Depending upon whom you ask, the state’s move to a four-class system in boys and girls basketball for the next two seasons is either no big whoop or enough to turn you into a basket case.
Sure, they’ll be ready to hand out four title trophies instead of three at the Charleston Coliseum on April 3 (girls) and April 10 (boys), but the changes go far beyond just an extra game on championship Saturday at the state tournament:
n Some of the state’s better rivalries — at least in the postseason — will be lost during this two-year trial run, including Wyoming County neighbors Westside (now Class AAA) and Wyoming East (AA); former Class A combatants Wheeling Central (AAA) and Charleston Catholic (AA), who met five times in the boys finals between 2005-14; and Logan County rivals Logan (AAA), Chapmanville Regional (AA) and Man (A) find themselves in different classes after all being housed in AA just last season.
n Adding to the identity crisis, five AA-sized boys teams volunteered to move up and compete in AAA for two seasons — Midland Trail, Notre Dame, Trinity, Westside and Wheeling Central — and four girls teams (Midland Trail, St. Joseph, Westside and Wheeling Central) did the same.
n The reshuffling of teams has left the Cardinal Conference, which in the past has staunchly regarded itself as strictly a double-A league, now having seven of its member schools in triple-A and two of its premier boys programs — Poca and Chapmanville — competing in AA.
n And for those who track such things, the state’s private schools are now spread over three classes instead of all being lumped into Class A — there’s three each in AAA (Notre Dame, Trinity, Wheeling Central), AA (Charleston Catholic, Parkersburg Catholic, St. Joseph) and A (Greater Beckley Christian, Madonna, Wood County Christian). One long-held school of thought says the push to break into four classes is the recent domination of private schools in the Class A ranks.
n Then, if you do get to the state tournament, now held over five days instead of four, you might have some down time on your hands. Two teams that win in the Class AA quarterfinals on Tuesday don’t play again until 1 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. If you’re from the northern part of the state or the Eastern Panhandle, do you hang around town all that time, or drive back home and return later?
All the movement has some coaches wary, especially veteran coaches like Allen Osborne, who next month begins his 41st season at Poca. The regular season, delayed by COVID-19, is set to tip off on Jan. 22 for girls and Jan. 29 for boys.
“I’ve got mixed emotions about it, to be honest,’’ Osborne said of all the switches. “I really enjoy playing those rivalry games — Winfield, Nitro and the rest — and we’ll still play them in the regular season. But when tournament time comes? We’ll see what happens. It’s not good or bad. I guess we’ll just wait until we see it.’’
Last year, Poca’s sectional included familiar foes such as Nitro, Point Pleasant, Sissonville, Wayne and Winfield. Now the other teams in AA Region 4 Section 1 with the Dots are St. Joseph and Buffalo, another Putnam County school. In recent years, Poca and Winfield had a longstanding rivalry at sectional time.
“We’ll wait and see how it all plays out,’’ Osborne said. “I know our tournament [schedule] is going to be a lot different. In the regular season, our whole schedule other than Buffalo and Charleston Catholic is going to be triple-A and 4A. It’s going to be interesting.’’
Despite having been in different classes, Poca and Charleston Catholic engaged in a spirited regular-season series for the past several years, and it continues with a home-and-home series this season. Also, each is no stranger when it comes to reaching the state tournament, but instead of doing it in different divisions, now they’re staring down each other from opposite sides of the same AA region, which could mean higher stakes if they tangle in the postseason. The Irish now compete in Region 4 Section 2 with Ravenswood and Roane County.
With the switch to Class AA, Catholic has left behind, at least in the postseason, budding rivalries with teams like Wheeling Central, Notre Dame, Trinity, Midland Trail and Greater Beckley Christian. The first four have moved up to AAA and GBC remains in Class A. Some of those teams will still pop up on the Irish schedule, but coach Hunter Moles also looks forward to the new surroundings, including showdowns with sectional foe Ravenswood and veteran coach Mick Price, who is 12 shy of 700 career wins.
“I’m excited to be in a sectional with Coach Price,’’ Moles said. “He’s been around the game and coaching for so long. To be on the other side of him is cool for me. That’s part of the fun in coaching, to find out what Coach Price does at Ravenswood and find out what Roane County does — what’s their style of play, what they like to do.’’
Charleston Catholic, for its part, doesn’t want the rivalry with Wheeling Central to end, so they’re scheduling two games again this season even though they’re now competing at different levels.
“It’s a tradition we just don’t want to break,’’ Moles said. “It’s just a good rivalry, a good competitive look for our schedule. We’ll play anyone who’s going to make us better, so we’ll play Wheeling Central again. We want to play the best out there, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.’’
Wheeling Central, with eight state titles since 2002, is another former Class A power embarking on new horizons in AAA. Last year’s sectional opponents for the Maroon Knights were Cameron, Madonna, Hundred and Valley Wetzel. Now, it’s North Marion, Oak Glen and Weir in Region 1 Section 1 — definitely a step up for coach Mel Stephens’ club.
“Once that [four-class proposal] came out,’’ Stephens said, “we realized that basically it’s a whole new set of teams. We’re kind of looking forward to the opportunity to possibly play some different people and see how that goes.
“We obviously had to pick up some of the teams in our sectional and redo our schedule. We had to drop some of the teams we had played in the past and we kind of lost some of the Ohio schools we normally play because their season’s done by the time we get started. We might try to squeeze some in, but it’s a different schedule this year. It’s a little bit of a challenge.’’
Stephens wasn’t surprised by the teams Central was paired with in its section, but he was with the opposite section. Region 1 Section 2 consists of Berkeley Springs, Hampshire, Keyser and Trinity, all lengthy trips from the Northern Panhandle.
“The other section kind of baffled me a little bit,’’ Stephens said. “It goes all the way over to Keyser. I would have thought a better way to do it was split up that regional with Fairmont and all the teams in that little area [Region 2] and cut down travel for those regional games. Basically, ours goes all the way across [the state].’’
Regional games for boys and girls will still be contested over a period of three days in March and April, with the AAAA and Class A being held on the same day (March 24 for girls, March 31 for boys).
Speaking of AAAA, it’s looking like the one division with little overhaul, basically moving up almost every program that competed in AAA last season. There were 29 teams competing in AAA a year ago and that number remains at 29 this season following the addition of Bridgeport and Oak Hill to AAA (in every other sport besides basketball). Hampshire and Ripley were the two schools that didn’t make the jump this season to AAAA, and they remain in a refurbished AAA.
The only real changes in the big-school division were to some of the sectional alignments, and many of those were cosmetic, especially making way for Bridgeport and Oak Hill with all the holdovers.
For instance, in AAAA Region 3 Section 1, Capital, George Washington and South Charleston carry over from the same section in AAA last season, with the addition of Riverside (which was removed from Section 2 to make room for Oak Hill). St. Albans was switched from Region 3 Section 1 to Region 4 Section 2 to compete with Hurricane, Parkersburg and Parkersburg South.
Capital coach Matt Greene noted that the path to the Charleston Coliseum isn’t much different for his team. The only change on the opposite side of AAAA Region 3 is taking out Riverside and adding Oak Hill — Woodrow Wilson, Greenbrier East and Princeton remain for potential regional matchups.
“There’s not a whole lot of change for us to go through to get to the state tournament,’’ Greene said. “We’re still battling with George Washington and South Charleston, and now they’ve brought in Riverside and taken St. Albans out of our section. Our region is equally as tough. The four-class system really hasn’t changed our route to the state tournament as far as making it easier or more difficult.’’
Some other sidelights of the four-class format, especially as they affect Kanawha Valley teams:
n The Mountain State Athletic Conference has virtually no changes, as all 10 of its teams jump from AAA to AAAA. Thus, the league continues to have each team play every member school once for nine designated league games, which will determine the two teams that play for the conference championship.
n The Cardinal Conference will still sport North and South divisions for its nine schools and have each team play all of the others at least once. However, due to its teams competing in both AAA and AA this season and the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not currently plan to crown a league champion.
n The addition of Wheeling Central and Winfield into the Class AAA ranks opens up the possibility of Maroon Knights coach Mel Stephens locking up in the postseason with his son Chris Stephens, the coach for the Generals. They’re set to meet in the regular season on Jan. 9 in Winfield.
n For the record, private schools now have past state champions in three different divisions this season — AAA 13 (Wheeling Central 12, Notre Dame one), AA seven (Charleston Catholic four, Parkersburg Catholic two, St. Joseph one) and Class A one (Madonna). Also in A, Greater Beckley Christian was the No. 3 seed for last year’s state tournament that was canceled by COVID-19.
n The original SSAC plan was to have 29 teams in AAAA, AAA and AA and 37 in A. After some schools opted to “play up,’’ it came out to 29 in AAAA, 34 in AAA, 24 in AA and 35 in A.