When it comes to realignment, bigger is better

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By Travis Jenkins

I have some advice for the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) as it tries to make things fair and equitable for the athletic programs of the state’s smallest schools…stop trying.

In a few months, the SCHSL will unveil its new realignment proposal, a once-every-other-year process of dividing schools into athletic classifications and regions based on student enrollment and proximity. When the currently-in-use realignment plan came out, the league made Class A, home to the school’s with the state’s lowest enrollment numbers, REALLY small, with only 39 schools. That’s only one less school than is present in AAAA and nine less than in AAAAA, but the number is actually smaller that it seems to be on the surface. Only 30 teams placed in Class A field football teams, with a number of the academies and charter schools that populate Class A only offering a handful of sports, whereas all AAA, AAAA and AAAAA schools have football programs. The SCHSL never really explained why it decided to make Class A so small, with the only explanation offered being that they always attempt to make the difference in size between the largest and smallest school in each class as narrow as possible. Moving teams like Lewisville, East Clarendon and Hannah-Pamplico up in classification did accomplish that in Class A, but it also increased the difference in size from largest to smallest in AA at the same time. My suspicion is that it was the SCHSL’s well-meaning but flawed attempt to protect the smallest of the small. Before the current realignment kicked in, Lewisville was the largest school in Class A with 365 students, while Calhoun Falls Charter was the smallest at just under 100. In no other class would you have a team potentially competing against multiple opponents almost four times its size, so to give Calhoun Falls Charter, North, Hunter-Kinard-Tyler and Creek Bridge (which all have at or under 175 students) a puncher’s chance at being competitive, they lowered Class A’s ceiling. The size discrepancy also exists in AAAAA, but that it because there are three outsized behemoths (Wando at 4,300 students, Dorman at 3,300 and Summerville at more than 3,000) present there that dwarf everyone else. There are bigger real gaps in AA, AAA and AAAA, but the difference in 100 and 365 is much more impactful and difficult to overcome than the difference in 1,200 and 1,600.

Unfortunately, size has definitely mattered. Class A did not feature enough teams to have its own playoffs in boys or girls cross-country or girls soccer and barely had enough (12, the bare minimum) to fill a boys soccer bracket. So, the cross country and girls soccer teams had to compete in the AA playoffs where they stood no realistic chance advancing, much less winning a state title. So by trying to make the class small enough for everyone to theoretically have a chance at being competitive in the postseason, the SCHSL actually made it more difficult for Class A schools to do so in multiple sports.

The sports that have been able to field their own playoff brackets have had their own struggles. Having so few schools in Class A with football teams gave us playoffs that featured two first-round hosts with records of 2-8 and one with a 1-9 mark. A situation that was going to be bad anyway got worse when two teams, both of whom would have made the playoffs (and both of whom had more than two wins on the resume) were banned for the playoffs because of an on-field brawl in the last week of the regular season. In baseball, Districts I and II featured just two teams each, because the regions predetermined to fill those districts didn’t have enough teams to do so. Region II is comprised of five schools, but the Governor’s School doesn’t have a baseball team (or football for that matter) and Timmonsville folded its baseball program just before the season started. That region is guaranteed three playoffs slots, so all three schools with a baseball team made the playoffs, though one was winless in the regular season.

When you have a classification that is as small as Class A is now, there is no room for error. An on-field scrap that leads to multiple teams being suspended from the playoffs wouldn’t be a big deal in other classes, as there would be at least somewhat deserving teams with representative records to plug the holes, but not in Class A. It is rare that schools in other classes abruptly fold up a team before a season begins (or once it has already started) but that’s a reality in schools with less than 200 students. I don’t know that it has ever happened that a AA, AAA, AAAA or AAAAA school has ever closed its doors outright, but that happened in Class A with Lincoln a few years ago and with the aforementioned Creek Bridge a few weeks ago. Creek Bridge’s closure leaves Region VI with only three schools playing football, baseball and softball. So almost no matter how bad those three might be in those sports, they will likely make the playoffs. They are also left scrambling to try to fill the spots Creek Bridge previously occupied on their schedules and in many sports (baseball, basketball, softball) that is two games.

The only way to safeguard against the pitfalls and instabilities inherent in very small schools is to make their classification larger. At a bare minimum, it allows Class A to field its own playoffs in almost every sport, but it also makes the competition in those playoffs more robust. It doesn’t make sense for teams with one or no wins to be in the playoffs, much less hosting. Having a larger class also builds in fallback options for teams folding, or getting suspended or schools closing outright. I love the smallest of the small schools in our state and its great that Calhoun Falls Charter can still field a football team with less than 100 students on campus, but there isn’t a class you can construct in which they would have a real chance to win a state championship. So there is no reason to try. Bigger isn’t always better, but in this case, it is at least preferable or more workable. Hopefully, the SCHSL feels the same way now.