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2013 PREVIEW – VHSL goes under the knife

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Virginia's most drastic facelift in 43 years will see the state carved up into six separate classifications.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

You may not need to forget everything you ever knew about district, region and state alignment among Virginia’s public high schools. For those who have grown up around the old three-group system, which has been in place since 1970, it’s nigh on impossible anyway.

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But a new day is dawning in the Commonwealth as the Virginia High School League rolls out its shiny new 6A classification system this fall.

One’s take on the whole thing depends largely on what colors one wears.

“I like how they’re doing it,” said Grayson County football coach Brett McPherson. He, Galax’s Mark Dixon and most other 1A and 2A coaches are familiar with the playoff structure, having been involved with it as Group A schools the past two seasons. “I like playing some new people and I think it’s more equitable.”

For Galax and Grayson County, so little has changed it will be all but imperceptible during the regular season. The playoffs, however, will bring some new challenges for the western 2A schools with the addition of R.E. Lee-Staunton, Richlands, Tazewell and the like, in addition to Grayson having gone from being one of the larger Division 2 schools in the state to being the 18th-largest of the 24 2A West Region schools.

The 1A playoffs will look largely like the past two years for Galax, other than the addition of Fort Chiswell, Covington and Craig County. 

For Carroll County however, the shift is an enormous one, and will be evident almost immediately.

“If you look at the schools and divide them up evenly, on paper it looks good,” Carroll coach Tom Hale said. “Take us for example. We’ve got 1,200 students. But we don’t draw athletes from 1,200 students.”

With some exceptions, most of Carroll’s athletes come from a small radius around Hillsville and the corridor between the town and the Galax city limits.

“I think a lot of county schools are along those lines,” Hale said.

So here are the major changes:

l No longer will high schools be categorized in the old Group A, Group AA and Group AAA manner, a system made unwieldy and at times confusing by divisions within each group. For example, it’s a little puzzling that…

…Honaker would compete in both the Group A, Division 2 state baseball playoffs and the Group A, Division 1 softball playoffs, as happened this past spring,

…that a team wins a state championship in supposedly-larger Division 2 with considerably fewer students than a Division 1 champion, as has happened more than a few times, 

…that Group AAA played in divisions in football, but not other sports.

* The state’s varied geography made for some strange bedfellows come playoff time among smaller schools, but a complete overhaul of the system has ended that. For at least the foreseeable future, the VHSL will be broken down into Class 1A through Class 6A, each classification divided strictly on enrollment, fairly equally in terms of membership, with separate state tournaments in nearly all sports. (Girls’ soccer and boys’ tennis will have combined 1A/2A playoffs.)

* Districts are little more than a scheduling facilitator. They can include schools of any size now, although competition between two schools in the same district is not mandatory when there is more than a two-classification difference (1A to 4A, etc). Many won’t even hold district tournaments or keep league standings. Only six of the state’s 42 districts are now comprised of schools all belonging to the same classification while five districts have schools spread over a four-classification spectrum. One district, the Piedmont, includes schools ranging in size from 2A to 6A.

* Each classification now consists of two regions (either East and West or North and South) instead of the old four-region set-up, with each region made up of four conferences, all designated by a rather bland numbering system. In sports other than football, the postseason begins with conference tournaments, which is akin to the old region set-up. This is where the biggest changes will be seen come playoff time.  In Class 4A, Carroll County will compete in Conference 24 with E.C. Glass, Jefferson Forest, Pulaski County, Salem, G.W.-Danville, Bassett and William Fleming. In Class 2A, Grayson County is in Conference 39 with basically the old Group AA Southwest District – Marion, Richlands, Tazewell, Graham and Grundy.

Galax will compete in Conference 46 with Chilhowie, PH-Glade Spring, Rural Retreat, George Wythe and Fort Chiswell, all former Region C schools.

* In football only, the playoffs will follow the system used by Group A for the past two years. Each classification will field a 16-team bracket in each of its two regions. No. 1 plays No. 16, No. 2 plays No. 15 and so forth. There is cross-seeding once each region is down to two teams. For example, the lower-seeded of the two remaining teams from the 2A West Region will travel to the higher-seeded team in the 2A East Region. The winners of those two games will meet for the state title.

l Many districts will not crown a champion and with cross-seeding it will be impossible to determine a region champ.

“That was a lot of incentive,” said Hale, who led Carroll County to its only region title game appearance in football. “You win the region and you go to the state semifinals. That’s been eliminated. You want to make the playoffs, but there’s no district championship, there’s no region championship, there’s no championship involved at all until you go to a state championship.”

Then there’s the actual placement of the schools within a region. And that’s where it can get kind of hairy for Carroll County. Class 1A schools are dispersed largely by geography, with most schools either in the western mountains or along the coast. West Region schools especially won’t see inordinate amounts of travel, other than a small handful of the most outlying schools. Class 2A is dispersed fairly evenly state-wide. Class 4A however will see some ungodly travel times, even as early as the first round.

4A is divided into North and South regions. A placement map of the South Region (see graphic) would make any bowshooter proud, with tight groupings of dots around the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas.

By comparison, the North region looks like a poorly-aimed shotgun blast, with a scattered arc of schools from Hillsville to the D.C. area, all the way to the peninsulas. Aside from the fact that the four southernmost 4A schools in the state – Carroll County, Bassett, G.W. Danville and Courtland – are in the North Region, a first-round playoff game for Carroll County could involve traveling to Courtland (just east of Suffolk), to King George on the northern neck of the Chesapeake Bay or to one of the eight schools between Winchester and the D.C. suburbs. Two-thirds of Carroll’s potential first-round matchups would involve traveling at least three hours and eight schools are more than 4.5 hours away. And that’s by car, not in a big, yellow 55 mph cheesewagon.

“That’s what I dislike the most,” said Hale. “What I liked about the old system was you started off in the playoffs playing teams in a generally close area and as you advanced, your travel then became greater.”

Geography makes Virginia a wide-ranging state for travel, and should Thomas Walker ever wind up in a 1A state semifinal with Chincoteague, somebody’s riding a bus for more than 12 hours. In other words, one could drive from the Twin Counties to New Orleans in less time than it would take to traverse the state in a bus. But taking all of the state’s 300-plus high schools into consideration, and making things as equal as possible through enrollment figures, this is the system that the VHSL felt was the most fair. Some schools have ended up on the short end of the bargain, and nobody will argue that Carroll County landed in a sweet spot as far as competition and travel are concerned.

It’s unlikely the system will be altered drastically for some time, but every two years will bring about minor changes due to enrollment shifts. Carroll County’s enrollment is dwindling, and the school is roughly 75 students away from being 3A in size. There is also the old SWD, which would be a better fit for Carroll, if not in travel than in the level competition. But for the next two years, it is what it is.

“Our kids have a good attitude about it,” Hale said. “They’re excited. Kids like to travel. I think it will come down to the parents’ attitude. But our kids are really excited. They’ve worked hard, and they know it’s going to be tough. 

“I’m optimistic but I don’t try to candy-coat anything to them. I tell them straightforward what they’re looking at and what they have to do to be ready for it.”