Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

February 29, 2012

Proposal to dissolve Southwest District expected to meet final approval from VHSL

BLUEFIELD — It’s not official yet, but the Southwest District could be facing its final days.

The Virginia High School League Redistricting and Reclassification (R&R) Committee met on Monday and approved a “model only” for a revised redistricting plan for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

If the model is approved, which is expected to happen perhaps as early as next month, then the SWD will cease to exist after the 2012-2013 school year.

“We have got one more school year the way we are right now,” said Tazewell Principal Keith Hovis.

The VHSL is proposing a state-wide move to six classifications in all sports. The R&R committee was basically mandated, according to Richlands Athletic Director Rickie Vencill, to devise such a system.

“I think it is a good thing for everybody,” Vencill said. “Especially in this side of the state where everybody’s enrollment is going down.”

Under the plan, Tazewell, Richlands, Marion and Abingdon would move to the Clinch Mountain District, which is currently part of Region D, while Carroll County would be placed to the River Ridge District and play as a AAAA school.

Marion had asked to be placed in the Hogoheegee District, but that request was denied.

The Bulldogs, Blue Tornado and Scarlet Hurricane would compete in the postseason in Group AA, while the Falcons would compete in regional and state competition in Group AAA.

It’s a move that Hovis welcomes.

“Speaking for Tazewell High School and only Tazewell High School, there is certainly the enrollment facet of it and the geographical facet of it,” Hovis said. “I certainly am pleased and don’t have a problem with it.”

The same goes for Vencill.

“All the coaches are excited,” Vencill said. “We talked to all the coaches (at Richlands) before this happened and everybody is excited about it.”

Much like Graham and Grundy, which left the SWD prior to this season for Group A districts, population dips in small towns have made the move necessary to allow schools with declining populations the ability to compete at the regional and state levels.

“The regular season is one thing, but you get into regional play and you play somebody with 1,400 kids and you are at 610, that is a severe disadvantage,” Hovis said. “It’s not the fault of no one, it’s just the way it is right now.”

“We are very much excited about it, we would be classed with kids the same size as us,” added Vencill. “In football and basketball you are with schools of your same size. In other sports in Group AA, they might have to play a school with 1,300 or 1,400 kids and that is tough on our kids.

“It is nice to be on a level playing field in all sports.”

While there are now six divisions in football and basketball in Virginia —  and separate divisions for Group A in baseball and softball — that isn’t the case for AA and AAA schools away from the gridiron and hardwood.

“A couple of years ago my softball coach traveled right at four hours to play a school with 1,300 kids,” Hovis said. “That is kind of hard to get excited about that...

“People forget that, but if I play Carroll County, I don’t care if it is Tiddlywinks, you are playing somebody twice your size.”

The proposed change should alleviate some of those issues. For instance, eight of the nine schools that would comprise the Clinch Mountain District are expected to have close to the same number of students.

Only Abingdon will have many more, and they will be placed in a higher classification for the postseason.

“Once we move on to tournament play, they will play AAA schools and we will stay in the AA pool,” Vencill said.

Hovis said a four-class system was also discussed, but six seems to be the choice.

“Four would have been fine. In essence in football we play six (classes) now,” Hovis said. “The people that were at the greatest disadvantage were the very small schools and the small AA schools like us and Richlands.”

The Southwest District has been in existence since 1955, the successor to the old Southwestern Conference that included four of the SWD’s charter members — Graham, Grundy, Richlands and Tazewell — along with now-defunct Saltville.

Awaiting Tazewell, Richlands, Abingdon and Marion in the Clinch Mountain are Virginia High, Lebanon, John Battle, Lee and Gate City.

Eight of those schools — excluding Lee — were part of the then 11-team Southwest District for many years, along with Graham, Grundy and Patrick Henry, which is now in the Hogoheegee District.

According to the plan, Graham would be one of two AA teams in the Mountain Empire District, while Grundy would be the only non-A school in the Black Diamond.

“It is not approved yet, it is a model devised by the (R&R) committee,” Hovis said. “Basically Carroll County has been placed as a 4A school in the River Ridge because of their size. The other four schools in the Southwest are in the model for the Clinch Mountain District.

“It is very similar to the old Southwest District.”

Vencill said the current system would still allow Richlands to maintain its rivalries with Tazewell, Graham and Honaker. He also likes having nine teams in the league.

“From my standpoint the more schools in the league the better,” Vencill said. “The reason for districts was to help schedule more games because scheduling can be tough.”

Hovis said principals from across the state will meet in Richmond on March 8-9, with the proposal then sent back to the executive committee for final approval, which is expected.

The playoff proposal would place 32 teams — 16 in the eastern part of the state and 16 on the west — in each class in regional play, similar to the format used in Group A football last fall. It is also like West Virginia sectional play in which everyone is part of the postseason party.

“If the format is approved, district play will not matter, instead of sectionals you will have conferences,” Hovis said. “Everybody gets in the conference tournament and two will go to the regionals and they will be among the top 32 teams in the state.

“It is nice for a change. It is the most dramatic change in VHSL history in a long time.”

The SWD principals and athletic directors will be meeting today, and the proposed changes are expected to be the main topic of conversation.

“The time has come and the time is right so let’s get at it and do it,” Hovis said. “It’s nice to know we have enough faith in our colleagues to sit down and make it work out.”

• • •

The proposed realignment would include:

Clinch Mountain District: Abingdon, Gate City, John Battle, Lebanon, Lee, Marion, Richlands, Tazewell, Virginia High. Abingdon would be Group AAA in postseason play, the rest would be AA.

Mountain Empire District: Bland County, Galax, Fort Chiswell, Graham, Grayson County, Narrows. Only Graham and Grayson County would be Group AA.

Black Diamond: Council, Grundy, Haysi, Honaker, Hurley, Twin Valley. Grundy would be the lone Group AA team in the league.

—Contact Brian Woodson

 at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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