By Maurice Patton
Is a change gon’ come for Tennessee high school basketball, baseball and softball?
Coaches in those sports are hopeful that classification for the 2021-23 period will place Division I programs in one of four classes – a departure from the three-class system that has existed since 1976.
During a Monday meeting at Siegel High School in Murfreesboro, the TSSAA Board of Control will take up the topic of classifying Division I and D-II schools for the following two school years, based on 20-day enrollment figures for the current year.
Coaches in the three sports have long campaigned for what is generally seen as a more equitable system than the one now in place, which at the Class AAA level sees schools such as Spring Hill — which reported an enrollment of 1,053 in 2016, the basis for the current classifications — potentially competing against schools more than twice its size.
“If you’re in that third class, there’s no cap to the (enrollment of the) schools you’re competing against,” Raider baseball coach Paul Lamm said. “That starts adding up.”
The disparity in enrollments is particularly stark for Spring Hill, one of three schools that plays in Region 4-4A for football – along with Tullahoma and Lawrence County – that plays in Class AAA basketball, baseball and softball.
Columbia Central (2016 reported enrollment: 1333) isn’t far removed from a similar fate. Boys basketball coach Nick Campbell sees how a four-class structure would be beneficial to the Lions as well.
“We’d likely get away from Murfreesboro in regional play,” said Campbell, referring to District 8-AAA matching up with the Rutherford County-based District 7-AAA to form Region 4-AAA. Four of the eight teams from District 7-AAA reported enrollments of 2,000 or more in 2016, and all except Rockvale – which did not open until last fall – had enrollments of at least 1,700.
“We’ve only got three teams since 2010 that have won a region game,” Campbell added. “It would definitely level the playing field a little.”
All three coaches associations are in favor of four classes, though the change would have its potential drawbacks.
“We think people have finally seen the disparity. In Class AAA, you could have a school with 1,100 playing a school with 2,400,” said Pat Swallows, executive director of the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association.
The primary concern is that the state tournament format may change with four classes. As opposed to quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games taking place at a central site with three classes, the tourney participants may be limited to four teams.
“I think if that’s the case, some would rather stay at three (classes),” Swallows said. “Going to the state tournament is any athlete’s dream. Cutting the number of athletes that can go – when there’s plenty of fields … You can figure something out.”
Both John Conditt, executive director of the Tennessee High School Softball Coaches Association, and Basketball Coaches Association of Tennessee executive director Bruce Slatten echoed Swallows’ sentiments.
Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA, said four classes were discussed during the last reclassification talks in 2016.
“The reason we didn’t the last time is, I think we (the state office) gave the Board too much to consider,” he said. “We presented 48 different plans. I think they got overwhelmed.
“What we need to preserve is regular-season travel. If the schools are willing to except (longer travel distances), … We can do four classes and still have districts.”
Childress clarified, however, that while the enrollment gaps will be lessened with four classes, they won’t go away.
“There’s always going to be disparities,” he said. “Whoever’s at the bottom – somebody’s going to be upset.”
Meanwhile, officials at Zion Christian Academy have submitted a request for Division II to adapt three classes — rather than two — for basketball.
The request sent to the TSSAA by Zion athletics director Derek Boyd places 32 schools in DII-A, with 20 in DII-AA (smallest, enrollment 266) and 12 in DII-AAA (smallest, enrollment 431). The breakdown closely resembles the classes currently set for Division II football.
“It’s not perfectly done,” Boyd said. “It’s just showing that, I feel like – transportation-wise, it’d be OK. In Division II-AAA, they’ve always traveled quite a bit anyway.
“I think giving the smaller schools a chance to compete would be a good thing.”
Zion Christian has also requested to continue playing a non-region football schedule for the 2021 and ’22 seasons.
Maurice Patton is the editor for Southern Middle Tennessee Sports. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mopatton_sports.