Tuesday, November 02, 2010

SPORTS>>Classification lightning rod for complaint

By todd traub
Leader sports editor

I can’t say we didn’t see this one coming.

I noticed a bit of grouchiness on the Jacksonville side during West Memphis’ 37-13 victory ov
er the Red Devils at Jan Crow Stadium on Friday.
You can’t blame Jacksonville — West Memphis was consistently going for two and onside kicking with wild abandon most of the night while denying Jacksonville its last shot at a 7A/6A-East Conference championship.

But the real cause of the Red Devils’ ire is something that has been simmering all season at the state’s large-school level, and now that the playoffs are almost here it’s about to boil over.

I’m talking about the conference alignments and postseason power rankings of course.

After Friday’s loss, Jacksonville coach Rick Russell grumbled a bit, when prodded, about 7A West Memphis being lumped in what is primarily a 6A conference with the Red Devils.

Russell wasn’t the only unhappy camper in the state.

Further north, 6A Van Buren, Cabot’s victim in a 35-28 shootout Friday, has filed suit against the Arkansas Activities Association over the power rankings that help determine playoff seeding.

The late-season lawsuit makes a nice bookend to 6A Searcy’s preseason appeal that gave us the current 7A/6A-East and 7A/6A-Central lineups, which are basically the old, 6A-East and 7A-Central conferences dressed up with a slash and more letters and numerals.

Even 7A Cabot, still in a three-way tie for first in the 7A/6A-Central entering Thurs-day’s regular-season finale, is unhappy with the way the postseason is shaping up.

Should West Memphis win out, Cabot coach Mike Malham has pointed out more than once, it will take a top seed to the 7A playoffs no matter how Cabot, Bryant and Conway resolve their tie.

In the aftermath of Election Day, all politicians and newly minted policy-makers should take note, this is what happens when you try to please everyone — you end up pleasing no one.

Faced with travel and competitiveness issues among the large, football-playing schools, the AAA took a well-intentioned stab at the problem during the last round of two-year reclassification.

The idea was that instead of forcing a 7A or 6A school to travel far to play similarly sized conference opponents, that school would stay closer to home in a hybrid, 7A/6A conference and then return to its own classification for postseason play.

That’s how we’ve wound up with 7A West Memphis in a largely 6A conference and 6A Van Buren in a 7A-heavy league.

To address competitive imbalances and help determine playoff seeding, the power rankings were devised to award points for, among other things, games played against teams in higher classifications.

The essence of Van Buren’s suit is that the system does not award points for non-conference games as originally planned, and the suit also claims unfairness in reclassifying schools 6A and then making them play mostly 7A competition.

I predict there will be more complaints before state champions are crowned, but I’d like to offer a solution.

First, let’s not base classifications solely on enrollment figures.

Enrollment doesn’t equal turnout on the football field; just ask North Pulaski, which is 5A but frequently fields a 2A-sized roster. It seems silly an enrollment swing of, I don’t know, 50 or so kids every couple years could have such a dramatic effect on a football schedule.

Take a program’s average turnout over the previous cycle and factor it in with enrollment figures and base classification on that. It would be nice if we could factor in athletic budgets too, but I’m not sure if the private schools would allow that.

Second, lengthen the classification cycles to four or even six years or more.

If schools have to live with each other in the same classification for an extended period, they might organically resolve some of the issues the AAA is tackling. As it is now, if there are problems, people can just say “They’ll fix it in the next round of reclassification.”

But if we make schools play each other and work together over an extended time, natural rivalries will spring up and some of the competitiveness issues could be resolved by, say, competition.

My co-worker Jason King, who usually makes a lot of sense, uses the example of a regional dream conference that would include 6A Searcy, 5A Beebe, Vilonia, Bald Knob and Greenbrier, 4A Lonoke and Heber Springs, and either 4A Southside-Batesville or 2A England.

These are all sound programs separated in classification by only a few hundred students and not too many miles.

Put them all together for four, six years or longer, and I guarantee you the team that winds up last that first season won’t stay there very long.