Andy Kirkaldy: Right call on high schools — finally

In early March of 2015, fed up with watching the Vermont Principals’ Association force smaller Division I high schools like Middlebury Union to play against much larger Chittenden County powerhouses in the so-called “core sports,” I did some homework for a column.  
The core sports, by the way, are soccer, basketball and baseball/softball. The VPA pretty much operates those directly, while allowing coaches associations to operate the other sports, usually rubber-stamping the associations’ recommendations for division alignments and rules. I don’t always agree with the coaches, but they typically make allowances for non-competitive programs and don’t throw them to the wolves.
The issue at that point boiled down to this: The decision on what division a team played in was made purely on the number of boys or girls in the school, period. Not the number of kids playing the sport, the number of sports offered, or how competitive the program was.
Anyway, four years ago I looked at 20 years of data in the core sports and discovered that of the 120 titles in those sports up for grabs over those two decades only three had been won by either the four smallest schools out of the 16 in the divisions.
Anyway, that’s 2.5 percent. Meanwhile, the smallest four schools in D-II had won a much healthier 12.5 percent of the available championships. And that number would have been higher counting titles won by a few schools that at that point had dropped down to D-III, like Montpelier and Oxbow.
Basically, two things are in play. The larger D-I schools are so big that athletes often specialize in sports, a luxury not always afforded to smaller schools, and they are sited in population areas that support more sports clubs and facilities that are out of the reach of smaller D-I schools, such as MUHS, Missisquoi, Lyndon and even Spaulding.
Well, this winter theVPA finally changed its mind after being lobbied by coaches and school officials. D-I will start at a dozen teams in the core sports rather than the previous insistence on 16.
VPA athletics head Bob Johnson told the Burlington Free Press, “Every cycle it seemed that three to four schools were put in D-I to balance the division, but competitively, they should not have been in D-I.”
Over the years Bob and I spoke several times on this, to the point he would ask me if I was going to bring it up again at the annual VPA Media Day in August — translation: “Please don’t.”
Four years ago Bob told me this for my column: “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.”
Seriously, better late than never. I’ve watched the Missisquoi girls’ basketball win about three games in five years and be stuck in D-I. I’ve watched MUHS boys’ basketball teams good enough to contend for D-II titles win the Lake Division and then get hammered by Metro squads jammed with AAU players in the D-I playoffs. Years ago I saw the Tiger girls’ soccer team before the program became competitive not win a game and then travel for a first-round match against undefeated Champlain Valley.
Really, what was the point?
Probably declining enrollment has forced the VPA’s hand, but I’ll give them credit. I recommended a 13- or 14 team D-I. The VPA is going with a two-year experiment with what Bob called a “12-team baseline” in D-I. If schools petition up, such as Rice in basketball, a team can choose to drop down.
The change does mean that lower divisions in some cases will have more than 16 teams, and playoff spots will have to be earned. Nothing wrong with that. Late-season games between four- and five-win teams are going to mean something, as they should.
And the track record for zero- to three-win teams in the playoffs vs. top seeds is not pretty. Save the bus money.
For the record, this will drop Tiger teams in these sports to D-II, Mount Abe teams will stay in D-II, Vergennes teams will all move to D-III, and some Otter Valley teams will be in D-II and some in D-III.
And for the record I sent an email to Bob thanking the VPA for making the change. Well done.

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