It’s logical. That’s why it’ll never fly

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By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

 There are a couple of very peculiar things about the proposed six-classification system announced last week by the Virginia High School League. First, the thing makes sense. Second, it works for Southwest Virginia.

Often criticized for appearing to be being devoid of common sense and for appearing biased toward the central, eastern and northern parts of the state, the VHSL rolled out its proposal for reclassification last week, setting the stage for a complete overhaul of the current three-classification system used since 1970.

For the most part, I like it.

Pending a vote by the VHSL Executive Committee on Feb. 22 and then approval in April, Virginia’s high schools would scrap the Group A/AA/AAA system and implement a 1A through 6A system beginning in the fall of 2013.

Under the proposed setup, the smallest classification, 1A, will have a firm limit of 475 students in grades 9-12 according to the Department of Education’s March 2012 enrollment figures. The remaining schools will be split into equal fifths to create classes 2A through 6A.

Schools will not be allowed to petition to ‘play up’ a classification. Nor should there be a need to, because districts would not be limited to schools of a single classification. Districts would be able to include schools spanning as many as three classifications. For example, it could be comprised of a combination of 1A, 2A and 3A schools, or 2A, 3A and 4A schools, and so forth. Once postseason play begins, each school would compete in its own classification.

The VHSL statement made no mention of a playoff format for the new system, but it did state that the regional setup now in place would be eliminated. That leads one to believe that a version of the system used this fall in Group A football would apply to most sports, since it has been tested on the field and received favorable reviews. In that format, schools in Division 1 and in Division 2 were split into eastern and western sections. The top 16 teams in each section, each division, played in bracketed, tournament-style playoffs.

The obvious competitive advantages afforded the larger schools in a combined district don’t really apply. If following the Group A football format, district champions aren’t automatically awarded postseason berths. Being a district champ would be kind of like being the Queen of England – it’s a nice title, but a ceremonial one at best. If anything, being a large school in a district of smaller schools would be a disadvantage, in that some sort of rating scale would need to be in place to determine playoff teams, and for points purposes it is less advantageous for large schools to play small schools.

Still, the proposal makes sense, especially in Southwest Virginia, where a scant few large schools lay in an area full of A-sized schools. 

Not much (if anything) should change for Grayson County and Galax. Not so for Carroll County. The Southwest District continues to dwindle in membership, with Grundy and Graham dropping to Group A this year and Richlands, Tazewell and Marion heading in the same direction. That leaves Carroll and Abingdon, both solidly Group AA in numbers, on an island. The exit of Richlands, Tazewell and Marion from Group AA would force Carroll and Abingdon to each find a new district. Carroll would have the Piedmont and River Ridge districts as viable alternatives. Abingdon would have nothing and would face a 90-minute drive to Carroll or Pulaski for its nearest district game.

The 6A system would take care of that because it allows for the alignment of schools in districts that “are not inherently tied to classification,” the VHSL statement says, but rather based on “balance, geography and preferences.”

The tricky part for Carroll County would be landing in the right district.

Using the most recent enrollment figures, area schools in 1A (and therefore off-limits to Carroll as district-mates) would be Galax, Fort Chiswell, Radford, George Wythe, Chilhowie, Bland County, Patrick Henry (Glade Spring), Rural Retreat, EastMont, Northwood, Auburn and Narrows.

Currently falling into the 2A range would be Grayson County, Giles, Glenvar, Graham, Tazewell, Floyd County, Martinsville and Marion. Richlands is right at the cutoff between 2A and 3A.

In the 3A group would be Patrick County, Cave Spring, Abingdon, Magna Vista, Hidden Valley, Northside, Blacksburg and Christiansburg. In the 4A category would be Carroll County, Pulaski County, Bassett and Salem. William Fleming would be 5A and PH-Roanoke 6A.

I can see a six-team combined district that includes Carroll, Pulaski County, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Floyd County and Giles. The latter two would be clearly outsized, but they aren’t afraid of a challenge, they schedule bigger schools regularly anyway, and they are competitive when they do so.

Can anyone say ‘New River District’?

A change to a 6A setup would be good news for Carroll County in terms of regular season scheduling in that the school should be able to align itself with a more ‘local’ district for the regular season. It’s bad news for Carroll in regards to the postseason in that, other than Pulaski, Salem and Bassett, there are no other 4A-size schools this side of Roanoke and the playoffs could mean some hellacious road trips.

With no region playoffs, state tournament spots would have to be determined by a rating system in most sports. That could work as a drawback for Carroll County, should it be included in a district comprised mainly of smaller schools. The Cavaliers in recent years have avoided playing Group A schools in football in favor of more point-worthy games against AA competition.

It will also be interesting to see how the postseason would work with sports like golf, tennis, track, wrestling, etc., where a points system would be hard to implement. 

The steadily declining student population of Southwest Virginia has rendered the three-classification system obsolete, and for SWVA’s sake, some sort of system using combined districts needs to be implemented.

That’s why I wonder if the thing will pass at all.