The ever-changing landscape of the Virginia High School League appears to be in the infant stages of undergoing another major makeover.
The VHSL has started the process of possibly reducing the number of classifications, beginning with the 2023-24 school year.
The current six classifications could be reduced to four, or possibility back to the old three-class setup. The four-class system appears to have the early lead, but the discussions are just starting to heat up.
In 2013, the VHSL switched from three classifications to six, but there has been grumbling ever since the change that six is too many. Of course the loudest voices of dissent have come from the Class 5 and Class 6 schools, which say they have lost money because of losing key rivalries.
The VHSL Alignment Committee is studying three early models, which are sure to change going forward. One model divides each classification into an equal number of schools, while the other two use hard student-count numbers to determine the classification cutoffs.
One interesting twist is that no matter what the classification setup looks like in 2023, the VHSL will start allowing each class to be its own governing body. For example, if Class 1 decides to make a rule change in a sport because of school size, it can do so and it will have no affect on the other classes.
Buffalo Gap athletic director Andrew Grove said it’s way too early to determine which direction the VHSL will go, but he does have a preference.
“I would like to see us go back to the old three-class, two-division system that was used for years,” he said. “But I can see going to four classes.”
If the four-class system is chosen, Grove wants to see the hard student-count numbers used instead of equal number of schools in all the classes.
“If the VHSL does equal number of schools, you will see the small (Class 1) schools raising cane,” he said. “The disparity in student numbers would be unreal.”
The Bison are dropping to Class 1 beginning in the 2021-22 school year.
How a school’s enrollment numbers are determined is changing. The current format counts grades 9-12, but that is changing to grades 9-11, which will be used for the first time in 2023-24. The inaugural grades 9-11 numbers will be applied to whatever classification changes are made.
Grove admitted it is a realistic possibility Buffalo Gap would only be in Class 1 for two years.
“We could be a bubble school, depending on which model is chosen,” he said.
How the Class 1 enrollment numbers are determined could also have an impact on Riverheads.
Riverheads athletic director Tim Morris has no problem with the way things are now.
“We don’t mind the current situation,” he said. “I don’t see a need for change. We will go wherever our enrollment takes us. We will either be a big (Class) 1 or small (Class) 2.”
If a hard 375-student count is used for Class 1, there are only 62 schools, but in one of the higher classes, that number soars to 92 schools, which has created a lot of heated back-and-forth about disparity. Also a 350 count has been bantered about. Needless to say, lots of attention will be focused on how Class 1 is going to be set up.
And every year the smaller Class 1 schools are disappearing because of consolidations, especially in Southwest Virginia.
Fort Defiance first-year athletic director Richard Miller favors the four-class lineup.
“All the Augusta County schools with the exception of Buffalo Gap and Riverheads would be Class 2, plus it is likely all the Rockingham County schools (Broadway, East Rockingham, Spotswood and Turner Ashby) would also be Class 2,” he said. “That would be a nice grouping of teams for scheduling and the postseason.”
And when Harrisonburg builds its second city school, those two could also fall into Class 2. Harrisonburg High School is currently Class 5.
Miller would like to see equal number of schools in each classification, which works out to roughly 80 in each one.
“But that being said, I would be happy with a cutoff of 375 for Class 1 and equal numbers for the other three classes,” he said.
Jeremiah Major, the first-year AD at Waynesboro, sees four classes as a good move.
“Locally we would all be in the same class with the exception of Riverheads,” he said. “And that would also include the Rockingham schools.”
Major is a big fan of each class governing itself.
“Northern Virginia and the 757 (Tidewater area) are different worlds and do things differently,” he said. “What those schools want and what we want around here seldom align. Let them do their thing and let us do ours.”
Wilson Memorial AD Craig Flesher said from the beginning he never thought Virginia was big enough for six classifications.
“Four classifications is better for the state and for us here are Wilson,” he said. “I see no reason to return to the three-class, two-division era. That is what we have now. It is just smoke-and-mirrors.”
Flesher’s counterpart at Stuarts Draft, Steve Hartley, has the opposite viewpoint.
“I wish there was a way to be able to get back to the old three-class, two-division system,” he said. “I think that would be best for the Augusta County schools, and specifically for Stuarts Draft. Four classes would only hurt us in the long run. We would go from one of the biggest to one of the smallest, and I understand that, but would end up competing against the schools that are now in Class 3 (i.e. Northside, Lord Botetourt, Brookville, etc.). We have been down that road before and it didn’t go that well.
“Virginia is not an easy state to satisfy. We can’t be compared to Northern Virginia or the eastern part of the state,” Hartley said. “My wish is they look at keeping the class sizes like we have now.”
Staunton AD David Tibbs has been at the school for 24 years, mostly as the football head coach. He knows what the fans want, but unfortunately will never get.
“We are never, ever, ever, ever going back to the old district system,” he said, adding the state has added 50-75 new schools just in his time at Robert E. Lee/Staunton. “I know fans miss those days. We all want it to be simple, but the old way isn’t going to work today. Teams in the district aren’t in the same classifications anymore, which makes those postseason tournaments we all enjoyed unnecessary.”
He pointed to the Shenandoah District, which has teams from three classifications among its members.
“We are better off if we leave everything where it is,” Tibbs said. “The only change I would like to see is if a school wants to play up, let it play up. That option was taken away when we went to six classes. The 5s and 6s all want to be together again, so let that happen by playing up. The Richmond schools use to be in Group AAA, but their enrollments weren’t close to that size. They just wanted to stay together.”
But rest assured, just like death and taxes, whatever route the VHSL decides to embark, there will still be unhappiness. Welcome to the ongoing drama of high school athletics in the commonwealth.
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