The state basketball tournament in West Virginia, at least for two years, just got bigger.
The West Virginia Board of Education voted 7-2 on Wednesday to accept a two-year pilot program from the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission that splits boys and girls basketball into four classes instead of the three it had been. Debra Sullivan and Daniel Snavely were the two board members voting against.
The change goes into effect for the 2020-21 school year.
“I think, clearly, it gives us the opportunity to balance the classes, at least in basketball,” SSAC executive director Bernie Dolan said after the vote, “and recognize there are things other than enrollment that are important factors in determining where schools should be placed.”
Adding that fourth classification puts eight more teams, and an extra day at the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center, on both the boys and girls state tournament schedules. It also drastically changes the way those four classes are determined, something the proposal’s detractors point to in their dissent.
Until now, classifications in every sport the SSAC sponsors had been determined solely by school enrollment. In the new formula for basketball, school enrollment makes up 70 percent, while proximity of a school to its county seat, proximity of a school to a city with a population larger than 10,000 and a school’s socioeconomic status each make up 10 percent. The SSAC contends that will level the playing field even further by grouping together schools from more affluent areas that have greater access to resources and opening the door wider for rural schools without that access.
Dolan said the pilot program would allow greater participation not just for basketball teams at separate schools, but the communities around those schools. He pointed to Webster County, which won its first state team championship by capturing the Class A boys basketball crown in March.
“I hope to see more people and more communities have the ability to come to Charleston and be excited,” he said. “This is a great year for Webster. They can ride this for a whole year, that community. They’ll go home and do projects and build things because they’re doing well. We hope that more communities get to participate. There’s something special about the basketball tournament.”
While the SSAC says four classes and the new formula will create more parity, those opposing it say they believe it unfairly affects specific counties and that the new formula is flawed.
Several coaches and administrators spoke against the proposal prior to the vote. Many were from Putnam County, where Buffalo would likely move up a class and Winfield could move up two classes if its current student population pushes it to Class AAA. The program limits schools to moving up just one class, but a school could jump two classes in the initial computation if its population moves it up a class in the other sports.
Former Hurricane boys soccer coach Jim Dagostine minced no words when deriding the four-class concept.
“For 50 years, I’ve been coaching in West Virginia middle schools, high schools and at [West Virginia University],” he said. “This four-class proposal is the most negative, irresponsible, un-thought-out, manipulative, morally and legally irresponsible piece of policy that has ever come out of the office of the SSAC in my lifetime.”
He said the safety of student-athletes would be jeopardized by pushing schools into classes that don’t match their student populations, and questioned how a two-year pilot program in basketball would educate the SSAC about safety concerns in other sports like football and wrestling.
Winfield principal Bruce McGrew said everything done in education should be done in the best interest of students, and the four-class concept didn’t fit that mold. He said he doesn’t like the idea that one group of students in the school, basketball players, would have a different experience than others who play different sports.
“Would we experiment with students in academics?” he asked. “Would we select a certain group of students and have them take a different standardized test than other students in the school and see how it goes for two years?”
Charleston Catholic tennis coach David Sadd wondered what proximity to a county seat had to do with athletic success. He said he’s been able to sell the idea to his friends that Charleston Catholic had a good swim team because of its proximity to the Kanawha River. Yet he couldn’t sell them on the Irish having a good basketball team because of its proximity to the county courthouse.
He also said he didn’t understand why city population should have anything to do with how schools are classified.
“I live in an old neighborhood, a neighborhood that has no kids,” he said. “This morning, I’m on my way to the state Capitol and I’m thinking, ‘My neighbors are part of a demographic that has to do with how we’re going to be classified.’
“There are no kids in my neighborhood,” he continued. “Yet my neighbors in their 60s and 70s are part of this demographic that has to do with how we’re going to be classed or moved up.”
Sullivan, the former principal at Charleston Catholic, said there was too much overlap within the new classifications, that too many schools of small or moderate size were being grouped with schools much larger. She also didn’t like the new formula, saying it wasn’t transparent enough.
“I think the formula is way too complicated,” she said. “I think it’s subject to misunderstanding and abuse. It’s clothed in layers of obscurity. People should feel that they’re being treated fairly and not befuddled by a complicated formula.”
Sullivan also mentioned schools like Webster County, and that she enjoyed stories of the underdog overcoming adversity. She mentioned the movie “Hoosiers,” loosely based on tiny Milan High School’s run to the 1954 state boys basketball championship in Indiana, where every school — regardless of size — is put into one tournament bracket.
“I love the movie ‘Hoosiers,’” she said.
Dolan responded, saying, “The reason they made a movie out of ‘Hoosiers’ is because it happened only once.”
Board member Dr. James Wilson endorsed the plan and said it was a proper way to listen to the concerns of rural communities who believed, especially in Class A, that their championship opportunities were being choked out by private schools in the state’s larger cities. Before Webster County won its 2019 title over Parkersburg Catholic, private schools had won 15 of the previous 17 boys titles, with private schools playing each other in the title game in 11 of those years.
“You have to listen to these small schools that have never been and have no prospect and feel like they have no chance,” Wilson said. “Webster was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We have to listen to those people and they want a chance.”
Board vice president Miller Hall said the issue, to him, boiled down to one main question: Is this proposal what is best for the students of West Virginia? Hall asked Dolan point-blank if he thought it was.
If it wasn’t, Dolan said, “I wouldn’t have brought the proposal forward.”
Dolan said he doesn’t know if the debate over the proposal is done — some opponents of the change have discussed the possibility of legal action from parents of affected student-athletes — but he is happy that the SSAC can move forward on the plan.
“I think it’s a good model,” Dolan said after the meeting. “It’s not perfect, but we’ll continue to work to do it better.”