VHSL six-classification system a virtual certainty, but not without its problems

In the future, Phoebus' football team will compete for the Group 4 championship.

The Virginia High School League on Wednesday took what appears to be the decisive step toward a new postseason playoff setup that radically changes the system in place since the 1970-71 school year.

The VHSL Executive Committee voted 23-3 to implement a six-classification system — with Group 6A including the state's largest high schools and 1A the smallest — based entirely on student population, beginning in August 2013. The state has operated with three classifications — Groups AAA, AA and A — since 1970 in the vast majority of athletic and academic activities.

The final hurdle is a vote by full membership Oct. 16, which is expected to pass with the required two-thirds majority.

Student enrollment sizes from largest to smallest varied widely on the AAA level, with T.C. Williams at 2,907 students and Maggie Walker with 707. The VHSL also sought to address large disparities within the football and basketball divisions — 1, 2, 3 and 4 — used in recent years to decide state championships at the AA and A levels.

The change is unpopular in Hampton Roads, where coaches and administrators have long been happy with the current setup. None disputes the wisdom of having schools of similar enrollment size play for state titles, but many believe the VHSL is moving too fast in giving schools only this school year to reorganize.

"Six classifications is an important step and one that's long overdue," Grafton athletic director Laura Sutton said. "But this gives us until June to get everything done because we're not supposed to work during the summer."

Organizational issues are myriad, because the entire playoff structure is being changed from top to bottom.

New conferences and regionals

While districts such as the Peninsula and Bay Rivers will remain intact for regular-season play, they no longer determine postseason advancement. The first level of postseason play in all team sports except football will be conferences of five to eight schools each.

Conferences are based on enrollment and geographic location, and all teams qualify for the postseason. VHSL co-athletic director Tom Dolan said a committee will be formed in October to decide whether conferences will determine their own points system for seeding, or whether a standardized points system similar to football's will be used.

The champion and runner-up of conference tournaments will advance to the regional. In football, the top 16 teams in each region will advance to the playoffs using a power-points system similar to the one currently used.

The regional structure also has been changed. Currently there are four regions in each of the three classifications. Each of the six new classifications will be divided into two regions of 24 to 28 teams each.

Having to organize these new regions and conferences by August prompted Oscar Smith principal Paul Joseph, chairman of the Eastern Region Principals Council, to write the VHSL, requesting it to postpone implementation of the six classification system until a plan could be more fully developed.

Joseph wrote last week, "The list of actions that would be impacted by this decision would be staggering."

Joseph's list includes: governance at state, regional and conferences levels; finance on the conference and regional levels; tournament format and organization, as well as election of officers, on the regional and conference levels.

Reorganization under way

Lafayette athletic director Dan Barner does not expect such an extension to be granted, any more than he thinks the full membership will reverse the Executive Committee's vote. Barner said representatives of the 27 schools of the new region Lafayette will be in, the Group 3A East Region, will meet Sept. 26 at James Monroe High in Fredericksburg to begin organizing.

"We voted against this (six-classification system), but it's like any athletic team: When you lose, you move on and get ready for next week's game," Barner said. "We have to begin working on a regional handbook, as well as set up committees for dealing with finances, seeding, trophies and game officials.

"And we've got to do that within our (eight-team) conference. It's a lot to be done and we can't afford to look back."

That said, Barner is concerned that the size of the 3A East Region could make postseason travel costly. The region includes teams from the state's Southside, Peninsula, Northern Virginia and Shenandoah Mountain areas.