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Change in the air for new year

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From the way equipment is bought to the way champions are determined, 2011 will be a ‘new’ year.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

 Good news-bad news time.

The good news is that the top of the line composite bat you’ve been coveting for the upcoming baseball season can probably be found at a fraction of its original cost.

The bad news is that using it anywhere but in the batting cage can result in a two-game suspension.

The Virginia High School League has thrown the state’s baseball teams a curveball by banning almost all composite bats for the upcoming season in an effort to curb a trend toward more and more potent – and dangerous – bats.

The move at the same time follows the lead of and sets the stage for a national move away from composite bats, both in high school and in college ball.

The National Federation of State High School Associations ruled in July to immediately ban all composite bats but later decided to allow a few of them to be used for the coming season. Virginia joined California and Tennessee as the only three state associations to stick with the original ruling. Thus all bats used in the state’s high schools must be BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) certified this season. Next year, every high school team in the country must toss their more homer-friendly BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) certified bats and move to the BBCOR ones.

The NCAA is using only BBCOR bats beginning this year.

The object is to reduce the speed of a ball coming off a bat. Over the years baseball bats have become increasingly high-tech, utilizing metal alloys, graphite interiors, flex handles and aerodynamic designs. Some of the composite bats would meet set standards at the time of purchase but were designed to become more potent through repeated use as the interior graphite laminate would break down over time, resulting in an increased trampoline effect of a ball hitting the sweet spot.

Understandably, local coaches have mixed feelings.

“If it’s a safety issue you have to be for it,” said Grayson County coach Mike Worrell. “We’ve had a couple of players here where I didn’t feel safe standing in the third base coach’s box. I’d hate to have been on the mound against those guys.

“But then, I can’t help but to think somebody’s making a lot of money on this.”

Galax’s Ronald Mankins echoed those feelings.

“Part of me says it’s a good thing. It’s for the safety of the players,” Mankins said. “Having been a pitcher, you can get some real shots up the middle. I was lucky not to get hit in the head like some of these guys you see on TV. But on the other hand, I see dollar signs. Every school in the country is going to have to go out and buy new bats. High schools and some smaller colleges might buy five or six, but some of the bigger colleges might buy four or five dozen. When you’re talking about every high school and college in the country, that’s a lot of money.”

One of the problems with the ruling is that manufacturers are just starting to come out with the new BBCOR bats. Carroll County coach Joe Tompkins was unable to be reached for comment, but a parent of a Carroll player said that there is a scramble to find legal bats.

With some bats costing upwards of $300, the decision will have an impact on teams’ finances. 

“One of these snow days I was going through our bats here at school, trying to see what we had that would be legal,” said Mankins, who estimates that roughly half of the bats used by Galax players are school-owned and half purchased by players themselves. “ I set eight or nine bats out that we’ll use in the cage or something, but will be illegal for JV and varsity, and some of them were only a year old.”

The impact will be on a more personal level at Grayson.

“Most of our kids buy their own, so I don’t know a whole lot about it,” said Worrell, who received notice from the VHSL in the fall about the ruling, made copies and handed them out to his players. “We bought one bat last year, and it was probably the first time in five or six years. Several kids came in last year with some really nice bats. They’re just batting practice bats now.”

Galax may have an interesting time when it plays North Carolina schools West Stokes and Alleghany, who are still allowed to use the BESR bats.

There is also the question of how offenses will be impacted. One sporting goods retailer was quoted as saying, “You won’t see a lot of 160-pound second basemen hitting opposite-field home runs any more.”

“I do wonder what kind of an effect it will have on us,” said Worrell, “whether it will impact how much we need to bunt, things like that.”

Said Mankins, “Kids like Travis Cockerham and Tyler Rutherford, they’re going to hit .400 no matter what you put in their hands. Some of the kids on down the lineup, if you take a few feet per second off of the hits off the handle or off the end of the bat, it may turn into a couple of extra outs. But your better hitters are still going to hit the ball hard.”

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It’s a shame Galax couldn’t pull off a region football championship this year. The Maroon Tide may never get another chance.

That’s because baseball isn’t the only sport dealing with change in the 2011 calendar year. The modification of the state’s football playoff system is drastic by comparison.

Beginning this fall, the Group A playoffs will undergo a complete transformation, moving to a state-wide, 32-team bracketed playoff system.

The move is in an effort to put the state’s single-A schools on a more equal footing with one another. Currently, each region is split pretty much down the middle by enrollment, with the larger schools competing in Division 2 and the smaller ones in Division 1. The problem with that arises in Region B, where some schools have enrollments of 700 or more. Thus, the larger Division 1 schools in that region are bigger than even some of the largest Division 2 schools in C and D.

Beginning this fall, the playoffs will be split into a North/Northeast section and a South/Southwest section. Each section will have a bracket of 16 teams, with No. 16 traveling to No. 1 for the first round, No. 15 to No. 2, and so on. Once down to the semifinals, the four remaining teams will be cross-bracketed.

There will still be separate Division 1 and Division 2 playoffs, but the VHSL will use the enrollment figure of 475 and above to designate Division 2 and 474 and below to mark Division 1.

One major change in this format is that district champions no longer automatically qualify for the playoffs. Seeding will be done solely on the VHSL’s rating scale. Also, the shift to a set enrollment figure as the state-wide cutoff between Division 2 and Division 1 means that Radford, George Wythe, Chilhowie and Grundy (currently a Division 3 school) will be in Division 1 beginning in the fall, right alongside Galax.

The new system will undoubtedly bring about some pretty interesting travel scenarios. Radford has been placed in the northern section and could conceivably travel to or host a team from the Manassas or Tidewater area, even the Eastern Shore, for a first-round playoff game, then go back the next week.

In the southern section of Division 1 things aren’t nearly so far-flung, with all the teams coming out of regions C and D.

In Division 2, Grayson County could possibly get matched up with teams like Stuarts Draft, Buffalo Gap and Wilson Memorial.

Some adjustments will surely be made as new enrollment figures are produced between now and the start of the new school year, but one thing is for sure – the football playoffs will hardly be recognizable come November.

Some information provided by Landmark News Service.