Sports Editor

The Florida High School Athletic Association is working with its member schools and their athletic directors to see about changing how it divides schools into classifications in certain sports going forward.

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The FHSAA is looking at a plan to use computer-generated power rankings, and not school population for the first time since the 1930s, to determine classifications.

FHSAA officials have proposed a plan to use power rankings from the prior two seasons, instead of school population, to divide schools into six divisions in boys and girls basketball and soccer, girls volleyball, baseball and softball. Football would not be subject to the new plan, which would also keep the Class 1A “rural division” of small schools in lightly populated towns and counties intact.

Ratings from MaxPreps, a comprehensive high school sports website on which schools post their rosters, schedules and results, would be used to place schools in Division 1 through 6 in each sport, and schools could compete in different divisions in every sport, as the rankings would be independent to each sport.

Division 1 would house the top 32 teams in the rankings over the last two completed seasons (down from 64 in a previous proposal), and Divisions 2 and 3 would have the next 64 ranked teams. Divisions 4, 5 and 6 would divide the rest of the schools competing evenly, and have about 120 schools apiece. The placements would be revamped every two years.

The biggest change, aside from placing schools in new divisions and regions (tentatively eight per division), would be the elimination of districts and district tournaments. Schools would be free to schedule whoever they like in their 25 regular-season contests.

FHSAA committee member Justin Harrison, one of the minds behind a new plan that will go into effect for the 2019-20 school year — next year — told the advisory board that the state has used school student counts to determine classifications since the 1930s, and that the board is looking to see if there is a better way to do it.

“We keep hearing the same things. This was a discussion item in 2015, adding a competitive component to it,” Harrison said at an Athletic Director Advisory Committee meeting held Wednesday at FHSAA headquarters in Gainesville and broadcasted digitally.

“Change needs to happen, and if everyone’s involved in the process, we can work together to come up with a good plan. High school athletics has changed and we need to change with it.”

The state said this plan meets some goals: to eliminate competitive imbalance and blowouts in the playoffs, give more schools a chance to reach a state tournament and eliminate travel for schools with long trips each way for district contests. As an example, Harmony is in a volleyball and basketball district with Hagerty in Seminole County — two counties away — and schools across the state have much longer trips.

The FHSAA produced a sample set of divisions Wednesday based on MaxPreps rankings for the last two seasons. Of note locally:

Osceola boys basketball, a 2017 state champion and 2018 regional runner-up, would be the county’s only Division 1 team in any sport;

In baseball, Osceola and Gateway, who have battled each other for the District 9A-5 title the last three years would land in Division 3. Liberty would be the top-rated Division 6 team;

City of Life girls, a district champion he last two years and the 2018 Class 2A state champion would be in Division 2 while the counties public schools would be in Divisions 3 through 5;

In volleyball, Harmony and Osceola, the only squads to make the regional playoffs in recent years, would be in Division 2 and 3 respectively.

At the Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday, stakeholders from around the state expressed their concerns about the plan. Among them:

The plan opens the door for coaches to manipulate the regular-season schedule, giving no benefit to playing a tougher schedule, which coaches often say prepares a team for the post season;

Questions abound about how MaxPreps derives its rankings, and it’s not clear how a team goes about getting into the top 32 or 64;

With across-the-board open enrollment now allowed by the state Legislature, how do Division 5 or 6 schools keep a star player they’re building around to improve from being poached by a Division 1 or 2 school;

District tournaments and championships would go away — a number of athletic directors said they are still meaningful to players and coaches. Harrison said that wasn’t a big topic of discussion months ago when he first asked for feedback on this.

“We want local tournaments to mean more to them. When we talk about enrollment, it doesn’t necessary determine where a team is at that time,” he said.

That was in reference to schools in a area forming a conference, much like Osceola County’s Orange Belt Conference, which now has eight members with Tohopekaliga High School now opening.

Osceola County Athletic Director Ryan Adams said he welcomes a change, although he’s interested how it will be implemented with his and other AD concerns.

“Our state is so diverse because of its size and strength. We’ll never make everybody happy,” he said, noting his own kudos and questions.

“I’m not opposed to the 64 teams and creating an NCAA-style bracket,” he said. “But I’m concerned about the rankings — who is MaxPreps, exactly? — and how good teams are going to struggle to schedule. Every coach will be creative in wanting to maximize their playoff points. I’d be disappointed to lose the district championship. But I’m not against a plan like this.”

Poinciana Athletic Director Rob Weilert likes how the plan would give Eagles teams scheduling flexibility.

“Currently we regularly travel to Hardee, Tavares, Leesburg among others in multiple sports. Last week girls volleyball went to Tavares and didn’t get back untilI after midnight,” he said. “In this case we could play teams that are closer to us in terms of location and level of play in some cases.

“I also see how eliminating district and regional titles can be a detractor as well. It becomes win a state title or bust.”

Talk that “leveling the playing field” came up at the Advisory Meeting, saying the FHSAA isn’t in charge of that; it falls to superintendents, principals, athletic directors and coaches to see that teams succeed. Liberty AD Corey Edwards falls on that side of the equation.

“I come from a place (Michigan) where we had city league and district championships, which meant a lot to the student-athletes and schools. The Chargers look forward to competing for district titles and having the opportunity to raise a banner. Now that opportunity may be taken away and that’s disappointing.”

Celebration High Athletic Director Rick Tribit is among those who don’t like the new idea.

“They’re selling it as if it’s going to stop recruiting, which it’s not,” he said. “There are programs around the state where the district championship means something to them. They may not ever be able to beat some of the state powerhouses and win a region title, but the district title means something to the town, community, and school.”

The City of Life girls, who went 21-5 last season en route to their title, played schools of all sizes last season, including wins over public schools Liberty, Poinciana and St. Cloud and a tight loss to Osceola. Their five losses were all to playoff teams, and the Warriors finished 2017-18 ranked 36th in the state (and first in 2A) by MaxPreps. Their wins at the 2A state championship were by 23 and 17 points.

“We prepare to be the best we can be,” Warriors Coach Dewrie Buggs said. “Just tell me who we have to go play.”

The feedback from athletic directors Wednesday and prior meetings will be taken to the FHSAA Board of Directors, Harrison said, before that board votes on a proposal Oct. 29.