Two Cary high schools might take a page out of a college playbook in a last-gasp effort to solve their problems with the most recent N.C. High School Athletic Association realignment for the 2013-17 seasons.
A proposed alternate realignment by Panther Creek athletics director Todd Schuler would merge two 4A conferences into one 14-team league, stretching from Roxboro to Angier, with two divisions. Such a formation would be unprecedented in the NCHSAA.
Panther Creek and Green Hope currently play in the Tri-Nine 4A with six other western Wake County schools, but Panther Creek and Green Hope are slated to join the PAC-6 4A - a league with schools in Durham and Person counties - in the fall of 2013.
Schuler's proposal would use the seven teams scheduled to be in the PAC-6 as a "north division" and the seven teams scheduled to be in the Tri-Nine as a "south division" for basketball and football, while all other sports would be in one 14-team league.
The thinking behind the measure is Cary-area rivalries will be kept intact - which will continue to yield large crowds for football, basketball and other sports - and athletics directors won't have to scramble to find many nonconference games.
"It's important to Panther Creek that we preserve as many of the rivalries that we've developed within the Tri-Nine," said Schuler. "It allows us to compete against cross-town rivals and preserve what's been a very good conference for us so far."
The realignment committee, made up of principals and superintendents, is expected to consider the proposal during its meeting Thursday. A majority of the 14 schools support the super conference.
Getting teams on board
The alignment committee doesn't have a set number or percentage of schools that must be in favor before recommending the new league.
Ten of the schools involved in the proposal are supportive: Green Hope, Panther Creek, Apex, Athens Drive, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Middle Creek, Durham Jordan and Northern Durham.
Durham Hillside and Durham Riverside prefer staying in the seven-team league, and Roxboro Person is impartial to any plan. Harnett Central, which is scheduled to join the Tri-Nine in its seven-team formation in 2013, is against any move altogether and is appealing to stay in the Greater Neuse River 4A.
The NCHSAA knows well of the desires from Green Hope's fan base, which used an online petition to send more than 2,800 emails to NCHSAA officials and realignment committee staff for a change to be made.
"If we were to receive something of that nature at this point and at this juncture to have some type of super conference, there would have to be some significant buy-in," said NCHSAA Commissioner Davis Whitfield, with "at this juncture" referencing the committee's Thursday meeting to hear appeals to its most recent draft. Conferences will be finalized during May.
"It could be a simple majority, it could be 100 percent. I can't really answer that because the realignment committee is going to make that decision as a whole," Whitfield said.
Sorting playoffs, schedules
Green Hope athletics director Wayne Bragg said it would be challenging to make a conference schedule for 14 teams fair for all, and it could create some interesting possibilities.
Football teams would play intra-division foes once and have two or three games with the other side.
"We even talked about saving your endowment game till the last week of the year and then maybe try to pair up your No. 1 and 2 in this division with your No. 1 and 2 in this division and play them out in Durham County Stadium or something like that," said Bragg, the former football coach at Panther Creek. "You think about it from a fan's standpoint. Wouldn't you love to see a Fuquay-Hillside game in the last week of the year?"
Basketball teams would play a 19-game conference schedule, playing intra-division teams twice and every other team once.
Each division would get three automatic playoff bids in football, and four in basketball.
All other sports would not use divisions and play all 13 opponents just once. The NCHSAA would have the final say on how to best seed what would be eight automatic playoff bids.
The schedule would mean teams from the north division would have to travel to the southernmost outlier - Harnett Central - only once a year. The south division teams would have the same arrangement with northernmost outlier Person.
The Durham and Person teams could see an increase in gate revenue by welcoming in visiting crowds from some of the state's largest schools (all eight Wake County Tri-Nine teams are among the 40). The Wake County schools would be assured of keeping alive rivalries that are only separated by 19.5 miles from end-to-end (Panther Creek to Fuquay-Varina).
"It would guarantee you some games against the teams you're used to playing," Bragg said.
Panther Creek and Green Hope had been expecting gate revenue losses of about $25,000 annually without playing its close rivals on a consistent basis.
Several teams, counties
The NCHSAA has had conferences with double-digit members spanning several counties. It's even scheduled to have two in the next realignment.
But those cases are 1A conferences in the eastern and westernmost corners of the state where schools are small, travel is hard and the number of varsity teams fielded varies greatly from one member to the next.
There is no desired maximum number of teams for a conference. Green Hope and Panther Creek are needed to help the PAC-6 meet the minimum number of six.
The seven-team PAC-6 (six refers to the region, not number of teams) will lose Southern Durham and East Chapel Hill to 3A in 2013. East Chapel Hill just missed the cutoff for 4A by 10 students.
The NCHSAA has used split-classification conferences to cut travel for teams that could not reasonably form a single-classification conference, but it tries to avoid them when possible.
The Carolina-12 1A/2A, which will be broken apart in 2013, binds together a mixture of 12 public and charter schools from both classifications to help those schools schedule enough conference opponents across all sports.
But there is no true modern-day N.C. precedent for bringing together that many large schools from the same classification and placing them into divisions.
There was brief talk before the 2013-17 realignment process about a dual-division conference that would have banded together eight 4A teams stretching from Greenville to Wilmington. The schools instead were grouped together into split-classification conferences with nearby 3A schools.
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