After operating largely on a three classification system for the past 40 years, the Virginia High School League has spent the last 10 months crafting and approving a major overhaul to the athletic landscape in the state.
Starting in the 2013-2014 school year, the VHSL will move to a new six classification system for most sports - some sports may hold state playoffs in fewer classifications depending on participation levels across the state - that dramatically changes the way teams qualify for postseason and advance to their respective state tournaments.
For starters, a major change for Loudoun schools will come with the addition of a new district starting next year with 5A schools Briar Woods, Broad Run, Freedom, Potomac Falls and Tuscarora forming the Potomac District for regular season play.
4A schools Dominion, Heritage, Loudoun County, Park View, and Woodgrove, along with 3A schools John Champe and Loudoun Valley will remain in a seven-school Dulles District.
5A Stone Bridge will continue to play the regular season in the Liberty District with seven schools from Fairfax County, but the Bulldogs are expected to eventually join the Potomac District starting in 2015.
“I wasn’t sure about the changes going into the whole process,” Loudoun County High School athletic director Ken Wright said. “Now that it’s official and there is no alternative, we have no choice but to make it work.”
Under the old three classifications system, put into place in 1970, teams of different classes could not play in the same districts. Regular season and tournament district play helped determine which teams advanced to four regionals across the state in each classification. From those four regionals, two teams advanced to form an eight-team state tournament.
The new VHSL model, approved in emergency legislation by the VHSL executive board in September and then backed by the general membership Oct. 16 when AAA schools (voting 78-40) brought a motion to the floor to overturn the plan. Needing two-thirds to overturn the new model, the motion failed as 189 out of 292 schools in attendance supported the change.
The new playoff structure in the state does not start at the district level but starts with a new level called conferences and all teams advance to conference tournament play once the regular season ends.
The six classifications in the state have been split into two sectionals (still called regionals in the new play) with each sectional comprised of four conferences.
The 5A Loudoun schools in the new Potomac District have been placed in Conference 14 of 5A North, along with Stone Bridge. From that conference, two schools will then advance to the 5A North, eight-team tournament. From that tournament, two teams will advance to a Final Four in the state along with two teams from 5A South.
“We are in favor of it with some reservations,” Broad Run athletic director Jack Kirby said before the general membership vote. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Local athletic directors and principals already started sketching out some of those answers on their drive back from Charlottesville after the general membership meeting as conference by-laws need to be written. They also need to determine how to handle conference play in wrestling, track and field and other sports.
The five Dulles District 4A schools have been placed in the 4A North Conference 21, along with James Wood, Millbrook and Shernado. And the two Dulles District 3A schools have been placed in the 3A East Conference 26, along with Central-Woodstock, Skyline, Warren County and William Monroe.
“In 4A North, we have great principals and athletic directors. We have great leadership so I’m very comfortable going forward,” said Wright of 4A North which stretches from Fredericksburg to Danville.
Football, the only sport to already hold state championships in all six classifications, is the exception as the football postseason will bypass conference play and start with a 16-team seeded regional or sectional. The winner of the two sections in each of the classifications will then play in the state championship game.
While football split into six classifications in 1986 and basketball starting splitting into more classifications several years ago, most sports for one more year will continue to hold three state championships with anywhere from 90 to 120 schools in each classification. The large number of schools in the three classifications led to competitive balance issues for schools on the smaller end of each classification. The new format will place between 46 and 48 schools in each classification.
“I think ultimately it’s a good thing because the issue of competitive balance is going to be addressed,” said John Champe athletic director Joe Breinig, Jr., who is on the VHSL executive committee which approved the changes by a 23-3 vote Sept. 20.
For Dulles District schools, there is good news and bad with the changes. Currently the first level of postseason play is the district tournament which limits travel within Loudoun. Under the new plan, schools could be on the road to Roanoke or Danville in their first playoff games.
The good news is that schools will no longer have to change districts if their school population goes up or down. In the last six years, Loudoun schools that moved up to AAA from AA had to move from the AA Dulles District to the AAA Cedar Run District, which involved a lot of regular season play in Prince William County.
With two districts now based in Loudoun (Dulles and Potomac), the county can expand from 13 to 16 high schools without any schools having to play regular season district games out of the county.
Another major change is that the district tournaments will likely go away or else they will be moved to the start of seasons or midseason if held at all. Wright said that athletic directors are also kicking around the ideas of hold county-wide championships in some sports such as wrestling, track and field and cross-country.
“I think district tournaments are done in my opinion,” Wright said.
-Dan “Surfs Up” Sousa is the http://www.VivaLoudoun.com editor.
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