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Although changes have been brewing for a long time, the Virginia High School League’s landscape has remained largely the same for the past 40 years.

That continuity was officially broken Sept. 19, when the VHSL Executive Committee approved a new classification system. The current three-tiered A, AA and AAA alignment be replaced by a six-class system, which will go into effect for all 315 member schools at the start of the 2013-14 school year.

The committee voted 23-3 in favor of the change, which seeks to address the enrollment disparities found within the current classifications. Schools with significant differences in enrollment often compete for the same state championship, an issue fueled by schools from less populous areas of the state for years.

The new structure will have little effect on regular season games, as schools can continue to schedule bouts against local rivals. The playoff system, however, has been revamped to allow like-sized schools to compete for titles. District playoffs have been replaced with “conference” groupings, which look largely the same as current district groupings. Teams then square off in their respective “North-South” or “East-West” divisions within each of the six classes, creating a more splintered setup at the regional playoff level. The result allows all sports to work more like football, which is the only sport that currently crowns six state champions.

Although the executive committee hashed out the layout of the new system, it left the burden of its implementation to school principals and athletic directors.

“There’s still a lot of work to do to figure out the details, the financial structure, governance, things like that,” said Bill Curran, the Athletics Director for Fairfax County Public Schools. “For the Stuarts and Falls Church and Marshall and the smaller schools, it will be a better competitive situation for them. I don’t see any doubt about that. The overall issue I do have with it is the overall governance of it at the league level shut out the Northern Region from the process, and they shut out the Eastern Region from the process. We had asked for time to really work these things out.”

Several area athletic directors share Curran’s concern with the manner in which the executive committee carried out its changes. The committee finalized its proposals in the form of emergency legislation, which sped up the voting process and prevented concerns from being addressed.

With the bulk of the legislation aimed at creating more equity for smaller schools from less populous areas for the state, representatives from the Northern and Eastern regions were left in the dark on several issues that could crop up as a result of the changed structure. Hayfield Principal Dave Tremaine represents the Northern Region on the VHSL’s committee and, despite representing the state’s 13 largest schools and 20 of the top 23, he was unable to get the committee to work through the bulk of his concerns. Although he and most others agreed with the overall legislation, Tremaine wanted to present potential problems that could face the Northern Region down the road.

For example, the Northern Region owns the wrestling clocks for its annual tournament, so there are questions as to who is going to pay for new clocks when simultaneous wrestling tournaments are going on in different areas.

“They’re not open to those discussions, and that’s been frustrating,” Curran said. “When the Northern and Eastern Region collectively tried to at least speak about it at the executive committee meeting, basically they were shut out.”

Perhaps the biggest local beneficiaries from a competitive standpoint will be Thomas Jefferson, Lee and Marshall, which will be pitted in a 5A conference that also includes Falls Church, Edison, Mount Vernon, Stuart and Wakefield. Rather than have to worry about bigger schools such as Westfield and Centreville in the regional playoffs, those schools now will be limited to playing against like-sized schools from the other two conferences in Division 5. Stone Bridge is included in that lot, competing in a conference that includes Loudoun County schools. All school groupings were determined by size and proximity.

“I think TJ right now is in a terrific spot because we’ll keep the districts for the next two years and postseason-wise we’ll be playing schools of our same student population,” Thomas Jefferson Director of Student Activities Shawn DeRose said. “That allows us, No. 1, to keep some of our natural rivals over the years. We’ll continue with those traditions and at the same time during postseason play be able to compete against students that are on the same level as us. So for us it is a win-win situation right now.”

Schools with enrollments approaching 2,000 students, such as South County, Yorktown and Hayfield will be moving from Division 5 to Division 6. Hayfield and Yorktown will join several Liberty District teams in one of the four conferences making up the 6A North Division, while South County will remain alongside most of its Patriot District brethren in a different conference of the 6A North Division.

Although they acknowledged the work involved in making the pending changes is far from complete, area athletic directors largely were supportive of the merit behind the changes.

“Anytime there’s a big change, there’s going to be some unknowns,” said Mike Pflugrath, South County director of Student Activities. “But we could study this for 10 years and not know the answer to every possible scenario. It’s going to require a little bit more work on our part, but that’s our job.”

Longtime Yorktown football coach Bruce Hanson said he supported the changes, pointing out the difficulty involved in winning a region championship either way. Yorktown, after all, hasn’t won a Northern Region title since 1999.

“It’s probably going to be a little harder in Division 6, but so be it,” Hanson said. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

Although they, too, concur with the idea of giving smaller schools a chance to compete for championships, many area coaches lament the prospect of watered down competition at the regional and state levels. Mount Vernon girls basketball coach Courtney Coffer, whose team finished 25-2 last season, will miss playing against bigger schools such as Oakton, which defeated his team in the Northern Region semifinals in February.

“Personally I like the setup the way that it is now,” Coffer said. “I think that in order to win a state championship you should be able to play against the best schools because in order to be the best you have to beat the best.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com