Time to level playing field

In the past few years, the Vermont Principals’ Association and coaches’ associations in several sports have tinkered with divisional alignments.
It’s never an easy task.
Opinions vary. Mine has changed over the years; I used to be in favor of fewer divisions and “true” state championships. Now, I am more interested in competitive balance within the divisions.
In the sports most schools offer — baseball/softball, basketball and soccer — some officials want to divide the schools into four numerically equal divisions so that playoffs can be neatly divided into four 16-team tournaments.
Others — and I am in this camp — point out the student counts in the school are so different that the approach is inherently unfair.
Based on current school-year numbers, the 16th largest Vermont high school is Harwood, with 633 students. The largest? Champlain Valley, with 1,416, well more than twice as many.
At the other end, the smallest non-denominational high school is Chelsea, with 56. The 16th-smallest, Arlington with 113, has twice times as many students. Three religious high schools on a list provided by the VPA have between 27 and 42.
In between, there are clusters. The largest 13 schools range from Colchester (801 students) to CVU. There are none between 700 and 800.
The student count in another 17 Vermont high schools ranges from 401 (BFA-Fairfax) to 688 (Burr & Burton). It is that grouping that includes Vergennes (420), Mount Abraham (570) and Middlebury (665). The local schools’ population, like many around Vermont, will drop next year.
Another 17 schools have populations between 200 and 400, ranging from Richford (200) to Bellows Falls (392).
Thirteen schools come in between 100 and 199; West Rutland stands right at 100, and Poultney sits at the high end at 166.
Finally, counting the religious schools, 14 high schools don’t break the century mark, ranging from Websterville Baptist (27, which fields only cross-country teams in the fall) to Stratton (91).
As I write this, one proposal being floated would put Burr & Burton, Missisquoi (662) and MUHS back into D-I to create 16-team divisions in soccer, basketball and baseball/softball.
Given the numerical reality, this plan seems unfair. Look at it like this: There are more girls in CVU than students at Missisquoi or MUHS. And the roughly 330 boys at those schools would be asked to compete with the 650 to 700 at CVU or Essex and the 450-500 at most of the other larger schools.
Wouldn’t it be fairer to ask the roughly 210 boys at VUHS to compete with the 330 boys at MUHS? I say yes.
It’s time for the VPA to look at D-I as the league for the big dogs and for the smaller schools — Rice in hoops, MUHS in girls’ lacrosse, Mount St. Joseph in football if it can regain some numbers — who want to run with them.
It’s simply not fair to shoehorn smaller schools into a league with schools twice their size; it’s bad enough for Colchester (801) and Spaulding (848).
The question is then what to do with the remaining 61 schools on the list after the big dogs, at least in the sports where the coaching associations don’t make the calls. In those cases, historical competitiveness and program strength is taken into account. There are bigger schools in D-III in football than in D-II for example.
To start with, any school that wants to petition to play at a higher level should be permitted to do so. After that, my original thought was to create three leagues of roughly 20 schools per division. I do believe four teams would be happier to miss out on the playoffs than be forced to play much larger schools.
That would mean Lake Region (381), Bellows Falls (392) and Rice (357) would go to D-II from the third grouping of 17 schools. But Rice is in D-I in some sports, and Oxbow (363) would be next up. But that would mean Oxbow in the same division as Burr & Burton (688). It’s starting to get creaky.
Likewise, the bottom 20, even not counting the religious schools who don’t compete in some sports, would end up with Chelsea (56) vs. Proctor (164). More reasonable than Harwood (633) vs. CVU (1,416), but still …
Starting with the premise of a D-I super-league of 13 teams, then, there are two choices:
1. Go with three more divisions (D-2, 3 and 4) of roughly 20 teams each, accepting some numerical mismatches. The numbers will vary slightly depending on how many teams petition up. Four teams won’t make the playoffs, or there can be a play-in round for the bottom eight teams.
2. Go with four more divisions (D-2, 3, 4 and 5) of 12-17 teams each.
D-2 might be 17 teams, ranging from Woodstock (416) to Burr & Burton (688).
D-3 might be 14 teams, ranging from Hazen (244) to BFA-Fairfax (401).
D-4 might be 12, ranging from Arlington (113) to Poultney (166).
D-5 might be 12-15, depending on whether Vermont Christian Academy (38), Mid-Vermont Christian (38) and Websterville fielded teams. The remaining dozen would range from Chelsea (56) to West Rutland (100).
There may well be better solutions out there. But any answer sought should start with the premise that there are 13 Vermont high schools so much larger than the rest that they should be in an athletic league of their own.
Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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