After claiming three consecutive state championships in AA Division 4, Briar Woods will face a challenging road to a four-peat with the implementation of Virginia’s new playoff structure. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Charlie Pierce and the Briar Woods football team had been preparing for this season for years. The Falcons competed in Virginia’s Class AA ranks, but with the Ashburn school’s high-end enrollment of about 1,750 students and its team in the midst of a three-year run as Division 4 football state champs, Pierce made sure to schedule preseason games against some of Northern Virginia’s top AAA teams.

Whatever changes were ahead as the Virginia High School League debated realignment in recent years, the Falcons would be prepared to face them.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing other teams because seeing new blood and new teams kind of shows you where you stand,” Pierce said. “We know some might say, ‘Oh, that’s a Division 4 team,’ and they might take us for granted, but we embrace those challenges and the preparation.”

Beginning this fall, Briar Woods will play against bigger schools and competition on a more regular basis. Football season marks the start of the VHSL’s new classification system — a six-class model across all sports that replaces the three-tiered format previously used for its 315 member schools.

Briar Woods will join the likes of Stone Bridge, Marshall and Jefferson in 5A, while teams such as Centreville, Lake Braddock and Westfieldthat make up the state’s 52 most-populated schools will compete in 6A.

M.J. Stewart and Yorktown couldn’t get past Stone Bridge in last year’s AAA Northern Region Division 5 final. This year, Yorktown will play in the 6A North playoffs, while Stone Bridge competes in the 5A North. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In postseason play across sports, teams will compete in conference groupings rather than district playoffs and then in North-South divisions within each of the six classes, replacing the old regional playoff format. The one exception is football, in which the top 16 teams in each North and South division will qualify for the playoffs. Seedings and pairings will be based on power points unless the involved teams elect to play within a different format (this power was given to the divisions by the VHSL to cut down on travel during early-round playoff games). Ultimately, the North champion will play the South champion in the state final.

Teams formerly of the Northern Region are now part of the 6A North and 5A North classes. Some of the Prince William County teams (Forest Park, Gar-Field, Hylton and Woodbridge) are in the 6A South with the Richmond and Virginia Beach schools, while others (Battlefield, Osbourn, Osbourn Park, Patriot and Stonewall Jackson) are in the North.

Teams will continue to play their traditional district opponents during the regular season followed by a postseason tournament in which six state football champions will be crowned. That means schools formerly of AAA Division 5, such as Fairfax, Madison and Yorktown, will face an assortment of 5A and 6A North foes.

For instance, Madison, now a Class 6A school, opens the season against perennial AAA Division 6 contenders Oakton and Chantilly before entering play against its usual Liberty District rivals, including Stone Bridge of Class 5A and Langley of Class 6A. As in previous years, teams are awarded more power points for playing teams in larger classifications. Therefore, how Madison fares in non-district play may have a greater impact on its power rating (total points divided by games played) than on teams with full 6A schedules.

“They did it all by attendance to help level the playing field so that smaller schools weren’t always going against bigger schools in the playoffs, and I get that,” said Madison Coach Lenny Schultz, whose school has about 1,980 students. “It does make it a lot tougher for us because we are one of the smaller 6A teams, but we can only control us.”

Yorktown has the lowest enrollment among former Northern Region teams in 6A with 1,913 students, while Jefferson (1,848) and Stone Bridge (1,842) are the most-populated schools among Northern Region 5A squads.

In the case of a new school such as Champe, which will graduate its first senior class in 2014, its 3A classification is based on projected enrollment despite having an actual student population (564 students) that falls in the 2A ranks. Its teams still will play its schedule of Dulles District opponents, most of which are 4A schools.

“The situation is unique because a lot of those teams in the Dulles District will see each other in the postseason, but since us and Loudoun Valley are in 3A, we’ll be going against new teams,” Champe athletic director Joe Breinig Jr. said. “So in out-of-district play, you try to pick up some teams that you might see in the playoffs. In some way, it’s an adjustment for everybody.”

The greatest adjustment is expected to be felt in the playoffs. Because the classes are being divided into North and South divisions based on geographic location, the earliest a traditional Northern Region team could face a Virginia Beach team is the state final. On the other hand, with Prince William County teams split between the divisions, two traditional Northwest Region schools could face off in the 6A championship.

“I think that’s an advantage for the Northern Region because the teams we generally have the toughest time with are in the beach area,” Centreville Coach Chris Haddock said. “I don’t know that everyone thinks that way, but it could be a nice wrinkle for teams in this area. Overall, I don’t think the new format changes our approach all that much.”