Scheduling hazards could be on the road ahead for local football programs
There’s a storm on the horizon in local high school football.
When 26 of the 30 members of the PIAA Board of Directors voted to approve a reclassification in October, it set off a domino effect that could change how several YAIAA schools run their football programs.
The PIAA has used four classifications since 1988, but it will move to six classes this year, thinning out the herd come postseason time.
In theory, that sounds great, and the six-class system seems like a shiny, new toy. The change closes the enrollment gap in each class, so teams should be more evenly matched. In the four-class system, for example, Reading and its male enrollment of 1,770 competed in the same class as South Western and its enrollment of 475 males.
That didn’t seem fair, and that issue has been eliminated for the most part. In the six-class structure, the enrollment gap between the biggest and smallest 4A schools is about 130.
"The biggest thing we heard in our district was narrowing the gap," District 3 Vice Chairman Doug Bohannon said after the October ruling. "The traditional 4A schools that were on the low end had a difficult time every year battling the schools that had more kids than they had.
"With six equal classifications, it will narrow the numbers in that gap. That will be the most interesting piece in that."
That’s fair, but if you look closer, the view gets blurry. Locally, the biggest question is what will the 6A teams in the YAIAA do?
There are four 6A schools in the YAIAA, and three of them (Red Lion, Dallastown and Central York) compete in Division I with five other teams – all of which are in 5A. So right off the bat, those three schools are guaranteed to be playing down a class in half of their regular-season games.
Compounding matters is the fact that these schools, as well as every team across the state, built their 2016 football schedules based on the old four-classification system. But the expansion shook up the alignment, so in some cases, teams that were previously grouped together now reside in different classes.
For instance, Red Lion, which can play three non-league games, scheduled Waynesboro, Daniel Boone and Chambersburg for this season. But two of those programs (Daniel Boone, Waynesboro) didn’t get bumped up to the 6A level with them. So in two of their three nonleague weeks, the Lions will be playing down to 5A opponents. And that's in addition to the five 5A opponents they'll play in their own division.
That's significant because the District 3 playoff system is based on a point system that weighs wins and losses differently based on your opponent's classification. So playing against schools in smaller classes — particularly in seven of 10 weeks — isn't helpful for trying to reach the playoffs.
Dallastown's and Central's nonleague slates each feature two 6A opponents plus West York, which will now be a 4A school. Both of those schools have developed great rivalries with the Bulldogs, but continuing to schedule that game in the future is a detriment to the Panthers' and Wildcats' playoff hopes.
Why? Because outside of your own winning percentage, strength of schedule is the biggest factor in district playoff rankings. So playing down to a 4A school like West York — and the five divisional opponents in 5A — looks bad on the schedule.
Victories against lower-classification opponents don't do you much good. And a loss could be crushing in the ratings.
So do you abandon such a key, local rivalry that lasted decades in order to bolster your postseason chances?
In addition to the two new classifications, the District 3 football tournament field will shrink from 16 teams to eight for the biggest classes. And strength of schedule plays a key role in filling that field. So if a team like Red Lion has to play down for seven of its 10 weeks, is it even possible to reach the postseason?
The Lions went 7-3 last season, including a win over previously undefeated Dallastown, and still managed to grab only a 10-seed in the Class AAAA tourney. The nine teams ahead of them are all moving up to 6A, too. So if eight teams make the playoffs, and 7-3 was only good enough for 10th last season, what will it take for a 6A YAIAA school to make the playoffs?
A team would likely need to win at least eight or nine games to even have a chance at overcoming a 5A-heavy schedule and sneaking into the top eight spots in 6A. That problem is amplified by the fact that all seven 6A teams in the Mid Penn play in the same division and play each other all year. Same goes for the L-L: All six of that league's 6A schools are in the same division and play just two 5A schools apiece.
The schedules look weak for the 6A YAIAA schools, putting them at an instant disadvantage.
• • •
So what’s the solution? Any option really has its pros and cons.
Option 1: Make the most of it
Dump the local rivalries, add 6A schools to the nonleague schedule in two years when the next scheduling cycle comes around, and hope for the best when the district ratings get updated every week.
Essentially, a team would be trying to gut it out, win eight or nine games against a 5A-heavy schedule and hope to be included in the eight-team playoff picture. It's not ideal, but it ruffles the fewest feathers. This couldn't take place until 2018 because the two-year scheduling cycle is starting in 2016.
As for the side effects from this option? Adding nonleague 6A teams would add extensive travel. And ending decade-long rivalries with West York would be dejecting for the local community.
Option 2: Division realignment
Why is the league's fourth 6A team — York County Tech — sitting in a division with all 1A, 2A and 3A schools?
Move the Spartans to Division I, move the smallest 5A school in Division I (Spring Grove) to Division II and move Eastern York (the only 3A team in Division II) down to Division III.
Still with me?
It creates a little more balance and helps every team in Division I ... other than York Tech, most likely. After going 3-17 in the last two seasons against small schools, the Spartans wouldn't have much motivation to move up two divisions. That win total would be unlikely to increase against tougher competition. So making Tech the sacrificial lamb in order to save everyone else's strength of schedule is enticing only to their opponents. And even for their opponents, this option doesn't do a lot of good.
Option 3: Conference realignment
Leave the YAIAA. (Wait, what?)
Before you start laughing, think about it. The odds of this actually happening are slim to none, but the idea has to at least cross the mind.
The three big powers in the YAIAA Division I could bolt for the Mid Penn and play more 6A schools, which would make reaching the playoffs much easier. For football, that sounds great, at least in terms of postseason implications.
The problem is that’s never been done before, and it wouldn’t be pretty. The YAIAA wouldn’t go for it, so it would be an ugly divorce likely resulting in the YAIAA forcing that school to take all of its sports to the Mid Penn, not just football. That would put a strain on those three schools: It might be worth it to send the football team to play Chambersburg and Carlisle, but they'd take a financial hit to send tennis, field hockey and other non-revenue sports that far away.
That would also eliminate local rivalry games. You’d be trading Central York vs. William Penn for Central York vs. Mifflin County.
So while this idea would make some waves, the schools and league almost certainly wouldn't go for this.
Option 4: Try something new
This is the most hypothetical, just-for-fun, out-of-the-box idea.
Why not create a 6A super-conference across the whole district? (Again, don’t laugh just yet.)
Take the 16 6A schools from the district’s leagues and make one new league, similar to the old Central Penn League, to eliminate any issues over strength of schedule. It would put everyone on equal footing, and on paper, that has to at least intrigue football fans. I mean, weekly matchups with Wilson, Manheim Township, Dallastown, Cumberland Valley?
Again, there would be plenty of obstacles, like trying to convince the three leagues to each give up their biggest schools. And the logistics of travel would be a concern once again.
• • •
If you’re an athletic director, football coach or school board member at any of those three YAIAA schools, the existing situation looks dire. Do any of the options look like lifesavers? Not exactly. But at some point, something’s got to give.
What if nothing changes, and Red Lion goes 8-2 or 9-1 in the next three years yet still doesn’t make the playoffs because the Lions' YAIAA schedule holds them back? Fans are going to be angry, players and coaches are going to be frustrated and the pressure will mount.
On the surface, everything may look calm, but a storm of troubles could be brewing.
Reclassification at a glance
District 3 football playoff structure
Overall number of qualifiers going from 44 to 32
Class 6A: eight qualifiers
Class 5A: eight qualifiers
Class 4A: eight qualifiers, previously 16
Class 3A: four qualifiers, previously 16
Class 2A: two qualifiers, previously eight
Class 1A: two qualifiers, previously four
6A: Dallastown, Red Lion, Central York, York County Tech
5A: Northeastern, South Western, Spring Grove, New Oxford, William Penn, Dover
4A: York Suburban, West York, Susquehannock, Kennard-Dale, Gettysburg
3A: Eastern York, Biglerville, Bermudian Springs, Littlestown
2A: Hanover, York Catholic, Delone Catholic