Copyright 2018 The Florida Times-Union
Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)
Is high school football ready to wave goodbye to district tournaments and nine-classification sports?
By the first whistle of August 2019, the answer could be yes.
The Florida High School Athletic Administration rolled out further details of its reclassification plans Tuesday at Lee High School, fielding questions from around two dozen Northeast Florida coaches and athletic directors on a proposal that would radically change the shape of competition on courts, diamonds and pitches across the Sunshine State.
The draft proposal, not yet in its final form, would overhaul the long-established classification system in seven sports beginning with the 2019-20 school year.
Instead of student enrollment, which the FHSAA has used as its classification standard for some 80 years, the new classification would rely on a system of power rankings to assign teams in one of six divisions.
Why change now? FHSAA associate director for athletic services Justin Harrison points to multiple issues in recent state series events, including one-sided playoffs and dwindling attendance, as the impetus for a proposed change that the association has been weighing for some six months.
The chief objective, he said, is a more level playing field.
"I think it would give a tremendous impact, because it adds hope," Harrison said. "It would add the feeling that no matter what game I'm going into, we have a chance."
That wasn't necessarily the case at the FHSAA boys basketball finals in March, where six of the nine state finals were decided by double digits, including a 40-point trouncing in Class 5A. The nine girls finals were likewise lopsided, with seven double-digit results and an average margin of 16.9 points.
Notably excluded from the proposal is football, which underwent its own transformation last year with the advent of a new points formula to determine playoff positions, as well as individual sports like golf, swimming and tennis.
However, the changes would resonate far and wide throughout most high school team sports — baseball, softball, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer and girls volleyball.
Among the key points:
• The top 64 teams in each sport based on the power rankings would form a first division — in essence, the cream of the crop in the sport for the state. The next 64 would make up the second division, and all others would be divided evenly into divisions 3-6.
That 64, Harrison said, isn't a magic number, and the FHSAA is still considering the possibility of a smaller top division of 16 or 32. He said the association is communicating with the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section, which introduced a somewhat similar format several years ago.
"Where do we draw that line?" Harrison said. "That's one of the things we want feedback on."
Divisional assignments would not be subject to appeal. Harrison said that about half the FHSAA's member schools submitted appeals to their classification under the enrollment formula.
• Within the top two classes, all teams would qualify for the playoffs, to be split under a tentative plan into eight regions of eight teams each and seeded according to the rankings. In divisions 3-6, the top 64 in each division's power rankings would qualify.
The regional setup, Harrison said, would reduce travel distances compared to the current system. He estimated that during the regional rounds, Northeast Florida teams would likely face trips no longer than two hours, though that depends on which teams qualify for which divisions.
• Each classification would be sport-specific, meaning that schools could — and almost certainly would — occupy different divisions in different sports.
In one extreme example, if the plan were implemented now, Stanton would be classified in the first division in girls soccer, after a state final trip in 2017 and a regional final placing in 2018. But the Blue Devils would probably compete in the fifth or sixth division in boys basketball, which has combined for three wins in the last two years to earn MaxPreps rankings of 582nd and 603rd.
One issue is keeping those divisions below the top two into withering into the equivalent of a consolation tournament for 129th place.
Paxon assistant athletic director Steve Brown, who also coaches football and softball, supports some aspects of the proposal, but he's worried that the emphasis on the top flight may diminish the intensity — and the crowd — for postseason games in the other tiers.
"It'll be great for the top schools, but it'll hurt the smaller divisions," he said. "I'm sure the Bolles-Trinity [2017 football playoff] game had a lot more attendance than any other [Jacksonville] games that week."
He suggested scheduling playoffs for the top division on a different day from others to avoid eating into smaller programs' attendances.
The proposal would also end district assignments in their current form, which would abolish district tournaments and radically alter scheduling for many schools.
Under current rules, those district games are mandatory for teams. After fielding complaints about mercy-rule maulings and late-night road trips that teams didn't enjoy but had to play anyway, Harrison said his approach, though radical, fixes the issue.
"Having the freedom to do the schedule, the schools have been excited about that," he said. "There is concern about, 'Hey, are we going to get enough games?' But I think they need to remember that everyone's in the same boat. Everyone's looking for the same amount of games, and you can play your same games still."
While the recent increase to nine classes has reduced long-distance travel within districts, cases still exist. In baseball and softball District 4-7A, for instance, all of Middleburg's district opponents (Columbia, Gainesville and Ocala Vanguard) are more than an hour's drive.
Brown said he's a supporter of changing up the district format.
"I like the region-based system, because it gives you an option to change your schedule to decide how you want to go ... if you can adjust your schedule, you can keep more kids interested," he said.
But Brown isn't as keen on the criteria used to determine the power rankings. The FHSAA has yet to officially confirm the format for those rankings, but suggested it favors the system of MaxPreps, a national high school sports website owned by broadcaster CBS and based in El Dorado Hills, Calif.
In May 2017, the association reached a five-year agreement designating MaxPreps as the FHSAA's "exclusive scores and statistics provider."
Harrison cited MaxPreps' national reach and inclusion of factors like opponents' strength of schedule as benefits, also saying that the company's proprietary algorithm would make it more difficult for teams to game the system.
Some coaches and athletic directors, however, expressed concerns about transparency in the MaxPreps formula, as well as potentially skewed rankings caused by erroneous or incomplete results.
Of the 17 Gateway Conference programs, five (Jackson, Lee, Ribault, Westside and Wolfson) were not ranked in softball last year because too few of their games were reported to MaxPreps. Harrison said FHSAA staff would work to fill in those gaps.
The MaxPreps formula drew criticism of its own.
St. Johns Country Day athletic director Traci Livingston noted that MaxPreps didn't rank the Spartans' national champion girls soccer team first in Florida in either 2017 or 2018, although the team does hold MaxPreps' highest two-year average in that span.
Without some insight into how the ranking works, Ridgeview athletic director John Sgromolo said, athletic directors face many unknowns trying to assemble their schedules.
"If you're division two and you schedule a D-1 team and lose, do you take a bigger hit than you do if you play a D-3 team and win?" he said. "Those are questions a lot of coaches are going to want answered before they jump on board."
Harrison said power rankings would use teams' ordinal MaxPreps rankings, not raw rating points, to determine teams' placing. A team ranking 60th in one year and 150th in the next would earn a ranking of 105 toward the classification formula. A tiebreaker mechanism has yet to be confirmed, but could involve adding a third year's power ranking to tip the balance.
Many details of the proposal could still be revisited. That's nothing new for Harrison, who said it felt like the FHSAA was already on "draft 112 at this point."
Harrison said some athletic directors prefer using only the previous year's rankings to determine division, while others want the rankings averaged over a longer period. Under the current plan, teams would receive their divisional classification for a two-year cycle, but the possibility of reclassifying annually remains on the table.
In addition, Harrison said that schools currently eligible for the rural 1A classification would retain the option to continue in that category, which would in effect become a seventh division outside the new system. Hilliard and Union County are the area schools currently in Class 1A.
Harrison said the FHSAA's athletic directors' advisory committee is set to take up the matter in September, and a final vote on the proposal is expected in October.
By then, coaches will find out whether they're about to venture into a new sports landscape.
"Now, it's going out to all the schools and the members and kind of getting the feedback and hearing everything ... It's trying to piece it all together and getting to be able to address it all in one plan," Harrison said.
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