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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)


When the FHSAA recently unveiled a new plan that would put its major team sports into six different divisions using MaxPreps rankings, area coaches and athletic officials knew that something that's been missing from the prep sports scene for decades could easily reappear.

"Basically, what the state is trying to do is provide a little more competitive balance and give those major team sports the opportunity to schedule opponents that best fit their schools," Sarasota County Schools athletic director James Slaton said.

The changes would cover football, girls volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball. Teams would be divided into six different divisions based on rankings from the past season and the upcoming season.

District play, which is based on enrollment and has been in use since 1931, would be eliminated.

The proposal came during the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association athletics director conference and the FHSAA compliance seminar earlier this month in Orlando.

Slaton said Monday that the FHSAA is having discussions on the proposed ranking systems now and will probably pass it during the fall. If approved, the changes would go into effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The top 64 teams in the

MaxPreps rankings would fall into Division 1, which would consist of the best teams in their respective sport regardless of school enrollment. The next 64 would be in Division 2, with all teams in both divisions making their respective playoffs.

"Your top teams that would have made the playoffs are all going to make it," Slaton said.

Divisions three to six would include approximately 115 to 130 teams, depending on the sport, also based on ranking, in each division. The top 64 in those classes, based on the MaxPreps rankings at the end of the regular season, would make the state series.

The six divisions would be broken up into eight regions with no district games or tournaments. The eight-team regions would be geographic and the highest seeded team would host throughout the tournament.

The eight regional champions would then play with seeding determined by the rankings. State semifinals and finals - or just the finals - would be played at a neutral site.

Slaton said that the new pairings would eliminate mismatches in the postseason. For example, the Orlando Christian Prep boys basketball team, which has five Division 1 commits and has won four state titles in the past five years, beat teams with a running clock all throughout this past postseason.

"The days of beating teams with a running clock in the Final Four in Lakeland are probably gone," said Slaton, a former boys basketball coach at Venice High School.

Lemon Bay boys basketball coach Sean Huber said his initial reaction to the proposed changes was that teams will be forced to play teams that are like themselves.

"The lopsided victories in district play that come in districts where's there's not a competitive balance will go bye-bye," Huber said. "For us, we've been playing basketball in a Class 7A district but we're only a 5A school. This will wipe all of that out instantly."

Volleyball teams would have to play seven postseason games in order to win a state championship. Venice, which captured the Class 8A state title last November, won a couple of those matches in blowout fashion.

Brian Wheatley, owner of five state championship rings as coach of the Indians, says the changes will make the road to a state title even tougher. The volleyball landscape features teams at the Class 3A and 4A levels that could easily compete with bigger schools.

"As a competitor, I love the competitiveness of it," Wheatley said. "All of these postseason games would be pretty strong. These state championship games would be more like true state championships. If you win a Division 1 state championship, you're truly the best team in the state of Florida."

Slaton said reaction to the proposed changes has been mixed among coaches in Sarasota County.

"One of the main negatives is if there's no districts and you're not mandated to play those elite teams, the local teams may not want to play you," Slaton said. "They also may not want to play the lesser teams. For instance, it may be tougher for Venice to be able to play schools like North Port and Lakewood Ranch. We may have to get together as school districts and make sure these teams still play each other."

Palmetto baseball coach Rich Glass, whose Tigers are stuck with Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota in a tough district, said he's "all for" the changes, especially if more teams make the playoffs.

"When you look at the body of work our kids had and the schedule they played, they deserved to be in the postseason," Glass said. "The new football playoff rules helped our school last year and they made some noise in the postseason. I feel our kids would have benefited from that as well."

Glass said the state baseball playoff system, which has teams playing just once a week up until the state finals, is flawed.

"Playing once a week doesn't show what your team is truly made of," he said. "You may have one good arm, and you can ride that kid the whole time. It doesn't really tell you the depth of your team."

Lemon Bay boys basketball, which won their district title earlier this year, qualified for District 2 in a sample of team rankings provided to the Herald-Tribune. Lakewood Ranch was the lone area team to qualify for Division 1, ranked no. 24 overall. Booker and North Port would have joined Lemon Bay in District 2.

Huber said one of the keys to scheduling will be to try and play as many teams as he can that are in the same division. He added that teams in higher divisions can be added if there's a favorable match-up.

"I think the scheduling aspect is going to be crucial," Huber said. "You have to make sure you're scheduling the right people and they'll continue to win if they're good enough. I think in the first year I'd schedule like I normally do and see what that does."

"There might be an added strategy to scheduling," Wheatley added. "We always try and schedule as hard as we can anyway, but now the schedule is really going to come into play."

Wheatley said the changes could also mean the end of dynasties in Florida.

"The days of teams winning multiple, back-to-back state championships are probably done," Wheatley said. "You literally have to be the best team in the state to win. I think you can win one every few years, but going back-to-back would be really tough."

"Whatever the changes are we'll manage it ... and do our best to figure it out."

Glass said he was anxious to see if the proposals eventually pass.

"I'm a big proponent of this," he said. "We put a lot of time and effort in with these young kids, and I feel like their hard work should be rewarded - and not determined by one game."

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May 16, 2018


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