The idea was to create a more competitive landscape in Arizona high school sports by using a formula that would incorporate more elements than just enrollment size to more accurately identify in which division each school should be placed.
In theory, a laudable idea. But no brownie points for the execution.
When the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the governing body for prep sports in the state, announced the initial division placements last month, to run for the next three years, it also made sure that all the parties involved would have plenty of opportunity for appealing the groupings. It was pretty obvious the AIA officials were expecting blow-back.
And they weren’t disappointed, as coaches from all across the state quickly weighed in. A lot of unhappy folks.
Complaints rolled in as some of the smaller schools suddenly found themselves in a higher division that would put them competing against programs two and three times their size, or schools that had the size but lacked the talent to move up. Or suddenly their schedule included schools that were a very long bus ride away.
There were even a few schools that were moved down a classification, but felt they could compete at the higher level and wanted to be challenged by the better competition.
The new formula that was used to re-align the divisions still used enrollment figures, but also factored in a program’s won-loss record over the past six years. Some reports also indicated the addition of an added consideration that took into account the school’s percentage of students who are eligible for the federal free/reduced lunch program, but that ingredient may have been omitted because it unfairly skewed comparisons.
While the appeals have been pretty much limited to those schools requesting a move down, at least one high school stood out by asking for the opposite for its football program. Highland High School in Gilbert was moved out of Division I in the initial placements and moved down to Division II. But head coach Pete Walheim insisted his school could, and should, continue to compete in the state’s top division. His appeal was granted.
But most of the other Division I football coaches that will continue to play in that division are disappointed by the fact that more teams didn’t resist a chance to move down to Division II. They feel that underachieving in recent seasons bought them a ticket to an easier path to the playoffs.
This exodus from Division I has left the state’s premier division with just 17 teams for football, after the initial reformulation had put 22 teams in that group. Most coaches in Division I will tell you that has watered down the competitive level at the top.
But the process marches on – despite the fact that it still looks like a work in progress. The final, final division placements will be released next week by the AIA’s executive board. It will effect just the team sports; individual sports like golf, swimming, wrestling and cross country aren’t included in the re-classifications.
There has been plenty of opportunity for input. The schools had 10 days to digest the initial roll-out of the new placements before a Jan. 30 appeals deadline. That deadline was moved back to Feb. 2 to allow still more time for the avalanche of inquiries, with an appeals hearing set for the next day.
Those appeals are being considered, with one last appeals opportunity next Tuesday, followed the next day with an announcement of the final placements as determined by the executive board.
If those final placements result in more problems than solutions as next year unfolds, there may be an opportunity to apply some bandages since the sports schedules for all divisions will be redone before the 2016 school year begins. That might provide an opportunity to make some adjustments for those schools caught up in the worst-case scenarios.
Hopefully, the fallout from the new formula will be minimal. But don’t bet the farm on that.