Virginia High School League moves toward six classifications

The Virginia High School League Executive Committee has mandated a new classification system that will split Virginia high schools into six groupings by the 2013-14 school year and in the process likely eliminate existing regions.

Most details of the plan have not been formulated — a concern for many — but after years of debate about changing the state classification system, this time it is likely to happen, school officials say.

The VHSL Executive Committee in December charged an ad hoc task force with coming up with a new plan for its 315 schools that would involve anywhere from four to six classifications. The committee opted for six.

“Prior to this point, there’s been talk about what’s wrong, but there have been no proposals, just concepts thrown out there,” said George Mason Athletic Director Tom Horn, who chaired the ad hoc committee. “The Executive Committee took a step that it had not taken before which is to say that three classes no longer suits Virginia.”

The task force wants to fix what it and many member schools consider to be problems with the current system — the enrollment disparity within the A, AA and AAA classifications, and at times gaping enrollment differences among teams competing for the same championships.

Currently, schools in the four AAA regions, the state’s largest classification, are split, with the most populous half forming Division 6 in each region and the others Division 5. But that formula can result in inequitable postseason matchups both inside and outside a region.

For example, a Division 6 football semifinal this past season pitted Centreville, with an enrollment of 2,336 students, against Richmond area school Hermitage, with 1,688. The gap would have been even wider if Hermitage had been paired with semifinalist Battlefield (2,587). T.C. Williams is the largest Division 6 school with 2,903 students.

In the Division 5 football playoffs, South County (1,987), with 300 more students than Division 6 participant Hermitage, faced Richmond area school Hanover (1,306) in the semis and even smaller Hampton school Phoebus (1,215) in the final.

In the Division 4 championship, Briar Woods (1,750) beat Christiansburg (1,109). And Division 3 semifinalist Kettle Run (1,082) had more students than Division 4 semifinalist Broadway (1,003), even though Broadway played in a larger division.

The 13 largest schools in the state, and 20 of the top 23, are from the Northern Region and Prince William County. Football is the only VHSL sport that already crowns six champions. The new system would result in six state titlists in many sports.

“If the purpose of classification is to make sure when you get to the postseason that you compete against schools of like size, then the current divisional alignment has failed that,” Horn said.

In a press release, VHSL Executive Director Ken Tilley called the decision to establish six classifications “the most significant step the league has taken in more than 40 years.”

Regular season schedules are expected to remain largely the same. The smallest class (1A) would consist of schools with 475 students or fewer. The remaining schools would be separated into five additional divisions.

The redistricting and reclassification committee would align schools in conferences for regular season play based on “balance, geography and preferences, ” according to the minutes from the ad hoc committee’s meeting. In each conference, there could be teams from as many as three concurrent classifications, such as 4A, 5A and 6A.

Other than a few recommendations made by the ad hoc committee, the proposed plan at this point is skeletal, with no stated method for determining playoff participants and many other issues that have not yet been addressed. That has made it difficult for area administrators to say if they are for or against a six-classification system.

“I have no idea what they’re proposing,” said Bill Curran, who oversees athletics for the 25 Fairfax County high schools. “They have no details. We don’t know what the financials are going to look like. Are we reducing the number of championship and playoff opportunities for our kids? Are we eliminating that, because if we are, I have a problem.”

“What do you mean we’ll figure it out later? We’re going to do it but we don’t know specifics? To me, you put the cart before the horse.”

A new postseason plan could possibly benefit schools in what now is a sprawling Northwest Region, which includes schools in Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties but also schools in Roanoke and one near the North Carolina border. A new system could result in shorter road trips during the playoffs.

“I could see where it could help us in terms of travel,” said Fred Milbert, who oversees athletics and other programs for Prince William County Schools. “But without knowing how you’re going to get to the top levels of play, I’m not sure how it’s going to help us. I just don’t have enough information.”

In February, the VHSL’s redistricting and reclassification committee will begin putting together a mock of what a six-class system would look like, although the data that eventually will be used is not the current enrollment figures. The VHSL will use March 31, 2012 enrollment figures when they become available.

On Feb. 22, the Executive Committee will review the six-class model. There would be several other steps before formal adoption of the plan.

“The Executive Committee has a lot of work to do to create a system that is equitable in the postseason and favorable to the member schools in the regular season,” Horn said. “Previous attempts at this have missed one or the other. I think this model has the ability to do both.

“There are so many merits to what has been proposed that we don’t want people to kill it in their own minds, assuming things that have not been decided yet, or predicting doom for issues that haven’t been addressed.”

 
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