There are lots of reasons why West Virginia Class AAA high schools schedule games against teams in smaller classifications.
Often, opponents are closer, which means less travel. And perhaps a better rivalry, which means more attendance. Plus, a different sort of test can also help prepare a team for what it might possibly see in the postseason.
But there’s one painful reason why many of them don’t.
“Those can be tough on the triple-A teams,’’ said Mark Hatcher, Logan’s boys basketball coach. “It doesn’t feel good at all when the smaller schools beat you. It’s the same reason why WVU doesn’t play Marshall all the time.’’
Certainly, there are varying perspectives on the issue as to why teams don’t mind — or do mind — playing cross-class games.
Besides avoiding the possible embarrassment of a loss to a Class AA or A team, larger schools are concerned with more-concrete consequences.
In football, your playoff rating may tumble even if you beat a smaller school; in basketball, your potential sectional or state tournament seed could be jeopardized — both significant subjects.
But on the flip side, playing larger schools in the regular season can energize the title aspirations of a Class AA or A program.
Case in point: Tug Valley’s boys basketball team in 2011-12, which beat four strong Class AAA programs — Logan (twice), South Charleston and Huntington — along the way to capturing the AA crown. Logan and SC both made the 2012 AAA state tournament field.
Man went overboard
Exhibit A in the recent benefits of “playing up’’ would have to be Man’s baseball team this past spring.
The Hillbillies, surrounded by larger schools in Logan County and neighboring communities, played 17 of 27 regular-season games against higher classifications (12 AA, five AAA; see chart). Despite a regular-season record of just 15-12, it paid off to the tune of the school’s first-ever boys state championship in any sport.
Across the board, Man coach Larry Vance lauded the benefits of playing up.
“Most schools around us down here are double-A,’’ he said, “so it definitely helps as far as travel time and getting back at a reasonable hour. Also, just for the draw. We make more money at the gate with the bigger schools coming in.
“We’ve always played up since I’ve been here, and the better competition makes you better. You see better pitching and hopefully it pays off when you do get into the regional or the state tournament. I try to play the better teams in the region and the ones [in Class A] you know you might have to deal with to go to the state tournament.’’
Man wasn’t playing bigger schools just for the nominal value, but met some of the best — AA Chapmanville Regional (29-7), Wyoming East (26-7) and AAA Logan (23-10). All were ranked all year.
Truth be told, there’s another big reason why the Billies tackle such an ambitious schedule.
“We have enough kids,’’ Vance said, “where we have [junior varsity] ball. So for us to have a JV schedule, we have to play the bigger teams because a lot of single-A schools don’t have them.’’
Man hopes that approach takes hold for its other major sports as well.
The football team met AAA Logan and four AAs last year in going 9-1 and earning the No. 5 playoff seed, while boys basketball played AAA Riverside and seven AAs.
Make mine a triple
In the cases of Winfield and Wheeling Park, mitigating factors get in the way of playing out-of-class games.
The Generals simply don’t have much room on their schedules since they joined the Mountain State Athletic Conference in the fall of 2012.
The MSAC designates six football games for each member school, though some play all 10 games in the league. In basketball, 15 of a team’s 22 dates are assigned by the MSAC, since every conference member plays each other.
“It’s been kind of our philosophy to play as many triple-As as possible,’’ said Will Isaacs, Winfield’s athletic director and baseball coach. “There’s nothing about not wanting to play those double-A schools. It’s more about not having room.’’
Isaacs said for many of the Generals’ sports, he tries to schedule every school in their sectional and regional so that his teams “get the chance to play everybody they could face’’ in the postseason.
So Winfield lines up games against non-MSAC AAA teams such as Point Pleasant and Logan in many sports, and Lincoln County in others. In boys basketball, second games against neighboring rivals Hurricane and Nitro have proven to be good draws, so those opponents are scheduled home and home every season.
“If you do that,’’ Isaacs said, “then you’re looking at having no games left.’’
During the last school year, Winfield played an all-AAA schedule in football and boys basketball and met only three AA teams in baseball (two against Putnam County rival Poca, once against defending champion Herbert Hoover).
Isaacs said Winfield developed good working relationships with many MSAC schools during the four years after the Generals moved up to AAA and competed as an independent (fall of 2008 to fall of 2012).
It wasn’t so much turning their backs on their former Cardinal Conference rivals in AA, but the fact there was no wiggle room once all the scheduling “musts’’ were completed.
“We had great relationships with people in the Cardinal Conference,’’ Isaacs said. “It’s just that we kind of like our standing and working relationships with several local triple-A schools from before we got into the MSAC. Back then, we played more double-A schools, but now they’re harder to schedule.
“We’ve developed standing policies of playing teams home and away, and that limits you.’’
For Park, there’s the location situation.
Of the 15 West Virginia schools in the Upper Ohio Valley, 10 are Class A and two AA, and those two — Weir (3-7) and Oak Glen (0-10) — were way down in football last year. Brooke, John Marshall and Park are the only triple-As in the Northern Panhandle.
Also, the mass exodus of Marion and Harrison county schools from AAA enrollment to AA in 2012-13 put a cramp in Park’s scheduling.
So Park, the fifth-largest school in the state, leans on membership in the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference and Two Rivers Athletic Conference for games against teams of comparable enrollment.
“Our view is that we’re a pretty-big-sized school,’’ said Dwaine Rodgers, Wheeling Park’s athletic director. “Our coaches, when they meet to do schedule work with me, feel our goal is to play triple-A schools.
“It does become difficult at times in certain sports. Football is most difficult, but basketball is getting to be, too.’’
The Patriots’ fortunes have elevated dramatically in sports such as football, where they broke an 0-12 all-time record against Ohio power Steubenville last fall, went 11-2 and reached the playoff semifinals for the first time since 1991. In baseball, they ended a state tournament drought that began in 1989.
So there’s no place on their schedule for past neighboring rivalries like Weir or Wheeling Central, a former heated rival that hasn’t played Park in football since 1987. This past school year, the Patriots and Maroon Knights didn’t meet in boys basketball or baseball, either.
In football, Park played just once out of its class — against AA champion Bridgeport — and met no state AA or A teams in boys basketball. In baseball, the Patriots had only four games versus AA schools, two of those against, yep, AA champ Bridgeport.
“Our mindset is we want to be playing triple-A schools,’’ Rodgers said. “We’ve been doing it for a while — two, three years. We don’t want to play single-A schools because it does hurt you.
“We barely made it [to the football playoffs] one time because of points. You have to make sure you play a competitive schedule to get there.’’
Seeing double from AAA
Schools on the bottom end of the SSAC’s Class AAA enrollment list undoubtedly have strong ties with the AA division.
Point Pleasant, Winfield and Logan were all double-A schools in the recent past before being bumped up a class. As it stands, they sport the smallest, fourth-smallest and fifth-smallest enrollments, respectively, in Class AAA.
While Winfield has forged ahead with its membership in the MSAC and removed nearly all AA teams from its major-sports schedules, both Point and Logan have had no problems maintaining their AA associations.
The Big Blacks played 14 of their 26 regular-season baseball games against lower classes last spring (nine AA, five A) and met three AA teams in boys basketball. Their 2014 football schedule features AA-sized Wayne, Ravenswood and Gallia Academy (Ohio).
Logan met two AA teams in football, along with county rival Man from Class A. In fact, beating the 9-1 Hillbillies in the regular season was worth more to the Wildcats (15 ratings points) than wins over AAA Shady Spring (1-9) and Lincoln County (0-10), who provided the minimum 12 points each.
In boys basketball, the Wildcats played six teams from smaller classes (three each), and in baseball had two games apiece with AA and A rivals.
“We really liked double-A,’’ Hatcher said. “We had a lot of success in double-A because we were one of the bigger schools, but we also enjoyed the rivalries and natural rivalries, the competitiveness.’’
Logan, which competed in Class AA from the fall of 2002 to the fall of 2008, didn’t have to look far to get good rivalries. It found them with fellow Cardinal Conference teams and Corridor G neighbors Chapmanville and Scott, among others.
“There are no triple-A teams really down our way,’’ Hatcher said. “Lincoln County is about 45 minutes to an hour away, and [George Washington] is about the same.
“I think all those years before we went double-A, Logan didn’t play very many smaller-class teams. But once we went double-A, we really liked it. Size matters in wins and losses most of the time, but there are some smaller programs that seem to be able to compete every year.’’
Hatcher always finds a place on his schedule for games against small schools, even striking up a relationship with Class A power Charleston Catholic for a few years.
“I don’t have a problem playing those schools,’’ he said. “I think it prepares you. We played Charleston Catholic and that prepared us for different-type basketball if we ever got into a grind-it-out game in the 40s or 50s.
“Now it doesn’t feel good at all when they beat you, but I think it does prepare you.’’
Hatcher’s 2011-12 team that featured all-state guard Stevie Browning went 17-8, but lost twice to eventual AA champ Tug Valley. Hatcher realized then that good teams can come in small-school packages.
“We felt like we were a pretty good triple-A team,’’ he said, “and we could hang with most of the teams we played, but Tug beat us twice. If you asked our kids, we felt like they were the best team we played all year long, regardless of class, and Martinsburg beat us in the state tournament.
“I know some coaches may not want to hear that — or fans — but that’s how we felt. [Tug] beat a bunch of triple-A teams that year.’’
With Logan so close to the cutoff between AAA and AA enrollment, Hatcher doesn’t think the school’s coaches will change gears any time soon in their scheduling.
“We’re one of the border teams,’’ he said, “and we seem to think we might go back to double-A, so we’re picking up some more smaller teams in all of our other sports, too, in case we do go back.’’
Hatcher said his program often feels more kinship with teams in the lower classes, anyway.
He points out that schools like Cabell Midland (1,857 students) are more than double the enrollment of Logan (813), which is actually much closer in size to now-Class A Tug Valley (410).
“You can fit two Logans inside Cabell Midland,’’ he said. “The smaller triple-A schools are facing the same thing. It seems like something the state’s got to take a look at, but I don’t know how they can do it.’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Class A Man High School’s 2013-14 regular-season schedule in three major sports:
Class AAA (3-2)
Lincoln County W 10-0
Oak Hill W 13-11
Lincoln County W 14-2
Logan L 0-10
Logan L 0-12
Class AA (8-4)
River View W 9-8
Chapmanville L 1-3
Westside W 13-3
Liberty Raleigh W 3-2
Belfry, Ky. W 11-7
Mount View W 17-0
Liberty Raleigh W 3-1
Westside W 9-8
Chapmanville L 0-10
Wyoming East W 12-7
Independence L 3-8
Chapmanville L 4-7
Class A (4-6)
Valley Fayette W 7-1
Sherman W 7-4
Fayetteville L 6-13
Charleston Catholic L 1-5
Valley Fayette W 11-6
Buffalo W 3-2
Moorefield L 1-4
Buffalo L 2-3
Sherman L 8-12
Charleston Catholic L 10-11
Note: 6-0 in postseason vs. Class A
Boys basketball (11-12)
Class AAA (0-1)
Riverside L 50-90
Class AA (5-2)
Mount View W 55-50
River View W 62-54
Chapmanville L 47-58
River View W 75-71
Mount View W 64-56
Belfry, Ky. W 72-64
Chapmanville L 58-90
Class A (5-8)
Mountain View Christian W 68-47
Montcalm W 81-51
Greater Beckley Christian L 61-75
Sherman L 68-69
Montcalm W 59-51
Wesley Christian, Ky. L 58-82
St. Joseph L 60-62
Tug Valley L 33-78
Phelps, Ky. W 77-53
Phelps, Ky. W 77-68
Greater Beckley Christian L 73-107
Tug Valley L 63-76
St. Joseph L 74-90
Note: 1-1 in postseason vs. Class A
Class AAA (0-1)
Logan L 21-50
Class AA (4-0)
Mount View W 44-0
Westside W 22-14
River View W 46-8
Chapmanville W 26-22
Class A (5-0)
Fayetteville W 30-25
Sherman W 36-6
Pocahontas County W 42-0
Tug Valley W 24-14
Van W 61-6
Note: 0-1 in postseason vs. Class A