High School Sports

FAQs on conference realignment: what conference will your school be in?

N&O sportswriters J. Mike Blake and Clay Best break down the high school football playoffs

News and Observer sports writers J. Mike Blake and Clay Best break down the high school football playoffs and the area teams still in action.
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News and Observer sports writers J. Mike Blake and Clay Best break down the high school football playoffs and the area teams still in action.

If you’re a high school student or the parent of one, you’ll only get to encounter the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s realignment process once. It works on four-year cycles.

The beginning of the next four-year cycle has already started, and for that reason, we’ve come up with some frequently asked questions to help work your way through the next year.

It feels like we just got these conferences – why are we changing already?

The NCHSAA’s conferences stay in place for a four-year period. The next period begins in the fall of 2017 and runs through the spring of 2021.

The NCHSAA determines who will play in what conference almost two years early, however, so that athletic directors have time to appeal the process’ different stages and, more importantly, have time to meet with their new conference mates and map out conference schedules, go over the league bylaws or write a completely new conference constitution.

So the league we’re playing in come May 2021 will be because of a process that started in November 2015?

Yes. Kinda crazy when you frame it like that. And for some, the 2016-17 season will have a “lame duck” feeling to it.

But didn’t Cardinal Gibbons just change leagues this past year?

Teams can apply to change classifications in the middle of a four-year period. Gibbons applied last winter to move from 3A to 4A for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons and it was granted for three reasons: 1) Cardinal Gibbons is larger than many 4A teams right now 2) the Big 8 agreed to let them go 3) the PAC-6 agreed to take them in.

What determines 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A? Is there an enrollment number you have to hit?

First, it’s not “enrollment” but this year’s first-month average daily membership (this is the number public schools report to the Department of Public Instruction for state funding purposes, so fudging it would be a big no-no).

And unlike some states, the NCHSAA does not use a hard cutoff number to group teams into classifications. There is no magic number.

For years, the process was pretty simple – take all the teams and divide them into four equal groups.

This year, there will still be four groups, but the sizes will be different.

After removing all the non-football playing schools, the top 20 percent of teams (76 in all) are 4A. The next 30 largest percent are in 3A, followed by 30 percent more in 2A. The last 20 percent are 1A. Then, the non-football playing schools are added back in and fall in line with the rest (and almost all are 1A).

After the change, how many teams will be in each class?

4A has 76, 3A has 114, 2A has 116 and 1A has 103.

So most 4A brackets will have 64 playoff teams for 76 schools? Ugh.

I believe that will be the case. Just pray the new schools planned in Wake County get built quickly so that number looks a little better in a few years.

I saw a proposal that had McDowell County going to Charlotte! Corinth Holders to New Bern! What are those jokers thinking?!

Oh, you may have seen the computer model. That’s not a proposal!

That’s just something the good folks at SAS have their computers spit out to help the NCHSAA show its members why split conferences are needed.

A split conference is when teams from different classifications are in the same league but play in different state championships. It complicates playoff berths, but without them you’d have some teams, like McDowell County, driving four hours round-trip.

Couldn’t we just make a split conference for the sake of keeping traditional rivals together? Does realignment care about keeping rivalries together?

The NCHSAA hasn’t done that in the past, so no. It does not take rivalries into account in its decision-making. Not even Cary-Apex.

What matters in this decision-making? Is there a minimum or maximum number of teams?

Geography and travel are the biggest considerations, and a minimum of six conference teams are needed.

It helps if you have a minimum of six in football too. It’s hard for a school to schedule six nonconference games, and seven is nearly impossible.

Take Western Harnett. It tried to avoid being in the Two Rivers 3A because of travel (four schools were an hour or so away), but that league needed a sixth member and the Eagles were pulled in as the only option.

There is no maximum, though nine seems to be the NCHSAA’s favorite limit. It’s usually only exceeded in 1A leagues where it’s impossible to find another solution.

What’s excessive travel to the NCHSAA?

There’s no set rule, but in looking at conferences from recent years a conference is fine so long as it’s about an hour or a little more from end-to-end. That will surely shock some folks around here, who think Panther Creek to Fuquay-Varina is a “long drive.”

You can also tell the NCHSAA really wants to avoid drives that are longer than 90 minutes.

North Johnston is in a league now where its farthest trip is 90 minutes, but there were no other solutions available.

J.H. Rose once had to drive two hours one-way to play teams in Wilmington. Rose fought that (unsuccessfully) every year and I don’t think the NCHSAA will want to go through that again with any school.

So rivalries don’t matter, but what about being in the same conference as teams in my county? Does that count for anything?

It matters a little, but not much.

Take Riverside and Jordan. Those will be the only two 4A teams in Durham County. They’ll likely be joined at the hip for realignment, but it’s their proximity that’s the real factor, not that they share a county. Weird-shaped counties like Duplin and Harnett can easily be split up despite having teams in the same class.

I like my conference. Can I keep my conference?

It’s not really about you. It’s about the big picture.

You can’t have tunnel vision and say “I’d rather be in this conference – move my school!” without some good alternatives that 1) the other schools affected will like and 2) will still satisfy the minimum of six teams.

Also, the NCHSAA starts from scratch every time, rather than looking at current conferences and making small tweaks. That’s the most frequent critique I hear from athletic directors.

Who is changing classifications in the Triangle?

Moving up: Corinth Holders to 4A, Franklinton to 3A.

Moving down to 3A: Hillside, Person, East Chapel Hill, Cardinal Gibbons, Northern Durham, Clayton, West Johnston, Harnett Central, East Wake.

Moving down to 2A: Northern Vance, J.F. Webb.

Can Gibbons petition to stay in 4A? I don’t want them winning all the titles. It’s my time to shine. Signed, 3A teams.

They can, but the Crusaders would need a special waiver or a change in mindset from the NCHSAA board of directors. Generally, the board has not approved teams whose numbers didn’t fit the profile.

However, nothing would be lost by 3A losing a team. Gibbons is surrounded by 4A teams, so it would actually make conferences in the Triangle easier to align.

So what’s next?

The NCHSAA will send out a draft – or perhaps the computer model – in December. Schools will have a chance to appeal. Then the next draft comes out a few months later. Schools have another chance to appeal.

Conferences are finalized sometime around March or April.

What’s your best guess to how realignment will go in this area? And will you show your work on how you got where?

I will definitely show my work. I’ll try to bring in several leagues, not just the ones around here.

Let’s start with 4A and start East to West, with West ending in the Triangle.

Step 1: Down by the coast, you have two split conference leagues and little reason to change their makeup.

The new Mideastern: 4A - (Laney, Hoggard, Ashley) 3A - (New Hanover, South Brunswick, West Brunswick, Topsail) + (North Brunswick). North Brunswick’s move to 3A means the league is as compact as it’s ever been.

The new Eastern Carolina: 4A - (South Central, New Bern) 3A - (J.H. Rose, D.H. Conley, Southern Wayne, Eastern Wayne, CB Aycock). Having just two 4A teams in a league used to be a major problem for the NCHSAA because it meant both 4A teams had automatic playoff spots in nearly every sport. But a new rule means those teams don’t always get home playoff games, it’s not as bad as it used to be.

Step 2: Then you come to Corinth Holders, which is on an island. Going out from Corinth Holders to the north and getting schools from the I-540 corridor is better, logistically, than going south to Garner and out to southwestern Wake.

I came up a new Greater Neuse: (Wakefield, Wake Forest, Heritage) + (Rolesville, Knightdale) + (Corinth Holders).

Step 3: So now the Cap-8 , which just lost three of its northern Wake Forest-area schools, needs at least one more to get to the minimum of six. Cap-8: (Broughton, Enloe, Millbrook, Sanderson, Leesville Road) + (Garner, Southeast Raleigh) + (South Garner in 2018)

Garner and Southeast are both just minutes away from Broughton and Enloe. Garner is actually former Cap-8 member.

Step 4: Look to the south and try to figure out how to mesh five teams from the Fayetteville-based Mid-South Conference with six teams in the Southeastern Conference. If there’s a way to avoid a split conference and an 11-team super conference, the NCHSAA will opt for it.

So I omit two schools from the list – the two northernmost ones in Overhills and Pinecrest – and let this nine-team league happen. Mid-South/Southeastern: (Jack Britt, South View, Seventy-First, Pine Forest) + (Lumberton, Purnell Swett, Richmond County, Scotland County, Hoke County).

It pushes it on travel, but not so much where I think the NCHSAA would be dissuaded. Pine Forest to Richmond County is a good 80-minute drive.

Step 5: Overhills has shorter drives going north than out to Richmond or Scotland. Pinecrest, who already plays these Wake schools in lacrosse, is also on an island and used to traveling 45 minutes to an hour for conference play. The SWAC teams would get familiar with U.S. Highway 1 and N.C. Highway 210 pretty quick.

For old time’s sake, call it the Tri-7: (Apex, Apex Friendship, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Middle Creek) + (Overhills) + (Pinecrest).

Step 6: Hey look, it’s the PAC-6: (Riverside, Jordan) + (Green Hope, Panther Creek, Athens Drive, Cary) + (Green Level in 2018) + (Cardinal Gibbons?).

Someone needs to partner with Riverside and Jordan, and the nearest 4A to the west is in Greensboro. Green Hope and Panther Creek already play nearby Jordan in everything. Athens Drive and Cary are thrown in to help give the league six teams. Green Level will join in 2018. Cardinal Gibbons, if it is somehow allowed to play on a 4A level, would join here.

Is there anything you could see happening differently in 4A? What are you confident about?

Let’s say the NCHSAA does something different in the Mid-South/Southeastern area and Pinecrest and Overhills are not pulled north.

Let’s also say Cardinal Gibbons is allowed to play 4A. Garner and Southeast Raleigh could join Apex, Middle Creek and the rest in a SWAC-like league while Athens Drive joins a six-team, Raleigh-only Cap-8 and Gibbons goes to the PAC-6.

I’m pretty confident about Corinth Holders joining Wake Forest and eastern Wake 4A teams and Green Hope/Panther Creek joining Durham and Riverside.

What about 3A?

Step 1: Knock out the Big East: (Rocky Mount, Northern Nash, Southern Nash, Hunt, Fike) + (East Wake) + (Franklinton).

East Wake drops to 3A, surrounded by no 3A teams. Franklinton moves up to 3A, surrounded by no 3A teams. It’s quicker for the Warriors to go East than south to play South Johnston or Triton. The Big East needs at least a sixth team to replace Nash Central. Franklinton is in a Person County-like position – there are no close options.

Step 2: A ready-made Two Rivers: (Cleveland, South Johnston, Smithfield-Selma) + (West Johnston, Clayton) + (Harnett Central, Triton). If the Wayne County schools staying in the split 4A/3A Eastern Carolina, you can almost put money on this conference.

Step 3: Cape Fear Valley: (Lee County, Southern Lee, Union Pines, Gray’s Creek, Douglas Byrd, Westover, Terry Sanford) + (Western Harnett) + (Cape Fear, E.E. Smith). Ten-team leagues are usually avoided, but Western Harnett’s too far away to pair with Johnston County schools in the Two Rivers, and Union Pines is a floater because it’s far from almost every 3A.

Step 4: Big 8: (Orange, Cedar Ridge, Chapel Hill, Northwood, Southern Durham) + (Hillside, Northern Durham, Person, East Chapel Hill + Cardinal Gibbons). A 10-team merger between the Big 8 and PAC-6. Do you make East and West divisions between the Durham and Orange/Chatham lines? It would help that Person-to-Northwood haul. If Gibbons moves up to 4A, the league would still be healthy at nine teams.

Is there anything you could see happening differently in 3A? What are you confident about?

Let’s say the NCHSAA moves Lee and Southern Lee north in order to avoid a 10-team Cape Fear Valley. They’d have to partner with Northwood, then Chapel Hill, East Chapel Hill, then Orange and Cedar Ridge in a 7-team league. Then Hillside, Southern Durham, Northern Durham, Person, Cardinal Gibbons and Franklinton would form another 6-team league. I can see that happening, but it’s not optimal and would be dashed in a second if Gibbons moves up to 4A.

I’m pretty dang confident about the Two Rivers. Those teams have wanted that league for awhile. Western Harnett would rather play the Lee schools than have to travel to Clayton.

Can you do 2A?

Sure. Let’s start in the southeastern area.

Step 1: A few teams from 1A moved up to 2A in this area. Hello new Four County 2A: (Wallace-Rose Hill, Trask, Clinton, Midway, East Bladen, West Bladen) + (James Kenan). My gosh. What a football conference.

Step 2: Reassemble the Eastern Carolina, East Central and Eastern Plains now that North Brunswick is 3A and Nash Central, West Craven and Spring Creek are 2A. Whatever name you give the three, this works out a lot of travel problems in the area.

Eastern Carolina: (Croatan, Dixon, East Duplin, Southwest Onslow) + (Kinston, North Lenoir, South Lenoir) + (West Craven). Basically Jacksonville and Kinston areas.

Eastern Plains: (North Pitt, Washington, Farmville Central, SouthWest Edgecombe) + (Ayden-Grifton, Greene Central). The greater Greenville area.

East Central: (North Johnston, Beddingfield) + (Spring Creek) + (Nash Central) + (Goldsboro) + (Bunn). Everything outside of those two that’s too far to send anywhere else. Bunn is pulled in from the Northern Carolina, which seems odd until you realize that without Franklinton, there’s no reason Bunn can’t be moved. This league is a little long north-to-south, but most 2A teams are used to going an hour for at least 1-2 conference games.

Step 3: A quick fix to the Northern Carolina: (South Granville, Southern Vance, Warren County, Roanoke Rapids, N.C. Science and Math, Durham School of the Arts) + (J.F. Webb, Northern Vance).

It loses Franklinton to 3A, and possibly Bunn, but will gain J.F. Webb and Northern Vance.

Step 4: Keep the Mid-State 2A the same, since no new 2A teams popped up in that area of the Piedmont, and same goes for the Three Rivers 1A/2A, which will now have five 2A teams with Whiteville moving up and breaking the even 4-4 split.

Is there anything you could see happening differently in 2A? What are you confident about?

I can see West Craven and Greene Central trading spots, perhaps.

I’m very confident in the Northern Carolina. Those eight teams are a lock. Bunn is the only wild-card.

Can you do 1A?

Well, with 1A basically staying the same, there’s only a little left up to imagination.

Step 1: With no James Kenan and Spring Creek in 2A, to solve the new Carolina 1A (Princeton, Neuse Charter, Rosewood, Lakewood, North Duplin, Hobbton) + (Pender, Union). Pender is on an island in 1A and needs a new home. It’s 90 minutes to Neuse Charter, but that’s life in 1A when you’re all by yourself.

Step 2: Add new member Falls Lake Academy to the Tar-Roanoke Athletic Conference.

Step 3: Keep the North Central Athletic Conference and Central Tar Heel Conference the same.

Is there anything you could see happening differently in 1A? What are you confident about?

I’m not confident about much with 1A because you never know where the NCHSAA will usher in a new split conference.

What I can see going differently is if the NCHSAA pulls Woods Charter and River Mill Academy out of the NCAC and into the Central Tar Heel.