The News & Observer’s high school sports panel of five community sports editors, headed up by J. Mike Blake, will be taking on different questions each week. In this week’s writers’ roundtable, the group gives their thoughts on NCHSAA realignment in their respective areas of coverage.
It was the first realignment that, instead of dividing teams into four equal quadrants, used the “20-30-30-20” model that put the top 20 percent into 4A, the next 30 in 3A, next 30 into 2A and smallest 20 perecent of schools in 1A.
The N&O panel features:
▪ D. Clay Best (Smithfield Herald, Clayton News-Star, Garner-Cleveland Record)
▪ J. Mike Blake (The Cary News and Southwest Wake News)
▪ Aaron Moody (Eastern Wake News)
▪ Jessika Morgan (Midtown Raleigh News and North Raleigh News)
▪ W.E. Warnock (Chapel Hill News and The Durham News)
Now that the dust has settled, did the 20-30-30-20 model work?
Best: The 4A six-team leagues are only a problem for nonconference scheduling if there are limited 4A six-team leagues. That’s not the case with this alignment so filling up those six football dates or 10-12 other sport dates should be easier than it has been in the past for smaller leagues.
Blake: Absolutely, and 2A is a big winner in terms of intraconference travel. Only cutting split conferences from 12 to nine was surprising, but then again, there are no more 3A/2A split leagues. The only gripe is that 4A could’ve used another five teams to help make conferences. I had my doubts about this model but it worked out nicely.
Moody: Overall, it looks like it worked fine. You can’t always please everyone entirely, but taking some of the Triangle-area conferences as examples, the range of distances between most schools is reasonable if not about the same. There are some good rivalries to look forward to as well. I agree that with the majority of 4A East conferences having six members, there was room for a few more in that classification.
Morgan: Sure, as far as the 4A schools are concerned. Not many schools are traveling too far to play conference games, and it seems area teams are playing schools of a similar size.
Warnock: Yes. It’s difficult for me to see any team that was forced up or down into a classification that doesn’t fit its size. From what I can tell, most schools are in conferences that make sense geographically.
Should your respective conferences be happy?
Best (Greater Neuse 4A, Carolina 1A): With so many 4A schools in Wake County and the loss of Clayton, West Johnston and East Wake to the 3A ranks, Garner and Southeast Raleigh knew they were getting new league foes in a big way. Sending Garner with the lower part of the Southwest Wake ranks makes sense. And the Garner-Middle Creek rivalry gets a whole lot more fun with a championship on the line, doesn’t it?
And a 1A league with Princeton, North Duplin, Rosewood and Hobbton as members is worthy of the Carolina 1A moniker.
Blake (Southwest Wake 4A, Cape Fear Valley 3A): If you look at the big picture – and the down-the-road one as well – the Southwest Wake came out of this much better than I thought they would. They are lucky to have split into two leagues instead of being broken off in piecemeal to three or four. In the next decade, new high schools could pop up in Fuquay-Varina, Morrisville, Apex/Holly Springs and the Green Level side of Apex/Cary. The band was breaking up at some point.
Lee County, Southern Lee and Union Pines are ecstatic. It doesn’t get much better on travel than joining Western Harnett, Harnett Central and Triton.
Moody (Two Rivers 3A, Northern Carolina 2A): At least half of the Two Rivers – Cleveland, Smithfield-Selma and South Johnston – should be since they stay together and their new additions (former Greater Neuse River schools Clayton, East Wake and West Johnston) are local enough. With the advance to 4A, Corinth Holders’ future roadmap is simply to the northwest instead of the southwest, but the Pirates might not enjoy navigating from Archer Lodge/Wendell to Wakefield during afternoon traffic.
Five Northern Carolina teams (Bunn, Roanoke Rapids, South Granville, Southern Vance, Warren County) remain together and have already been facing lengthy road trips for league games. Franklinton will soon go only east-southeast for conference play, and Wilson is slightly closer than Roanoke Rapids.
Morgan (Cap-8 4A, North Central 1A): Sure. Heritage, Rolesville, Wake Forest and Wakefield are a hop, skip and jump away from each other. This calls for heated rivalries among those four teams. Knightdale and Corinth Holders aren’t too long a drive away either.
Warnock (PAC-6 4A, Big 8 3A, Mid-State 2A): They should be happy. It clearly compacted and lessened travel distances for most teams in Chatham, Durham, Granville, Orange and Vance counties. Conversely, the PAC-6 is almost completely broken, at least in terms of it being a Durham-centric conference. But just about all of the PAC-6 teams benefit it terms of travel distances. Hillside and Northern are rejoining old, old rivals Orange, Southern Durham and Chapel Hill.
What team switching classification surprises you? What conference rivalry hurts to see go nonconference?
Best: I don’t see a lot in my region that goes away, aside from the young Cleveland vs. Corinth Holders league rivalry and the Garner-Southeast football one. But we’re gaining Cleveland-Clayton, Cleveland-West Johnston, Garner-Middle Creek, and reclaiming the really old Clayton-Smithfield-Selma and the younger West-SSS rivalry.
Blake: I don’t know if I can get used to New Hanover and J.H. Rose being 3A. Much like Fayetteville Terry Sanford before them, I predict a number of state championships at that level. Losing Apex-Cary in confernce play is a blow to both sides that was hard to avoid.
Moody: It will be weird to see newer schools like Corinth Holders, Knightdale and Rolesville in the same 4A conference while longstanding Greater Neuse River school East Wake moves to 3A. East Wake and Knightdale, five miles apart, had a good thing going in the same leagues. Surely they will still show up on each other’s schedules often.
Morgan: Cardinal Gibbons moving into the Cap-8 (or Cap-7), joining the likes of Broughton, Millbrook and such, is interesting. I remember when I first got here, there was some controversy with Gibbons playing some of the area 4A schools. I think the schools who will remain in that conference are going to be pretty hyped up with its new addition. Gibbons brings a pretty consistent culture of winning to the table, and I think everyone else will want to step their game up. Should be fun!
The Wake Forest-Millbrook football rivalry takes a hit. Millbrook seemed to be about the only team in the league able to give Wake Forest a run recently.
Warnock: Riverside loses a lot by leaving the PAC-6. Riverside and Northern, less than five miles apart, are now in different classifications. Jordan also loses many of its Durham rivals. While Conference D is a great one, Riverside and Jordan will have to schedule three of their oldest rivals – Chapel Hill, Hillside and Northern Durham – as nonconference opponents if they want to keep in touch. They were already doing that with Southern Durham, which left the 4A in the previous realignment. They may not have enough open dates on a football schedule to play all their old rivals.
What new rivalries might form?
Best: I think I’ve mentioned Garner-Middle Creek enough times already, so Heritage vs. Corinth Holders gets my vote here. Both relatively new schools with continually growing districts. Clayton vs. South Johnston as a baseball rivalry is a darkhorse to watch. These two always seem to play very interesting first week of the season games, how much better will it be with a pennant on the line?
Blake: Garner versus Middle Creek versus Fuquay-Varina will be no-bleacher-seats-available football crowds (you might throw Holly Springs in there too) with must-see games. Apex versus Garner boys basketball twice a year will also be appointment viewing. Riverside and Cary being in the same conference for wrestling is huge, as is Green Hope and Jordan in the same boys soccer league.
I sense Garner and Fuquay-Varina could become a good rivalry, but perhaps as “frenemies.” Both teams share a common dislike for Middle Creek.
Moody: A 3A conference with Clayton, Cleveland, East Wake, Smithfield-Selma, South Johnston and West Johnston sounds good to me, particularly in football where several of the teams are already rivals or have history.
Morgan: I like the potential rivalry Rolesville will have with Heritage and Wake Forest. I’m sure since they’re all pretty close in distance now, there’s some spark, but I think it’s going to explode once the Rams join a conference with its neighbors.
Warnock: The presumptive Big-8, the new Conference J, reunites five members of the old District III “Black and Blue” Conference, and it has potential to produce state champions in football, basketball and baseball, plus some other spring and fall sports. The internecine warfare will be awesome.
In Conference D, Panther Creek is a natural rival for Jordan, both in terms of proximity (10 miles apart on NC 751) and student demographics. The student bodies eat at the same restaurants and go to the same movie theaters.
How would you improve the process?
Best: The charter and private school situation in the 1A ranks has to be addressed the next time around. They’re starting to dominate the small number of players team sports (mainly basketball). And it needs to get done before somebody figures out how to fund a football program that can draw from a larger area. If one of these schools threatens to or wins a state football championship, expect a torch-carrying brigade of protesters heading to Chapel Hill from the traditional 1A public power schools.
Blake: I think setting hard cutoff numbers, like a two-year average of 1,600 students or more would be automatically 4A, would shorten the process from a year long to a few months. It could also cut down on the movement between the classes and negate the need to do so many widespread changes.
I wouldn’t mind a multiplier for each kind of nontraditional school (one for magnets, one for charters, another for parochials and one for open-enrollment district schools) to try and assist some competitive balance.
Moody: If the goal is to have similar-size conferences and less of a gap between the largest and smallest school in each class, with a priority of minimizing travel, I still see some room for improvement on the travel part.
Warnock: I agree a multiplier would be appropriate for schools drawing students from outside a typical radius for public schools. And given the disparity in ADM numbers between the biggest and smallest schools with the 4A, it might be time to create a 5A classification. (And, by the way, then you could do away with separate A and AA football championships. Five would be enough; 10 would be silly.)