Tuesday, June 04, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> AAA looking over new proposals

Leader sports editor

The Arkansas Activities Assocation’s Board of Directors’ summer workshop is being held this week in Conway, where the board will decide whether to give a do-pass or do-not pass recommendation to AAA voters concerning new classification alignment proposed by Mountain Home and Searcy high schools.

The new proposals will reduce the number of classifications from seven to six and will put the top 16 schools in their own division of two, eight-team conferences.

For the last 12 years, the AAA has done everything from tweaking to overhauling the alignment structure in an attempt to strike a balance and maintain competitiveness. The job hasn’t been easy with the rapid growth in northwest Arkansas that’s been causing huge disparities in enrollment numbers in the highest athletic classification.

Traditionally, the top 32 schools have been placed in one classification, but in recent years, that’s been the largest few being more than three times larger than the smallest few. If the top 32 teams were in the same classification for the upcoming 2014-2016 cycle, it would put the largest school, Bentonville with an enrollment of 2,878 students in grades nine through 11, in the same division with Greenwood, which has 828 students.

The current format puts the top 32 schools in the same division for regular-season play, but splits them for the playoffs, creating a power ratings system to determine seedings rather than tangible head-to-head competition.

Mountain Home and Searcy fall among the schools in between 17 and 32. Mountain Home’s enrollment is 26th largest with 925 students. Searcy is 28th with 906. Their proposals are identical in detail, but are presented from different angles.

Searcy approaches the need for realignment from the competitive numbers point of view. Mountain Home’s proposal primarily addresses travel problems with the current format.

The proposals ask that the top 16 schools make up class 6A, the top classification. The next four classifications would each consist for 48 teams based on enrollment numbers. Whatever is left, which would be around 50 schools, would make up class 1A, which are non-football schools.

Classes four, three, two and one are currently divided up in this same manner.

“We feel like this has a great chance to pass because it does not effect the bottom four classes at all,” Mountain Home athletic director Janet Wood said. “From what I gather almost all the current 7A schools like it, all the 6A schools like it, and of course the 5A schools right now don’t like it. But you know they have to ask themselves why they don’t like it.

“The only reason is that it adds 16 larger schools to their classification. But when you look at it logically, it’s a much more even playing field than we have now, and it solves most of the travel problems we currently have.”

The new proposal would put Russellville, 17th in enrollment with 1,148 students, in the same classification with Morrilton, which is 62nd in enrollment with 495 students.

The new proposal would effect four area schools that are currently in class 5A. Beebe is No. 40 in the state in enrollment with 721, Jacksonville is 46th with 680, Sylvan Hills is 50th with 639 and North Pulaski is 54th with 609. All four would be in the classification with Russellville and the other 16 schools that currently make up class 6A.

“I kind of have mixed feelings about it,” Jacksonville athletic director Jerry Wilson said. “I feel like we’re now on a level playing field and we’re having a lot of success. I think we have what it takes to be competitive in this new division, but at the same time, some of those schools will be more than twice our size, and that’s quite a disadvantage.”

Jacksonville football coach Rick Russell doesn’t mind the change, but believes it should be based strictly on enrollment, with no exceptions made for travel.

There is currently one caveat in the plan, and that is West Memphis, on the Tennessee border, would be in the same conference with Fort Smith schools, which are on the Oklahoma border.

West Memphis is currently the smallest 7A school with 1,290 students. Allowing West Memphis and Russellville to swap classifications is one solution to the travel problem.

“If they’re going to start changing things and making exceptions for this and that, I’m against it,” Russell said. “They say it’s about enrollment and that’s the way it should be. I have no problem with proposal. It makes things tougher for us, but we’re familiar with that level. We were just there two years ago and we had some success, made the playoffs fairly regularly. I think we can continue to do that.”

Beebe football coach John Shannon would like to stay in the same conference he is in now, but understands his alma mater, because of its location, has been moved around frequently among leagues.

“We fought last time to stay in the same conference because we’re always getting moved around,” Shannon said. “I don’t really mind playing the larger schools because if we keep growing like we are, we’ll be one of the larger schools before long.

“My problems is constantly changing conferences. There was one idea I saw that had us basically still playing the same teams. So if they can work that out I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Shannon also pointed out that proposals similar to this one have failed to pass several times in the past several years. Sylvan Hills athletic director and baseball coach Denny Tipton sites that fact as one of the reasons he doesn’t think the measure will succeed.

“It’s been tried before and I think a lot of the people I’ve talked to don’t really like it,” Tipton said. “It kind of waters down the state title when you only have 16 teams in the divison. So I think some of the 7A schools will vote against it. I know some of the larger 4A schools who are looking at maybe moving up soon don’t like it either. It’s kind of like jumping up two classifications for them.

“I don’t really have a problem with it from a travel standpoint. It will make travel easier for most people, and I think we can be competitive. But if you’re asking me if I think it will pass, no I don’t.”