BUFFALO GAP — Buffalo Gap picked up a big victory Wednesday and didn’t even have to play a game.
The Virginia High School League’s appeal committee approved the school’s second request 4-1 to drop to Class 1, which will begin in the 2021-22 school year. Gap was originally denied the move down by the VHSL alignment committee by a 19-3 vote during a July meeting despite being only two students over the 474 limit for Class 1 and its enrollment steadily heading down. The school has shown no growth since 2007, and has lost 24% of its student enrollment since then.
“Our school numbers having been declining and future projections continue to show a declining population out here,” Buffalo Gap athletic director Andrew Grove said. “Our area is not growing with young families.”
The committee made it clear that declining enrollment numbers were the factors considered in approval of Gap’s appeal.
The move means the Bison will be joining arch-rival Riverheads in Region 1B for what promising to be a rollicking good time if the two schools get matched up in win-or-go-home regional games, or for that matter, state contests. Imagine the Bison and Gladiators squaring off in the Class 1 state semifinals for the right to play for the title. Unfortunately under the current state brackets, two teams from the same region can’t meet up in the finals.
The addition of Gap, which will likely become the biggest Class 1 school in the state, gives the region its fourth new school in the last three years. Franklin, Sussex Central and Surry County were switched from Region 1A prior to the 2019-20 season to give the region nine schools in football, which finally ended the ridiculous scenario of winless teams making the postseason.
When the move becomes official next year, the breakdown of the Shenandoah District, which also will welcome the arrival of Waynesboro, will be drastically altered. Besides Gap and Riverheads being Class 1, Fort Defiance, Staunton, Waynesboro and Wilson Memorial are Class 3 and Stuarts Draft becomes the district’s lone Class 2 member.
Grove said everyone at the school is ecstatic with the decision.
“We have a lot of very happy coaches, and very soon a happy community,” he said. “I can’t thank the central office, especially Dr. (Eric) Bond and Dr. (Doug) Shifflett, for all their help in getting us to Class 1. I don’t know if this would have happened without the support of Bond and Shifflett. They wanted what was best for our students and athletes.”
The Riverheads factor is icing on the cake for Grove.
“This is going to do a lot for the western part of the county,” he said. “It is some of the best competition around to watch when we play, but even better is the players and parents hang out together after the game. The communities are still tight with each other after the games are played.”
And the postseason possibilities have the Gap AD beaming with anticipation.
“We have fantastic crowds and excitement when we play any sport in the regular season,” Grove said. “Now can you imagine how that will ramp up in the playoffs if our seasons are on the line.”
Bison head football coach Brad Wygant said the drop is good news in regards to competitiveness.
“We held our own against schools that had a couple hundred more students than us, but it was tough,” he said. “Now the expectations are higher as well they should be. Our athletes across the board need to be ready for the challenge. We aren’t the little guys anymore. The smaller schools will be coming after us now.
“Whenever a school drops to Class 1, the realization is that Riverheads is always there, but we know that,” Wygant said. “Playing Riverheads is nothing new to us. We just have to figure out a way to beat them, especially if we meet up in the postseason.”
For Gap head boys basketball coach Chad Ward, the switch to Region 1B is going home. Ward spent 10 years as an assistant under legendary coach Mike Cartolaro at Altavista, and the team won five regional championships and three straight state titles.
“I will be back in my comfort zone,” Ward said. “I also enjoy going back to see and play those people.”
Ward knew Gap would eventually drop to Class 1 when he took the job five years ago.
“I am happy it is happening now,” he said. “The program is on the rebound and this allows for the excitement to continue. I firmly believe if we had been in Class 1 last season that we would have been in the state playoffs. I think we will see more postseason success going forward.”
But that the change is still a year away, and Ward isn’t focused on that.
“There is no change to who we are and what we are doing right now,” he said. “The focus is on this winter. We are not forgetting about this season.”
Riverheads athletic director Tim Morris echoed his counterpart’s sentiments at Gap.
“We are glad for them,” he said. “The way their numbers look they will be Class 1 for a long time. It’s great to finally have a close neighbor in Region 1B. Our closest neighbor was Stonewall Jackson before it went to Class 2 [last year], and now the closest is Cumberland.”
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