Kirkaldy: VPA alignment system needs to be overhauled

In the past 20 years, there are three times teams in what the Vermont Principals’ Association calls its core sports have won Division I titles despite a distinct disadvantage — they were neither among the 13 largest schools in D-I, nor were they private schools who, whether they will admit it or not, recruit athletes.
Those sports are boys’ and girls’ soccer and basketball, baseball and softball. Among those six sports during those 20 years, there were 120 titles up for grabs, one in each sport per year.
Hartford won a baseball title just a few years ago. Bellows Falls petitioned up and won a D-I girls’ basketball championship about 15 years ago. Middlebury fans will probably remember the other exception to the rule: The Tiger girls won the 2004 girls’ hoop championship. My guess is that team would have also petitioned up.
But that’s it: 3 for 120, or 2.5 percent. But if all things were equal, any four random teams in a 17-team division should win 23.5 percent of its titles.
It’s not the same in at least one other division, by the way. The schools listed in the bottom four in the VPA’s new 2015-2017 core sport list for D-II have combined for 15 championships in the past 20 years, or 12.5 percent.
Plus several programs now in or set to move to D-III have won another 16 D-II core sport titles in the past 20 years. That’s 31 out of 120 possible championships by D-II’s smaller schools.
There’s clearly something different going on in D-I, and it’s clear: No school, except by choice, should be forced to compete in the postseason against the state’s largest schools, particularly those that are clustered in Chittenden County, where athletes have easy access to facilities, offseason coaching and competition. Plus, the larger school populations allow athletes to specialize in sports.
Yet in the alignment for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons, the VPA is shoehorning teams like Missisquoi, MUHS and U-32 into D-I to do battle with Essex, Champlain Valley, Rutland and Burlington.
For the record, MUHS is projected to have 648 students next year, and Missisquoi, 575. The larger D-I schools range from No. 13. Colchester (722) on up to CVU (1,294). But even Colchester has the aforementioned Chittenden County pluses and has won core-sport titles.
That’s because the VPA’s core sports alignment process is a simple numbers game: VPA officials and their competition committees tally the numbers for girls and boys in each school, divide by four, and call it a day. There are no other criteria used and no appeals allowed, unless a team wants to compete in a higher division.
Keep in mind, outside of the core sports, coaches’ associations meet and recommend alignments that the VPA then approves. And those associations routinely consider more than just student population numbers.
Football coaches, for example, use a formula that blends overall student numbers (40 percent), program numbers and historic competitiveness (30 percent each).
Another example: I do not know how the field hockey formula works, but it does not rely all that heavily on school population: D-I sized schools like St. Johnsbury, North Country and Missisquoi play D-III field hockey because their programs are not competitive.
To be fair, VPA athletics head Bob Johnson rightly pointed out in a recent email, “there is no perfect alignment system.”
Johnson maintains the VPA is following the wishes of its committees in using math to create a balanced four-division alignment.
“The core sports (those with 4 divisions) of soccer, basketball, baseball and softball, have agreed to follow the same formula over the past several cycles,” he wrote in response to my questions. “Before we do alignments, I meet with all the committee chairs to see if there is any interest in revising/modifying the formula used for alignments. Schools are welcome to make any suggestions to the committee chairs and in the past we have considered several different proposals and we have modified the formula used.”
But why not incorporate competitiveness or program numbers?
“In small states like Vermont, we simply are not large enough to develop some of the more complicated formulas that I have seen in other states. Regardless of what alignment system you put in place, there are always ‘bubble’ teams and I don’t think we will ever get away from that,” Johnson wrote.
I would say that if the coaches’ associations can come up with formulas, so can the VPA. A system incorporating a couple of simple changes could be easily put in place.
Instead, at this point the system is so cut-and-dried that requests by programs that are not in a competitive cycle to remain in a lower division are no longer allowed.
Again, from Johnson: “The core sports moved away from allowing petitions to go down because they realized it had evolved into who could do the best appeal presentation, not necessarily which team deserved to go down. There was too much subjective information being presented, so the chairs decided not to allow this.”
Personally, I remain surprised the VPA committees that handled appeals couldn’t find the truth among the baffling smoke, mirrors and PowerPoint presentations.  
There are a couple ways the VPA could approach this. A smarter formula would be one. Altering the divisional alignment would be another.
The numbers above suggest clearly that barring exceptional circumstances, no schools can compete with Vermont’s 13 or 14 largest, but that below that threshold competition is wide open. Why not have a 14-18-18-18 alignment? Or even 13-19-17-19?
Those alignments would simply return programs to D-II from D-I that have competed there in the past and move one or two teams in the lower divisions, while letting the big dogs run by themselves. Actually, they do that in the playoffs already. 
Yes, that would mean a few more teams would not make the playoffs. Is that an issue? Well, let’s look at basketball. This year these teams didn’t qualify as No. 17 seeds: D-I boys, Colchester, with a 2-18 record; D-I girls, Missisquoi, 3-17; D-II boys and girls,  Montpelier times two at 0-20, with the boys tied with Mount Abraham; D-III girls, Sharon, 3-17; and D-III boys, Stowe, 3-17.
No disrespect, but is sidelining a half-dozen groups with similar records too much to ask to avoid sending CVU a few sacrificial lambs?
But if the VPA is unwilling to change its formula or think outside the equally sided, four-division box, the least it could do is show some leadership and insist that committees again listen to appeals from those schools with programs that do not belong in higher divisions. I have faith those folks have enough on the ball to separate fact from fiction and make fair decisions. 

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