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Competition has finally trumped tradition at Graham High School.
For years a group A-sized school playing, albeit competitively, in the Group AA Southwest District, Graham petitioned for and was granted permission to drop to Group A status by the Virginia High School League’s Redistricting and Reclassification committee on Tuesday. The G-Men will begin play in the Mountain Empire District beginning in the fall of 2011 and will remain there for at least two years. Graham will be accompanied by Grundy in its exit from the SWD, as the Buchanan County school was also approved for a drop to Group A and will compete in Region D’s Black Diamond District. Graham and Grundy are by far the two smallest double-A schools in the state, with 523 and 438 students, respectively. The next-smallest Group AA school in the state is larger by some 110 students, while only five football-playing schools in Group AA have fewer than 700 students. Twenty-six Group A schools have larger enrollments than does Graham, including Grayson County and Fort Chiswell. (Enrollment figures are based on the 2007 average daily membership submitted by schools to the VHSL, numbers used to determine current division alignments for football and basketball.) Graham administration cited a desire to be more competitive at the region and state levels as the main reason for its request. A tradition-rich football program, Graham has remained with its roots in the SWD despite steadily declining enrollment, and would not even schedule single-A schools in football until recently. The G-Men have gone 15-19 in football over the past three years, but the move was made as an effort to be more competitive on the regional level in other sports as well. “We’re not doing this to win championships or win trophies, we’re doing it to give them a fair shot in regional competition and right now I don’t think with a school of 500 you can have a fair shot playing a school with 1,250,” Graham principal John O’Neal said. Referring to girls’ soccer, he said, “We put 11 girls on the field that just come off girls’ basketball season, they’re putting 11 girls on the field that do soccer year-round because they can do one sport because they’ve got kids to draw from. There is a difference.” The drop affects the Mountain Empire District much more than it does the Southwest, which was a five-member district until Abingdon and Marion joined the league beginning with the 2007-08 school year. For the MED, the decision means basically the district is trading Pocahontas for Graham. Pocahontas closed its doors due to economic reasons two years ago, having rarely fielded competitive athletic teams. Graham will most likely be an immediate contender in nearly every sport when it joins the MED. Still, O’Neal said his athletic teams are already seeing good competition from MED teams the G-Men currently play as nondistrict foes. “Who could argue with the Bland County girls basketball team, or Narrows, which came up here and spanked us in volleyball,” he said, “and Galax has just one heck of a soccer program. “One person said you will go over there and run over everybody. No, that’s not going to happen. Believe me, they’ve got good programs...It’s not going to work like that. I know that and I hope when we get there, everybody will realize this is no cakewalk. We’re talking about schools with good programs.” Brian Woodson of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph contributed to this story.