Usually rivals on the field, court and track, representatives from Putnam County adversaries Hurricane, Winfield, Buffalo and Poca high schools have united against a common opponent — the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission’s proposal for four classes in basketball starting in the 2020-2021 season.
The proposal — currently in the comment period and up for final vote in July — would be a two-year trial run in both girls and boys basketball and would sort teams using a formula instead of just student enrollment.
The formula would be made up of 70 percent enrollment, 10 percent of how close a school is to its county seat, 10 percent of how close a school is to cities with populations of more than 10,000 people, and 10 percent economics, based on free and reduced lunches at a school as well as the median household income of the county in which the school is situated.
The proposal passed a vote of principals 111-26 and now sits in the hands of the West Virginia Board of Education, which will have the final say on whether four classes becomes the reality, for at least two years, for boys and girls basketball players in the Mountain State.
But a group led by Jim Dagostine, a Putnam County coach for 48 years (most recently at Hurricane), Winfield principal and former Generals football coach Bruce McGrew, Buffalo football coach Brian Batman, Winfield athletic director-baseball coach Will Isaacs and Poca boys basketball coach Allen Osborne is prepared to fight until the bitter end.
“Why are we experimenting with student athletes?” McGrew asked. “Because I’m a boys basketball or girls basketball player? That’s not right. We’re toying around with student lives and we’re in this business to promote and help students, not experiment with them. We shouldn’t be putting students at risk like this. Saying to our basketball players, ‘Go get ’em. Go through Martinsburg and Capital and you can win 4A.’ ”
Winfield would be one of the schools most affected by the current proposal. All current projections on class placement are not official, as a four-year reclassification is scheduled in October.
But if the plan was implemented now, Winfield would compete in the new Class AAAA in basketball and in Class AA in everything else, the only school with a two-class jump between sports.
Much of that is due to the formula’s economic and geographic aspects, things the group contends have nothing to do with competitive balance, the ultimate goal of the new proposal. With current figures, Winfield would have the lowest enrollment of any Class AAAA school and less than two remaining Class AAA schools, Ripley and Hampshire.
Buffalo would move from Class A to Class AA in the new proposal. It would have the lowest enrollment of any public school in the new classification and less than 11 schools remaining in Class A. That move is most influenced by Buffalo’s proximity to Winfield, the Putnam County seat, and by economic factors.
“I’ve been 10-0 at Buffalo and I’ve been 0-10 at Buffalo,” Batman said. “Being close to Winfield doesn’t do anything for me.”
Since the proposal became public earlier this year, there have been claims that the proposal was made solely to move private schools — primarily St. Joseph, Wheeling Central and Charleston Catholic — out of Class A.
“Everybody knows why they did it, they wanted to move up the private schools,” Dagostine said.
SSAC executive director Bernie Dolan denied that, pointing out that under the current totals, Trinity, Greater Beckley Christian and Parkersburg Catholic would remain in the state’s smallest classification.
Private schools have dominated several sports in recent years, including basketball, winning 16 of the last 20 boys basketball state titles and 18 of 20 girls basketball state titles in Class A since 2000.
Moving those schools up in classification is not a new idea. A 2018 proposal that would have given private schools their own SSAC classification failed to reach the public comment phase, voted down 6-1 by the state Board.
Among current schools, Charleston Catholic (55) and Wheeling Central (54) have won the third- and fourth-most overall championships. Central’s 44 titles in football, boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball are 14 more than any other school.
Despite Dolan’s assertion, the group — as well as other opponents of the proposal — contend that the usual successful suspects will be on the move.
Another point of emphasis is the fact that basketball is the only sport in the pilot program.
“We’re doing that for one of two reasons: Either we’re doing it because it’s going to work easily, add a day at the state tournament and financially it’s going to be a rousing success,” Dagostine said, as the SSAC pulls money from regional games as well as state tournament games. “Either that or they just want to give other schools in Class A a chance to win a championship.
“And why are we doing this in just one sport? If the proposal is so great, let’s let it rip [across the board]. Me and you can go fishing in Point Pleasant, but that doesn’t tell you how rabbit hunting is in Glenville. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The group is considering hiring a lawyer to use the Freedom of Information Act to force the SSAC to release revenue numbers from basketball profits.
Dolan acknowledged that basketball — like football — is indeed a money-maker for the SSAC, but said that didn’t factor in the decision to try the proposal on basketball alone.
“We weren’t going to put all sports under the new proposal because if there were unintended consequences, we didn’t want to upset every tournament structure,” Dolan said. “It gave us an opportunity to look at it for two years and then decide if we want to do it for the rest of them.”
Though principals from around the state passed the proposal 111-26, the group contends that vote isn’t representative, as only 47.5 percent of principals participated in the vote, some of those being middle school principals.
Dolan said that number is actually a rather high total for such votes. McGrew, who was at the meeting and voted against the proposal, said the explanation of the formula caused confusion among those in attendance.
“Everyone was sitting there when they were going over the formula — not everyone in there has a degree in mathematics,” McGrew said. “It’s the element of confusion. People don’t know what it is. They think it’s four classes based equally on enrollment like it’s always been. But when you start educating people like the folks we’ve met with …”
The specifics of the formula are also under fire from the group. First, it contends that using free and reduced lunches to help determine economics is an unreliable factor since just three of the eight private schools offer free or reduced lunch at all. Putnam County is one of 15 counties that still operate on a sign-up system while Kanawha and 39 other counties give free lunches to all students. However, Dolan said the number used to represent those counties isn’t the amount of students that get free or reduced lunch, but the number of students that would qualify — or the direct certified number determined by the department of education.
The group also has serious concerns with the formula’s geographical aspects, particularly a school’s proximity to its county seat. The group alleges that the 10 percent dedicated to the county seat location was a late add to the formula that was inserted after the proposal had already passed the SSAC Board of Directors.
Dolan confirmed that the aspect was indeed in the proposal before principals voted on it, but couldn’t say exactly when the county seat proximity aspect was added.
That 10 percent is likely what pushed Winfield — the county seat of Putnam County — up to Class AAAA and also what moved Buffalo to Class AA. But what the group finds more alarming is that 10 percent could have been what moved five private schools out of Class A. All five of those schools are located in West Virginia’s biggest cities, and all of those cities are county seats.
Dolan said being closer to a county seat provides more opportunities for student athletes to obtain private training and better resources and facilities, which could ultimately lead to advantages.
“We feel and the committee did that location to a city was really important,” Dolan said. “Some of the more rural schools are nowhere near a city, and if you’re in Pendleton County, for instance, the hub might be near the county seat.”
Poca has a different concern. The Dots would remain in Class AA under the new proposal while the vast majority of its rivals and conference mates would move up. While that could actually give Poca a competitive advantage, it could become a large hindrance in terms of travel and gate money.
Under the current totals, Buffalo would be Poca’s closest Class AA foe with Chapmanville and Mingo Central next closest. After that, the miles start to rack up, and with basketball coaches making every effort to play sectional and regional opponents as well as rivals, interest in regular-season games against unfamiliar foes could hurt financially.
“I can’t speak for the administration but, in my opinion, it’s going to affect us,” Osborne said. “Teams aren’t going to travel on a Tuesday night when there’s a lot of distance. It’s going to cost us more for transportation. There are too many question marks out there.
“It really comes down to kids — you’ve got to have some animals to have a zoo, it’s just that simple. I don’t think because you live near a city or a county seat or have a bunch of kids eating free lunch ... I’m not sold on it. It may be the answer, it may not be the answer, but I have concerns about it.”
Regardless of alleged motives or reasoning, should the proposal pass, it represents a historic moment in terms of West Virginia prep sports. Never before has such a move been made that didn’t affect sports across the board, and there is bound to be pushback. Should it pass, the proposal could eventually change everything in West Virginia prep athletics in terms of classification.
The group points to the possibility of legal action from parents in a situation where one athlete would have to compete at Class AAAA and another at Class AA in the same school.
Dolan acknowledged no proposal will make everyone happy, thus reinforcing the need for a two-year trial run. Still, he lauded the fact that solutions are being tried and discussions are being held.
“I think one thing, we’ve had more discussion about classification in the last two months than we’ve had in 10 years,” Dolan said. “So, if nothing else, we’ve had a lot of good discussion and we are always open to discussion. That’s what makes and allows everybody to get involved.”
Still, the group warns of the dangers of what could happen to Putnam County schools and beyond, depending on where new lines are drawn in October.
“It’s the fringe kids who need to be a part of something who are going to look at that and go, ‘No, I don’t want none of that,’ ” Batman said of playing in a higher classification. “Then it’s, ‘I’m not participating in anything, so I don’t need to worry about homework and grades.’ ”
“Last year we had maybe the best sports year for Winfield High School ever if you look at all sports,” McGrew said. “It had an impact on our school, ask any teacher here. It affects the whole culture you’re surrounded by. It affects Buffalo just like it does us. We have an amazing culture here that promotes academics, but we promote athletics as well because we know what it does to GPAs and to self-esteem and to self-discipline.
“If we’re stuck in this proposal on October 1, it’s too risky to sit back. There are a lot of schools right on the fringe right now that may think, ‘we’re good,’ and they voted for it because they looked at this current list of classification numbers and that means nothing. If you really look into it, it’s not right for West Virginia.”