FAIRMONT — The competitive landscape of high school basketball in West Virginia will be changed.
The State Board of Education officially approved a proposal from the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission by a 7-2 vote on Wednesday to add a fourth class to girls’ and boys’ basketball beginning in the 2020-21 season. The four-class system will be a trial run exclusively in basketball for two years in 2020-21 and 2021-22 before being re-evaluated for basketball as well as other sports.
The four-class system, which will diverge from the current three-class system in basketball, will sort schools into their respective classes based on three weighted factors as opposed to the current version which sorts schools based only on enrollment.
Under the new basketball model, school enrollment will account for 70 percent, a school’s location, in particular its proximity to a county seat, will account for another 20 percent, and the final 10 will be based on the socioeconomic status of a school’s county and enrolled students.
The official school enrollment numbers used for the new four-class system in 2020-21 will be recorded in October, according to North Marion High girls’ basketball coach and athletic director Mike Parrish. The enrollment numbers combined with the other factors will then be combined to place the schools into the four classes in November or December, Parrish said.
Schools will then have until April to decide whether or not they want to move up the allowable one class margin (i.e. Class A to AA, AA to AAA, etc.) for the 2020-21 basketball season. According to published reports, the enrollment figures for the October re-classifying are: Class A: 9-481, Class AA: 126-702, Class AAA: 231-905, Class AAAA: 827-1887.
WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said the new four-class system, which has received plenty of public displeasure, will allow for more schools and their respective communities a greater opportunity to earn a trip to the state basketball tournament in Charleston.
“I hope to see more people and communities with a chance to get to Charleston,” he said. “There’s something special about the basketball tournament.”
Under the new system, the state tournament in Charleston for both girls’ and boys’ basketball would be stretched into a five-day format, running from Tuesday through Saturday when all four state championship games would be played.
The new four-class design, which was first rumored in March at the girls’ state basketball tournament, was passed by a 111-26 vote by the WVSSAC’s Board of Control in early April. The proposal then to moved to the BOE, where it was officially passed on Wednesday.
During the time in between the votes, the proposal was up for public comment for 30 days. During that span, 123 public comments were received by the BOE on the proposal with 88 being against it, 32 in favor of it, and three that were neutral toward it.
“I like it. We’ll try something new and if it doesn’t work, we can go back to how we’ve been doing it,” said Parrish on the radio program Sports Talk West Virginia on Wednesday. North Marion is projected to move up to Class AAA in the system along with fellow Marion County schools East Fairmont and Fairmont Senior.
“It doesn’t hurt to try something new. You’re never going to make everyone happy,” said Parrish.
“I just think it’s coming down to the big ol’ public versus private thing,” Trinity boys’ basketball coach John Fowkes said on Sports Talk West Virginia on Wednesday. “I think that has people all wound up all across the state from the south to northern part of the state.
“When you’re having a lot of success, people want to point fingers somewhere and somehow it always ends up at the private schools. This seems to be a result of that.”
The parity between public and private schools in both boys’ and girls’ basketball at the Class A level has been an ongoing point of contention for parents, fans, coaches, etc. across the state. St. Joseph Central’s girls’ basketball program offers the most glaring chasm between public and private school in Class A basketball, having won nine of the last 11 Class A state titles, and having appeared in 10 of the last 11 state title games.
In total, private schools have won 15 of the past 16 Class A state championship in girls’ basketball, with 10 of those 16 state title games pitting a pair of private schools against one another.
In boys’ basketball, 15 of the last 18 Class A state champions have been private schools, with 11 of those matchups being private school versus private school.
“I think there’s a big issue with a lot of the private schools winning the Class A championships, and I think they’re trying to come up with something to even that out a little bit,” said Parrish. “I think they’re looking more at rural versus urban.”
“To me, that’s kind of a backwards way of thinking,” said Fowkes in regards to the socioeconomic status of the nearby area affecting a school’s classification. “I don’t think that’s the way we should be thinking about things in 2019. That’s my personal opinion.”
The early unofficial projections of the system have at least four of the eight private schools in Class A moving up a class, although Fowkes and Trinity are one of the private schools that may remain in Class A.
Among other concerns regarding new the four-A system is the legitimacy of West Virginia having a high enough population and enough schools to support a switch to four classifications as well as whether it will carry over to other sports outside of basketball in the future.
“I don’t think it will go to all sports,” said Parrish. “I think it might branch out to include a few more sports — football could be a possibility — but a lot of your minor sports I think would stay three-A. I don’t think it will ever go to four classes for every sport.”