A new reality for high school sports

Posted on Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 5:31 pm

While you were working, traveling or vacationing Tuesday afternoon around 2 p.m., a dozen golfers representing Patrick Henry and Orange County high schools ushered in the eras of “Conference 16,” “Class 5A,” and the reclassification of the Virginia High School League (VHSL).

This year marks the end of the decades-old  VHSL classification system, switching instead to a model that groups schools based on student population.

Groups out, classes in

The entire impetus of VHSL reclassification was to end the vast attendance disparity between schools that were in the same group, region or district. For example, it was hoped that Richmond City Schools would benefit, leaving the old Colonial and Capital Districts where they played schools with up to and sometimes more than double their enrollment.

So, instead of Groups AAA, AA, and A, mainstays in state sports since 1970, the VHSL now begins its breakdown of teams by “Classes.” There are six of them, 6A to 1A. Each class is broken into two new types of “Regions.” They look nothing like the Central Region you’ve been accustomed to, which was comprised of schools strictly from a geographical measure.

Atlee, Lee-Davis, and Patrick Henry are all in Class 5A, as they all fall in the 1,475 to 1,550 student level. Hanover, with 1,304 students according to figures provided by the VHSL, is now competing in Class 4A.

This means Hanover County could have two teams crowned state champions in a single sport. And, thanks to Patrick Henry being in the 5A North region and Atlee and Lee-Davis being in 5A South, it’s feasible that, one day, Patrick Henry could play Lee-Davis or Atlee  in a state championship game. Though odds for these possibilities are long, they are present, creating opportunities never before seen for three of the county schools when deep into the postseason.

Districts out, conferences in

In reclassification, the long-familiar Colonial and Capital Districts that housed county schools are gone. For the time being, schools will still be seeing a lot of former district foes in regular season play, but, as years go by, schools will be looking to schedule more towards group compatibility, and more so, towards conferences.

For instance, a glance at 2013 football schedules shows minor changes in non-district play, and all four teams playing all of their former district foes. But by 2015, Patrick Henry should be playing their conference opponents more regularly. The first step of that reality was Tuesday when the Patriots faced Orange. Halifax and Albemarle are the other two members of the now-four-team conference.

Patrick Henry was originally to be part of Conference 11, but requested and received a move to Conference 16. Conference 11 is the new home of Lee-Davis and Atlee, and, depending on the sport, it is loaded. The Confederates’ and Raiders’ conference brethren are Henrico, Highland Springs, Deep Run, Douglas Freeman, Mills Godwin, and Hermitage. A Conference 11-heavy football schedule is truly scary. In other sports, Atlee and Lee-Davis could become favorites in the Conference.

In Group 4A, Hanover belongs in Conference 20, where they are joined by Glen Allen, J.R. Tucker, Caroline, Midlothian, Monacan, and Dinwiddie. The Conference spans 80 miles. If Hanover continues to play well in football, a rivalry with Dinwiddie, a team they’ve played three times in the playoffs will develop in a few years. Caroline is moving up in classification, an opportunity not shared by any schools in Hanover.

New road to a title

First, win enough regular season games to qualify for the playoffs. Then, fight your way through your region. Win your region, and go for a state crown. Sounds easy, right? Well, it’s not quite that way in each sport.

For example, in field hockey, Conference 11 is split in half, four teams to the south, four to the north, to help balance out the playoff field due to schools not having a field hockey program. Other sports have special postseason splits and schedules to, essentially, level the playing field, including indoor track.

For football fans, the road to a state championship is a step longer. It will take five postseason wins now to reach the summit.

All of the changes have left more questions than answers and leave some on the field unfazed. Talking with golfers at Hanover Country Club Tuesday, learning the new system isn’t a top priority, getting better is.

The coaches are a little different.

“We’re ready to schedule as many Conference 20 teams as we can,” Hanover golf head coach Chris Pace said.

He’ll get his chance.

NEXT WEEK: In part two of this series, we’ll talk to all four county athletic directors, find out the adjustments being made, talk about whether the new makeup means more money in the county school bus gasoline budget, and see how students view the most massive change in Virginia high school sports in 43 years.

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