Going the distance

<I>The Eagle/David?Heldreth</I><BR>Mt. Vernon Middle School students give the Grant Union track and field teams a send-off to the state meet May 15. The teams traveled nearly 600 miles round-trip to Western Oregon University in Monmouth. Grant County schools and athletes regularly travel long distances for sports.

GRANT COUNTY - Coaches, parents and school administrators have spent years worrying about the GPAs and RBIs of their athletes, but now there's a new acronym taking center stage in athletics: MPG.

Grant County school athletic programs have been stretched by budget constraints in recent years. Grant Union High School cut its "C," or freshman teams from all of it's sports programs due to budget cuts at the start of the 2007 school year. Prairie City and other schools also saw cuts to their athletic programs.

The newest threat to sports programs is the rising cost of gas.

With diesel prices hovering around $4.80 a gallon, about $1 a gallon more than last year, schools are struggling with how to plan for the 2008-09 school year. The school districts build their budgets by taking all the available information and trying to estimate increases for inflation.

Administrators say the volatile gas prices have proven difficult to factor into the budget. The Prairie City School District increased its fuel budget from around $14,000 to $17,000, a 21 percent increase. Grant School District No. 3 was still finalizing its figures at press time.

Grant School District No. 3 Superintendent Newell Cleaver said he wishes he could say what gas will cost next January.

"If you can find someone who can tell me what gas will cost each month and how much to budget for sure, send him my way," Cleaver said. "We just work with the limited information we have."

Prairie City Superintendent David Kerr said gas prices are something to plan for, but life must go on.

"Driving and travel is a way of life in Eastern Oregon," Kerr said. "We pay attention to the price of gas, but it's not something we can do anything about. Everyone has to get where they need to go."

Prairie City has found ways to minimize travel time and gas use. If two sports are playing in the same city, the teams travel together. It's not uncommon for boys and girls basketball or baseball and track teams to travel together. Teams are also are trying to schedule preseason games against teams that are nearby.

Despite the difficulties, Prairie City has yet to have to reduce the number of its games. The school district got an unexpected windfall last spring when the baseball team didn't have enough players to compete.

"We don't plan on having to shorten any seasons right now, but we'll have to see what gas prices do," Kerr said. "We came pretty close to using our entire budget last year, and baseball didn't play. That helped out, but I expect that we'll have a baseball team again next year - so we'll have to see."

Grant Union has also tried to minimize travel, but has more kids playing and more teams. The Prospectors cut the number of games each team played last season to save money. All sports had two to five games cut from their 2007-08 schedules; volleyball went from 18 games to 14 and baseball went from 26 to 21. Grant Union managed to cut travel by 14,738 miles during the 2007-08 school year. The district drove 58,752 miles in 2006-07.

Cutting games helped save money, but also cut the number of opportunities for athletes to get on the field. Grant Union football coach and Mt. Vernon Middle School Principal Monty Nash has a mixed view on the results.

"I think it changes how you approach games," Nash said. "Experience is experience and it helps, but it's not the most important factor. I think it affects the younger kids the most because when you have fewer games they don't get as many chances to get in. Coaches won't necessarily get as many chances to see players at different positions before league games start.

"The kids on my team always know that education is the most important part to me, though. There's very few of these kids that will go on to play college or professional ball, it's a college degree or trade school that will get them jobs."

Grant Union's approach to handling increasing gas prices will become the new state standard if the Oregon School Activities Association votes to adopt an amendment originally proposed by Grant Union principal Mark Witty and athletic director Curt Shelley. The pair submitted an amendment to reduce 3A, 2A and 1A contest limitations.

The amendment argues that fewer games are needed to determine league winners since the OSAA increased from four to six classifications based on school size three years ago.

The amendment is scheduled for a first reading during the OSAA's delegate assembly Oct. 20. It will most likely be considered and then voted on at the next meeting in April, according to Michael Wallmark, associate executive director of the OSAA.

School-sanctioned sports aren't the only activities facing hardships due to gas prices. The Dayville Fourth of July horse race only had four participants. Race winner Debbie Kopp said several out-of-town participants dropped out as the gas prices went up.

Grant County Fair Horse Show co-manager Linda Brown said she thought gas would hurt the show.

"Our attendance has been down during the last couple of years, and fuel prices are so high, I thought there would be even less people than last year," horse show co-manager Linda Brown said.

However, the show actually saw an increase in riders this year despite the gas prices.

The John Day swim team also had issues surrounding travel. Coach Brandon Lemcke said there are fewer kids traveling with the team to away meets than in past years.

"It seems like fewer kids are swimming and those that do are going to fewer meets," Lemcke said. "We've been noticing it at other meets, too. People have been saying gas prices have affecting them. It's hard to travel to meets like we do. We go to Lakeview twice a year."

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