It has been months since Kaeleb Cvitkovich quarterbacked Fort Vancouver High School’s football team, but the junior is quick to point out the 50-42 defeat last October to Columbia High of White Salmon as his favorite memory.
Not only because the Trappers scored their most points in a game in six seasons, but Cvitkovich saw the performance as a turning point — even if it is competing against opponents from schools with a fraction of Fort’s enrollment.
“It wasn’t the final score we wanted,” said Cvitkovich, a three-sport standout at Fort, “but I felt like we grew and took a step forward. I feel like our players were like, ‘This could actually be a team we could beat.’”
In recent years, lopsided scores in a number of major team sports reflect Fort’s ongoing struggles to be competitive. Three years ago, the Trappers held the state’s longest losing streak in football. Girls basketball hasn’t won a league game in nine seasons. Girls soccer struggled to score goals and faced double-digit defeats against 3A and 2A competition.
In addition to be reclassified as Class 2A by the state’s governing body for high school sports, school officials and district leaders recently implemented more changes in attempts to boost competitive equity at the high-poverty school that faces competitive disadvantages. The 2022 football season will be Fort’s third in a row of playing Class 1A football. The girls basketball and girls soccer programs will continue to play independent and/or modified schedules against teams that better align with their skill sets.
Lowering the bar to raise hope is a short-term solution and the start of a journey toward long-term sustained success.
This story examines Fort’s ongoing struggles in athletics, the “outside the box” ideas being implemented in the short-term, and what the long-term strategies are to return the once-proud athletic program at the city’s oldest high school to prosperity.
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So far this 2021-22 school year, Trapper varsity squads have a combined 14 percent winning percentage across major team sports — football, boys and girls basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, and boys and girls soccer. This is the school’s second year as a Class 2A member.
The struggles aren’t new. It’s been a battle over recent years against its Clark County peers of being outmatched, outmuscled and outnumbered — particularly in football — in Class 3A.
A big victory, though, came in 2019 when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association factored in free- and reduced-price meal counts — a measurement used to gauge student poverty — for how it classifies schools in an effort to address competitive equity statewide. For every percent a school’s free-and-reduced number is higher than the state average of 47 percent, its enrollment can be deducted by the percentage difference for an adjusted enrollment count.
At Fort, 69.3 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, although principal Curt Scheidel believes that number is slightly higher. With enrollment at 1,571 in grades 9-12, Fort is allowed to play at Class 2A through the end of the 2020-24 classification cycle.
While the new classification structure remains in its infancy, WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman said early results and continuing studies and data-gathering show promise in the big picture. Fort and Hudson’s Bay (62 percent) are two of 18 schools statewide to choose to drop down one classification due to socioeconomic status. Hoffman said the intent isn’t for teams to have greater postseason hopes, but rather, get teams away from running-clock situations.
Feedback statewide so far is positive, he said.
“We want to make sure when a student shows up for a game, he or she believes they have a chance to win,” Hoffman said. “Everybody should have a fair fight.”
Classification is a hot-button topic that’s been debated for years, and for a time, the socioeconomic issue centered more on the discussion of public school vs. private school.
But the explosion of travel club teams, specialty camps, and private training widened the socioeconomic landscape between the haves and have-nots of high school sports. Not everybody can pay for those luxuries, especially those in less-affluent neighborhoods with fewer resources and less access.
Fort also faces uphill battles beyond athletic competition.
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First-year VPS superintendent Jeff Snell began his career in education at Fort as a math teacher in 1996 and later became the school’s principal. He believes stigmas attached to the school by outsiders continue to linger. Even as principal from 2007-11, he said he fought the perception of Fort as “ghetto.”
“I don’t feel that when I talk with students or staff,” Snell said, “but it’s a perception that’s been in the community for a long time. I don’t think it just goes away.”
Another is the district’s open enrollment and specialized magnet programs that allow for student choice. According to data provided by the district, 275 students who live in Fort’s boundary currently attend Skyview, Columbia River or Hudson’s Bay. By comparison, 314 students in the district attend Columbia River on a boundary exception.
Snell also is a former coach at Fort. Now as leader of the ninth-largest school district in Washington, he said one of his priorities centers around the student experience for all, and making it as rich as possible by aligning it with students’ priorities and interests.
That extends beyond the classroom, and it starts by listening.
“We need to be thoughtful about listening to students,” the superintendent said, “and what do they want out of their experience.”
Enhancing student experiences is what Fort athletic director James Ensley has most on his mind these days. The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on how to provide that better in athletics behind what he calls “outside-the-box” thinking because, according to Ensley, what was inside the box hasn’t worked.
For starters, that’s continuing the commitment of playing Class 1A football. In 2019, the WIAA passed an amendment to allow schools to petition down one classification in football to increase competitive equity. Schools can petition every two years; Fort’s petition remains intact through the 2023 season.
Then came addressing girls basketball and girls soccer. In September, the school announced both programs would play modified schedules in 2021-22 to increase turnout and competitiveness. The girls varsity basketball team went 2-15 this past winter playing a partial league schedule and filled the vacancies with lower-classification teams. Girls soccer fielded one team and went 4-10 against mostly sub-varsity competition.
Ensley isn’t interested in quick fixes and acknowledges the changes he helped spearhead are a small step in a bigger journey. Restoring confidence, increasing participation and building a consistency of culture across all programs are part of what he calls a 10-year plan to get Fort back on a winning path. Only 39 percent of current Fort students have participated in multiple sports more than once, said VPS district athletic director Dave Bennett, compared with Hudson’s Bay (53 percent), Skyview (57 percent) and Columbia River (72 percent).
Other immediate changes include more weight-room access in an upgraded facility the district plans to revamp this summer, provide youth camps for all sports every June, and opening facilities to Fort students in off-peak hours.
“I don’t want this to be a flash-in-the-pan goal,” Ensley said. “I want it to be something that can be sustainable with the things we’re doing inside the school, on a day-to-day basis. … Changing kids’ lives and helping people.”
Ensley has no illusions that success schoolwide in the 2A Greater St. Helens League will be easy. Since 2017, the league has produced state champions in football (Hockinson), girls basketball (Washougal), boys soccer (Columbia River), girls soccer (Columbia River), softball (Woodland) and volleyball (Ridgefield and Columbia River) across the major team sports. But Ensley is committed to the “outside the box” ways for as long as necessary and views the step-back mode in football, girls basketball and girls soccer as “fresh starts.” No other sports are being considered for modified schedules.
“We have to catch up,” he said, “and then to really catch up, it just takes time. It takes the community, it takes the kids, it takes the coaches, it takes a change of expectations and a change of what people have to do nowadays outside of the sports season to still be competitive in other sports.”
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Girls basketball head coach Arlisa Hinton is as competitive a coach as you’ll find. She won a junior-college basketball national title, then went onto play at Mississippi State.
In nine seasons as Fort’s head coach, she hasn’t won a league game. The Trappers’ win-loss record is 23-275 in that span. In 2018, they suffered a 74-point loss to Prairie.
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How does Hinton handle losing?
“Oooh,” the coach said, pondering the question for several seconds. Then she pulled out her cellphone.
“Yep,” Hinton said, “this is it right here.” She reads off a text message received that morning from an ex-player, asking Hinton how she’s doing, extending appreciation to her high school coach, and giving the coach an update on her young family.
That, Hinton said, is how she handles losing.
“When I stop having that impact,” said Hinton, also in the midst of earning a master’s degree in teaching, “then I think I’m done. Because then, it means I’m not doing anything.”
The Columbian was granted a behind-the-scenes look inside Fort’s girls basketball program last season in its first year of playing a modified schedule. By the sixth game, Hinton already was on her fifth starting lineup. On this night — Dec. 11 against 1B Columbia Adventist — the Trappers suited just seven players because of illness, COVID-19 exposure, injury and sibling babysitting duties. It was their fourth game in five nights.
One of the three keys to the game Hinton addressed with her team pregame happened to be a team goal this season: Believe. It came to fruition when the Trappers trailed by 10 with 2:25 left against Columbia Adventist, and Hinton called timeout and stressed about making five defensive stops.
“Believe right now,” the coach said, making eye contact with all players. “You’ve got to believe. Nobody is tired. We’re going to get our legs into this, we’re going to talk to each other, and we’ve got to get a rebound.
“You’ve got 2 minutes to work — and then you get to sleep all day tomorrow.”
Fort lost the game, 36-19. Defeats like that hurt more than blowout losses, Hinton said.
“Oh, 100 percent,” she said, “especially when you know you can get (the win).”
Fort’s rich history in girls basketball includes 11 league titles and 12 state appearances. Many of those came under Karen Hill, who coached the Trappers from 1978-93. But since 1996, only two Fort teams have posted winning records.
Each season under Hinton, she and her wife, assistant coach Heather Hansen, use their networks to find sponsors so all players can be outfitted for game-day shoes and warm-up shirts. None of the 29 Trappers in the program have club basketball experience and most everybody’s first sport is something else.
Senior Avery Rowe was convinced to turn out for basketball as a freshman and was the program’s only senior. She understands why the modified schedule benefits the program; she’s been on the floor for large lopsided games in her career.
“No one is ever mad at each other for it,” Rowe said. “Everyone knows as long as you’re giving it your best and working hard, that’s all you can ask for.”
The Trappers fight for respectability, but also against negativity. Sophomore Athiena Ghormley said the “Fort mentality” among athletes — believing they’re going to lose — is real. And so, too, are spectator comments she hears in times when Fort is in a competitive game.
“People constantly beat us down,” Ghormley said. “There’s parents out there screaming in the stands how it’s Fort, and you’re (the other team) better than that.
“But then I remember I’m better than that.”
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Cvitkovich, the starting quarterback, has experienced one victory in high school football — his freshman season when Fort, playing as an independent, beat 2B Northwest Christian of Lacey in October 2019 to snap the state’s longest losing streak at 30 games.
Chief factors in Fort’s decision to leave the 3A GSHL in 2019 were low participation numbers and safety concerns. Going independent often is a last resort for struggling football programs to rebuild. At one point before agreeing to playing as an independent, talks by school leaders and district officials surfaced of eliminating the program and joining with Hudson’s Bay.
Cvitkovich doesn’t focus on that. Cvitkovich still remembers the first day of practice in 2019 when all the senior players greeted him. He said playing in the 1A Trico League now provides Fort new opportunities, a self-confidence boost for players and a mutual level of respect between opponents.
He sees the value of playing at Fort, and the return value Fort has provided him.
“I love it here,” he said. “These are my brothers, and I’d fight for them no matter what.”
Fort is 0-13 playing against 1A foes, but had three games last fall decided by 11 or fewer points. Like Hinton with girls basketball, football coach Doug Bilodeau finds the little victories in the big losses. He’s proud the Trappers were never flagged for unsportsmanlike last fall, nor had any ejections. Participation numbers also have increased. If the season started today, Bilodeau estimates he’d have 45 players. The tentative plan is to field three teams in 2022.
Bilodeau has coached football for more than 30 years, and Fort is his third high school head-coaching stint. He was one of three applicants for the job when it opened after the 2019 season.
“I was made to be here,” said Bilodeau, also a math and special education teacher at the school. “The mission is the same for everybody. I feel I can make a difference. I saw the potential, but I also saw what was needed.”
That starts with Bilodeau’s commitment. Since the late Gary Boggs’ retirement after the 2000 season, Fort has had nine coaching changes — including six since 2011 — and last had a winning record in 1998. Its average margin of defeat the past six seasons is 37 points.
All of that is far from Bilodeau’s mind. When asked how he keeps players engaged during games when the scoreboard can be unkind, emotions overcame him talking about the biggest victory of all.
“We love them not for the scoreboard,” he said. “We loved them before they played the game.”
There’s also bright spots at Fort. Its girls cross country team captured the program’s first district title and state trophy last fall. The girls bowling team routinely sends athletes to state, and the boys soccer team is in line for a 2A GSHL playoff spot. Since 2015, the school also has produced two pro athletes: Jordan Suell, a wide receiver who recently signed with USFL’s Philadelphia Stars and three-time golf state champion Spencer Tibbitts, who began his pro golf career last summer.
High school spring championships at the end of May wrap up the 2021-22 high school sports calendar year. Cvitkovich can’t wait for his senior football season, and continue to build the path to prosperity — by playing opponents from schools a fraction of Fort’s enrollment.
“Watch out,” he said, “because we’re coming. It may not be next year, but a few years down the road, we’re coming.”