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McGair: High school realignment formula in need of tweaking

December 3, 2012

Woonsocket athletic director George Nasuti. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN.

At the end of day, high school sports are not based on which teams are successful and which ones aren’t. Their very existence is predicated on providing teenagers with a level playing field rooted in fair competition.
If winning a championship happens to accompany what should be an enriching experience, that’s pure gravy. If not, the question that needs asking is whether the experience provided was rewarding from a “fair fight” standpoint.
Expounding further, what happens when programs are placed in divisions that are well beyond their capabilities in terms of having a chance to hold their heads above water? If that’s the case – and there are several area-related examples, as we’ll touch upon shortly – then perhaps it’s time to come up with a realignment strategy that doesn’t place teams behind the proverbial eight ball.
As it stands, the RIIL’s Realignment Committee is scheduled to convene at some point this month. No doubt one of the major topics under discussion figures to be a systematic approach that is part-empirical, part-common sense. Since the league recently rubber stamped two-year realignments that will take all fall, winter and spring sports through the 2013-14 academic year, there’s no immediate rush to push something through.
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Certainly the Realignment Committee will have no shortage of circumstantial evidence to hold up to the light. At Woonsocket and Tolman, each high school can step forward and firmly present a case that demonstrates why several of their sports programs should not take on opponents in divisions where the ability to compete is hindered.
For starters, let’s examine the Tolman softball team, which beginning next spring will be part of a 17-team Division I arrangement. The fact that the Tigers are moving up after only six seasons of playing fast-pitch softball has resulted in athletic director John Scanlon requesting a hearing.
One of the guidelines used in realignment is eight seasons’ worth of win-loss data specifically from the regular season. That means that one would begin with the 2004 season and move forward; Tolman joined the fast-pitch ranks in 2006.
According to Scanlon, the 70/30 realignment derivative in which 30 percent accounts for a school’s male or female enrollment while 70 percent is reserved for winning percentage over an eight-year span, was used when deciding how to proceed with Tolman. Yet if a program has not been in existence for less than the subjected window of time, did that mean that the Softball Committee used seasons when Tolman was strictly a slow-pitch member?
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At Woonsocket, five programs – boys’ soccer, wrestling, softball, baseball and field hockey – received bumps up to Division I during the latest realignment. The crux behind this seismic shift in competition stems from the school’s population.
According to publicschoolreview.com, Woonsocket served 1,750 students in grades 9-12 during the 2011-12 school year. Of the entire student body, only a fraction plays sports with probably even less playing multiple sports.
What happens is that because of Woonsocket High’s enrollment, all of the sports programs automatically gets thrust to the front of the pack in terms of the 30-percent figures used in realignment. If that same team even has moderate success on the field or the hardwood, then chances are they will be subjected to divisional reclassification.
“The rankings put us in Division I and we do our best to survive, but the problem is that we sacrifice kids,” noted Woonsocket athletic director George Nasuti. “I want to compete in Division I in all sports, but I don’t want to sacrifice anyone down the road.”
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Now that some examples have been placed on the table, it’s time to present some solutions. While having a two-year realignment cycle, the onus falls on each individual sports committee to take a long, hard look at whether some teams actually belong in certain divisions after running the numbers through the computer.
Granted the makeup and dichotomy of these teams changes on a yearly basis, particularly in urban high schools where kids could be there today and elsewhere tomorrow. For the most part, coaches are tuned in to what they have to work with and what lies ahead on the horizon. Is it too much to ask for a little human touch that would allow coaches to have a voice? Explain that the numbers or talent level might be down, thus – for the vitality of the program – request playing in a lower division than what the math dictates?
Another idea is to remove the enrollment figures and replace them with actual participation. Before the start of each season, each athletic director would submit to the Interscholastic League an eligibility list, whether the level is freshman, junior varsity or varsity. Should a kid play multiple sports, he or she would only count once toward the requirement.
Furthermore, the win-loss aggregate would also include every game played during the regular season except the Injury Fund contest. Of the 10 Division I teams the Tolman football team locked helmets with prior to joining the league this past season, the Tigers won just one game. Granted those results had no bearing on the league standings, but they were results that were documented and recorded.
As far as using eight years to compile the 70 percent of the realignment figure – keep in mind that some teams may have played in different divisions over that span, which in turn allows for the combining of different points-per-win values based on how each division weighs each league win – it’s better served to shorten the time frame in half. The notion of using what unfolded back in 2004 offers little insight as to how today’s student-athletes will fare, given that we’re talking about exactly two four-year cycles of kids rotating through the hallways.
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At the R.I. Principals’ Committee on Athletics meeting that took place on Nov. 19, Warwick Vets principal Gerry Habershaw went before the group to express his concerns about the realignment process and how several of his athletic programs are in divisions that offer them little chance to be competitive.
“He issued some concerns that it’s more forced realignment,” stated Tom Mezzanotte, Interscholastic League executive director. “We align based on a formula and the (PCOA) recognized what he was saying and will take it into consideration heading into the next realignment process.”
Over time, there figures to be more people like Habershaw coming forward to suggest how realignment can be calibrated so that no team is at a competitive disadvantage. Yes, facts and figures are important, but in this day and age where some schools are wondering how some of their athletic programs can survive long term, some input by those directly affected may go a long way in preserving teams.

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