Too Many Titles?
Beginning next year, Virginia will have six state champions in basketball. Some say that’s fine; others say it’s too many.
Posted: March 8, 2013
HARRISONBURG — After the Virginia High School League expanded each division of the state basketball tournament from four to eight teams in 1986, John Woodrum figured that was just the beginning of expanded playoffs.
“I remember somebody said then, ‘That’s just going to open the door for everybody getting a trophy,’” the Turner Ashby High School athletic director said.
In the last five years, the trophy count has increased considerably.
Since 2008, the VHSL has expanded the number of state champions in basketball from three to four (in ’08), to five (in ’09), to six starting next year – meaning each team in Virginia will be competing against roughly 50 other schools for the right to be called a state champion.
It’s a long way from the romantic notion of one school conquering an entire state, as popularized in the movie “Hoosiers.”
The newest formula, which will debut in time for the 2014 postseason, was created to ensure that divisions included schools of comparable size; now, there are considerable disparities.
Example A: the Division 1 girls’ basketball semifinals this week in Richmond. According to the latest VHSL enrollment numbers, East Rockingham, the defending D-1 champ, has 649 students, far exceeding the other three semifinalists: Altavista (410), Castlewood (337) and Clintwood (302).
Under the new 6A formula, East Rockingham and R.E. Lee (now Division 3) will be in the same classification. Lee has 728 students, only 79 more than East Rock.
The disparities among the D-3 semifinalists are slightly smaller than D-1 girls, but still significant. Boys’ semifinalists were Fort Defiance (801 students), Spotswood (791), Bruton (623) and Brunswick (616); girls’ were Monticello (1,077), Spotswood, Richlands (717) and Brunswick.
VHSL Executive Director Ken Tilley said next year’s change will put Virginia in line with most other states in the number of schools in each division. Among the commonwealth’s neighboring states, though, there is an exception: North Carolina, which opted against smaller divisions, in part, to prevent competition from being watered down.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has four divisions – 1A through 4A – consisting of about 100 schools each, or roughly twice as many as there will be in Virginia’s 6A system next year (about 52 each). North Carolina does divide each division in two for football – Virginia has done the same in football since 1986 – but not for other sports.
NCHSAA associate commissioner Rick Strunk said that the organization considered subdividing for other sports, including basketball, in 2011. It even did studies examining how an expanded system would work. But ultimately, it decided that four classifications were enough.
One reason was travel expenses – Strunk noted that subdividing divisions could potentially require frequent coast-to-coast trips among schools of similar size.
But Strunk also noted a general consensus that for sports other than football more than four divisions would lessen the value of a state title to an intolerable degree.
“We even get that [complaint] in football,” Strunk said. “There are some that rail against it because it waters down. There are eight champions rather than four.”
Football, though, is different because it’s more of a numbers game, Strunk said. A school with a higher enrollment is much more likely to be stronger in football, because it requires such a large roster of talent. In basketball and other sports, a few good players make much more of a difference. Woodrum likes the 6A system for football – he opposes it in all other sports – for the same reason.
West Virginia and Maryland are more similar to Virginia. West Virginia uses a three-class system for basketball, with each division containing between 37 and 46 teams; Maryland has four classes, each containing 49 or 50 schools.
Woodrum and Harrisonburg boys’ basketball coach Scott Joyner both have said they preferred the old, three-division system.
“I do think six classifications is too many,” Woodrum said. “I think it’s just way too watered down. I would have been in favor of going to four classifications.”
Woodrum said dividing the smallest schools into more divisionns – as is now the case – makes sense, because small changes in enrollment matter more. The advantage of a 600-enrollment school over a 300-enrollment school, for instance, is greater than that of a 2,300- over a 2,000-enrollment school. That’s why he said the ideal system would be four divisions – a subdivided small-school classification, with two undivided classifications for the bigger schools.
Obviously, many other people like the proliferation of state trophies.
ERHS girls’ basketball coach Paul Comer – whose defending D-1 champion Eagles could potentially have a tougher postseason next year as they move up to the new D-2 with bigger schools – said he believes that players don’t put less value on state titles now than before.
“Go ask one of those kids whether it makes a difference to them whether [a state championship is in] Division 3 or Division 4,” Comer said, recalling a conversation with another coach. “That’s truly the way we look at it, is it’s truly a benefit to the kids and gives them a better opportunity.”
In other words, a trophy is a trophy – even if there are more of them.
And just because the state has six championships instead of three doesn’t mean titles are easy to win.
“I like it now,” said SHS senior Tucker McCoy, the point guard for the Blazer boys’ basketball team. “It’s definitely tough to make [a state championship game].”