastest-growing in the country. Its schools outgrew the 5A class and smaller opponents like Redmond and Ridgeview.
For Bend schools, moving to 6A would have made things more competitive. But 6A schools — all of which were west of the Cascades — wanted to avoid getting stuck in a league with Bend and the travel that would come with it. OSAA went through 19 draft proposals trying to find a place for Bend, Summit and Mountain View.
"It feels bad when nobody really wants you," Mountain View athletic director Dave Hood told the Bend Bulletin.
For Bend schools to join 6A, they had to form a league with whoever was closest. That was Salem.
The latest four-year reclassification placed Salem schools McKay, McNary, South Salem, Sprague and West Salem in a division with Bend, Mountain View and Summit. That means multiple times each season, teams from these schools journey over Santiam Pass for divisional games.
People in Salem met the decision with outrage.
Many parents and school officials argued trips over the pass in big buses were too dangerous. That argument was later given fuel when a bus carrying South Salem and Sprague cross-country runners suffered a mechanical failure near Sisters. Runners and coaches spent three hours waiting for another bus — and that was in August. Winter snow and ice could make for a different story.
Parents and school officials also said the amount of missed class time would be egregious.
W. Michael Gillette, a former justice on the Oregon Supreme Court, heard Salem-Keizer’s appeal.
While Gillette validated the district's concerns, he decided discretion when it comes to reclassifying athletic leagues ultimately rests with OSAA as an independent body.
In his opinion, Gillette found it telling that Salem-Keizer wouldn't consider canceling school sports even with OSAA's decision.
“High school athletics are, in Oregon as in most of the rest of the country, as much a part of American life as breathing,” he wrote. “... If competition is that valuable, then it needs to be available everywhere—in cities and towns, in large schools and small.
“And if it is to exist everywhere, it needs an umbrella organization that is dedicated to governing it,” Gillette continued. “OSAA’s mission is to try to achieve that goal, however thankless the effort may be.”
* * *
The charter bus carrying the McKay boys soccer players rolled beyond the Salem city limits and into the misty fog of Santiam Pass.
They drove by a noticeably low Detroit Lake, dried up from a winter with too little snow and a summer with too little rain. Fall foliage sprouting in the burn scar of the B&B Complex made it look like the forest was on fire again.
The mountain view from the tinted bus windows then gave way to high desert replete with sagebrush and ponderosa pines.
Salem sports teams will have traveled nearly 12,000 miles altogether by the end of the regular season at a cost of as much as $82,500 — and that’s just for fall. The situation is similar for Bend, Mountain View and Summit.
Add to that the missed class time for student-athletes and it’s easy to see why some fear long-distance travel.
Oregon already has a notoriously short school year and a particularly bad rate of chronic absenteeism. Missing class can also compound challenges felt by low-income students and students of color.
McKay is a low-income school. It is 65 percent Latino. McKay's graduation rate is around 72 percent, about 2 points lower than the state average but 2 points higher than similar schools, according to its latest report card.
The league arrangement raises the question of whether travel will ever become too much for Oregon's young athletes.
The short answer for McKay boys soccer is, so far, no.
Coach Juan Llamas said keeping his players involved is imperative — even with increased travel.
In addition to coaching, Llamas is a student mentor at McKay, working with students (athletes and non) from grades 9–12. His job is to help guide kids through school, to make sure they attend classes and stay on top of their work.
“Unfortunately, [at McKay] we do have a lot of kids that don’t show up to school, that don’t pass their classes, that don’t care — that are friends with our soccer players,” Llamas said. “I feel like if [soccer players are] not involved here, they’ll start swinging that way as well.”
For many of the McKay boys, soccer is an accountability measure. Playing on the team serves as a gateway to academic and personal achievement.
A player with two Fs cannot play for Llamas. A player with one F can’t practice until he provides a teacher’s note saying the player has started turning in his work. Llamas had only 12 players at a Thursday practice before the Summit game; the rest were studying.
Sports — like marching band, choir or theater — are a connection to school for many students. Sports motivate them to do well academically when they may otherwise lack a reason to.
Even though long-distance travel is challenging, the McKay boys are willing to adapt their schedules and habits to continue playing.
“[Soccer] makes you more responsible,” said Yobeli Manzo, a 17-year-old senior and one of McKay’s captains. “In other words, [you’re] more mature when you have something that’s pushing you from behind to keep you doing better.”
Often the thing pushing the players from behind is Llamas.
Llamas grew up playing soccer in Boardman, Oregon, so he’s used to long-distance travel and actually sees benefits in it.
“You build relationships with kids that you don’t really know,” he said. “So that’s definitely one of the things that I see with my boys.”
Llamas can’t pinpoint exactly when he started calling the players that. He just did.
“A lot of them aren’t that [much] younger than I am, so it’s weird to call them ‘my boys,’ but I feel like maybe it’s good for them to hear that. ‘Hey, my boys,’” Llamas said. “Because I’ll take care of them no matter what.”
The bus navigated the upscale neighborhoods of Northwest Bend surrounding Summit High School.
When it arrived, Manzo climbed off the bus with his teammates, a neck pillow hugging his face.
The wind whipped and the players zipped their jackets tighter as Llamas directed them toward the bathroom. (There’s only one toilet on the bus.)
Despite being delayed several minutes for construction outside Sisters, McKay made it to Bend on time.
* * *
At what point would travel discourage students from playing sports? Or at what point might a school discontinue sports to minimize the impact on students?
That point came in 2017 for Hermiston High School when the OSAA reclassification process for 2018 was heating up.
Hermiston, the Eastern Oregon town famous for its watermelons, is about a three-hour drive from the Idaho border. At about 1,500 students, Hermiston High is a relatively big school compared to some of its neighbors.
Hermiston is also an athletic powerhouse. A long line of Oregon state championship banners hangs in the rafters of the school gymnasium for wrestling, football and cross-country.
In some of the early four-year reclassification proposals, OSAA planned to move Hermiston up to 6A, pinning the Bulldogs against teams like Barlow 170 miles away in Gresham and Central Catholic farther west in Portland. Alternate proposals grouped Hermiston with Bend, Mountain View and Summit, which would have meant some eight hours of travel for away league games — in good weather.
Hermiston wanted out.
Its escape route was north, across the Columbia River. Schools like Pasco, Kennewick and Chiawana in Washington better suited Hermiston in terms of size and were just a short drive away. But to join a league with those schools, Hermiston would have to abandon historic rivalries in Oregon and the right to play for Oregon state championships.
OSAA ultimately granted Hermiston release and the school officially joined the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in 2017.
"Our students will get to have a normal high school athletic experience for once," Hermiston athletic director Larry Usher told the Hermiston Herald. "Our athletes, coaches and staff have embraced that we're unique. This is an opportunity that not many other schools get."
Jumping the state line was a relatively easy solution for Hermiston — it even inspired five Washington schools to make bids to join Oregon's activities association. Cross-border arrangements could become more commonplace across the Northwest to ease travel time for student-athletes.
But that doesn’t help landlocked cities like Salem and Bend.
With literally no schools of its size east of Cascades, Bend’s only options as of yet are to play down or make the trip over the mountains. The latter is winning out.
Salem’s options, on the other hand, seem to be stick with Bend and hope for better classification in four years.
* * *
Meanwhile, Salem and Bend schools are making do in the new Mountain Valley Conference, the name itself a paradox.
The McKay Royal Scots came to Summit riding a wave of recent success against two of their new opponents. The week prior they’d traveled over Santiam Pass to secure a 1–0 victory over Mountain View, then battled the Bend Lava Bears to a 1–1 draw at home.
A win over Summit, who had only lost one game at that point in the season, would put McKay atop their funky new division.
One of Juan Llamas’ best players chose not to travel with the team. The player had an AP calculus test that Tuesday and didn’t want to throw a wrench in his school week with a trip to Bend.
In the locker room before the game, Llamas told his players they would have to play harder than they ever had. Summit had only allowed three goals all year to that point, so McKay knew their chances to score would be limited. Go for balls you wouldn’t normally go for to keep possession, Llamas told the team. Take a few kicks, a few hits and run when you think about jogging.
Midway through the first half, as the setting sun colored high clouds pink, Summit broke through with a goal and carried that 1–0 lead into halftime.
McKay struggled to keep the ball in Summit’s half of the field. What chances they did have, they missed — a couple runs up the middle of the field, a free kick just outside the box.
Summit scored another late goal in the dying minutes of the match to walk away with a 2–0 victory.
After a brief post-game huddle, the McKay boys went back to the bench and packed up their gear. The bus was waiting in the parking lot.
“Thank you, guys,” Llamas yelled to a group of Summit students. “Keep supporting soccer.”
The coaches called the roll and, with everyone accounted for, the team began the trip home. The bus pulled into a parking lot in Sisters, where the team spilled into McDonalds and Subway to grab food for the ride home.
Despite the loss, the boys returned quickly to their laughing and joking equilibrium.
“It didn’t really put us down because we gave a good performance,” Yobeli Manzo said. “We fought really well. We continued fighting even though how high they’re ranked.”
That’s a far cry from where the team was at the start of the season.
This is Llamas’ first year as head coach at McKay. He said the biggest issue the team faced coming into the season wasn’t travel; it was discipline.
Llamas said trips to Bend have helped develop a level of accountability amongst his players because it takes so much effort to pull off.
After the first trip to play Mountain View, some of his players didn’t show up to school the next morning. Llamas then told them attendance was still mandatory after trips to Bend.
“Sure enough, none of the kids missed the next day,” Llamas said.
The league arrangement for Salem and Bend schools likely won’t change in the next four years. It’s hard to know when or if it will change after that.
For boys soccer players at McKay, travel has just become another obstacle they face as student-athletes. But it’s one more than worth facing if the alternative is quitting the sport they love.
“I feel like soccer has given me the opportunity to open up,” said Noah Sanchez, clutching a bag of food for the ride home. “I remember back then before playing soccer I was a quiet kid. I didn’t really go out and talk much.”
Sanchez said soccer has made him new friends. Being a captain has also put him in a position to help younger kids on the team who struggle as he did.
“I feel like since we all play soccer,” he said, “it brings us close together.”
Sanchez and his teammates filed back onto the bus and disappeared into the night. Homework was waiting for them back in Salem.