Virginia high schools expand to six classifications for all sports

September 19, 2012

The Virginia High School League Executive Committee voted Wednesday to approve a new classification system that divides its 315 member schools into six classes beginning with the 2013-14 school year.

The committee voted 23-3 in favor of the change, which overhauls the three-tiered system that has been in place for more than 40 years and eliminates existing districts and regions. It is meant, in part, to address concerns about the enrollment disparity within the current A, AA and AAA classifications. In the current structure, schools with vastly different enrollments are often competing for the same championships.

Regular season schedules will not be impacted much under the new system, as schools will continue to play their traditional district opponents.

The impact will be felt most in the postseason, as sports will now crown up to six champions. (Football is currently the only sport that competes for six state titles.) In postseason play, schools will compete in “conference” groupings, which replace district playoffs, and then in either “North-South” or “East-West” divisions within each of the six classes, which replaces regionals.

Those groupings have been determined by enrollment and georgraphic proximity.

“The impacts are not huge at the 6A and . . . from a competitive standpoint it’s okay at the 5A and it gives them more advantages,” said Bill Curran, who oversees athletics for the 25 Fairfax County high schools. “You’ll see the Marshalls and Falls Church and Stuart competitively benefit. People are looking at it as a decent thing.”

Curran, however, expressed doubts about the process of instituting the classifications — especially in introducing Wednesday’s vote as emergency legislation and spending fewer than five minutes discussing the changes at the meeting. There is concern about the infrastructure of the system, Curran said, and much of the onus for navigating those changes is being left to the schools and athletic directors, because it was never determined during the legislative process.

“They largely put the cart before the horse,” Curran said. “It doesn’t deal with the financial structures. What they’ve done is create six different playoff scenarios. ”

While athletic directors may be left to struggle with the specifics of how to implement the changes, the goal is to even the postseason playing fields.

For example, in 2011 Briar Woods, with an enrollment of 1,752 students, won its second consecutive AA Division 4 football championship over Christiansburg, with 1,092. Briar Woods had a larger enrollment even than AAA Division 5 champion Phoebus (1193). Under the new alignment, Briar Woods would play in Class 5A, while Phoebus would compete in 4A and Christiansburg in 3A.

The decision can be rescinded only if one of the group boards — A, AA or AAA — votes to bring the issue in front of full membership for reconsideration, and a two-thirds vote would be needed to rescind the new classifications. That, however, is unlikely to happen.

“I don’t think the conferences are terrible; we’ll find a way to make it work and in some ways it is more advantageous from a competitive standpoint,” Curran said. “But there are some drawbacks, too. In the end it’s not a bad plan, they just don’t have the specifics down. We’ve been asking for for six months and now it’s up to us.”

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