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DIAA should not approve high school football realignment

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

The proposal to realign high school football teams into three new classifications and award a trio of state championships, while wisely rooted in a need for better competitive balance, should not be approved by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.

As presently constructed, the recommended set-up, which plans to award three state championships instead of the present two while adopting an international soccer style of promotion and relegation, rewards mediocrity and penalizes success.

And besides, a state with 44 varsity high school football programs – Odessa will become the 45th next year – does not need three state champions.

Two is actually perfect.

The present six-team Division I and eight-team Division II playoff brackets, which, of course, had to be altered during this COVID-influenced season, are well constructed and teams truly have to earn their way in.

Friends quarterback Peter Erskine looks to throw in this year's 25-14 loss at Caravel on Oct. 30.

The plan put together by the Delaware Association of Athletic Directors’ football subcommittee and given preliminary approval last week by the DIAA board of directors divides those 44 teams into three categories. They weigh school enrollment (50 percent), regular-season record over the previous three seasons (30 percent) and regular-season record over the previous five seasons (20 percent).

They would be broken up into Class AAA (largest schools/most successful teams), Class AA (mid-sized/moderately successful) and Class A (smallest/least successful schools). Each of the three classes would then be split into northern and southern districts.

After two years, the best Class A and Class AA teams from each district would move up to the more competitive class while the worst-performing Class AAA and Class AA schools from each district would drop down.

I love English soccer and reveled in Leeds United’s recent ascent to the Premier League. But Delaware high school football is no place for a promotion/relegation system such as employed overseas. And the suggested method places too little emphasis on school size and too much on wins and losses.

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Here’s an example why: Suppose Wilmington Friends, presently destined for Class AA, does become the top northern performer there. Friends, a perennial overachiever with only about 120 boys in its high school, has lost close games to Woodbridge in two of the last four Division II finals and won its lone Division II state championship in 1984. 

The Quakers’ reward would be a move to Class AAA and having to compete with giant schools such as Salesianum, William Penn, Middletown and Dover. That makes no sense.

Even Woodbridge, which has three times more male students than Friends, is still much less than half the size of most schools presently in Division I and should never have to contend with them for a state title. The Blue Raiders are ideally situated where they are and have now won two Division II state titles and been to three championship games in four years after having never been there before.

Those are the wonderful ebbs and flows the present set-up provides.

Likewise, Howard has won two Division II titles in five years after have only ever been in one final, way back in 2002. Smyrna reached its first Division I final in 2015 and then won three straight. Sussex Central snared its first title in 2018 and Hodgson, among the smallest schools in Division I, its first at that level in 2019.

Get the right coach who stirs excitement and gets kids committed to football and almost any program can flourish.

This is equally unacceptable: The 16 schools that presently comprise the proposed Class A are not worthy of the distinction of state champion. Remember, 50 percent of the reason they are in that group is because they have not been very good at football.

Now give them a state championship? That's absurd.

Certainly, if they were playing each other rather than various locked-in conference foes, those presently in that group of 16 might have done better than the 47-111 record for which they combined in 2019. But with a few exceptions, most were playing who they should have been playing.

Only Red Lion Christian (7-3) and St. Andrew’s (6-4) in that group had winning records last year. But St. Andrew’s also lost to Independent Conference peers – and Division II state tournament qualifiers – Tower Hill 41-7 and Friends 55-19.

Competitive balance is certainly an issue that should be addressed but is influenced by factors that go well beyond the football field.

Woodbridge's Rasheed Stones (8) celebrates with teammates Kshawn Cox (7), Jaden Bacon (5) and Wyatt Wright (33) after scoring a touchdown Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. Woodbridge defeated Lake forest 35-0.

Those include changing demographics, such as minority populations that may have more interest in others sports, such as soccer, than football; the shrinking enrollment at traditional upstate public schools, which continue struggling to attract students from their own communities when there are so many vo-tech, charter and private options; one-sport specialization; a lack of strong youth football feeders; and safety concerns, especially pertaining to head injuries.

One solution to the decline in football interest that has undermined the sport at many schools would be creating a league for schools wishing to play 8-man football.

In the 2018-19 school year, there were 946 high schools around the country playing 8-man football, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s participation survey. There were also 373 6-man and 244 9-man teams.

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Among the schools that may be better served by such a format are proposed Class A members such as Dickinson, which has 26 players on its roster and couldn’t play archrival McKean last Friday because of a shortage, or Tatnall, which had 23 players last fall and isn’t playing this fall.

Seaford's Booker DeShields (1) runs the ball down the field during their Friday night game against Laurel in Seaford, Del.

The state’s athletic directors deserve credit for seeking better competitive balance in Delaware high school football. It’s something many long sought.

In offering the realignment proposal to the DIAA, Dickinson athletic director Andy Dick pointed out that 48.5 percent of 2019 football games were decided by 25 points or more. Much of that results from required conference games.

Delcastle, for instance, has lost 42 straight Flight A games dating to 2014 while being shut out in 18 of them. But in the new format, Delcastle would have more than six times the number of male students as some of its Class A counterparts.

I recall conversations in the 1990s with Jack Holloway, when he was athletic director, wrestling coach and assistant football coach at William Penn, about how the Colonials should be playing Caesar Rodney and Dover, located less than an hour away, in every sport on a regular basis (Smyrna was a much smaller Henlopen South member then). Their conference affiliations – William Penn in the Blue Hen and CR and Dover in the Henlopen – prevented that, which was unfortunate and senseless.

Delaware is small enough that schools, if they desire, should be free to schedule more similar foes so there are more even matchups. The Henlopen Conference gave Polytech that leeway after last year in football. Wilmington Charter sought the same type of equity when it left the Blue Hen Conference for the Diamond State Conference a few years ago.

There is no perfect solution. There will always be teams that have much more difficult paths to state titles than others, especially smaller Division I schools such as Concord and Milford, which won Division II titles in the 2000s.

But this shouldn’t be about state championships anyway. It should be about having better opportunities to simply play and win football games.

Loosening those league locks and allowing for more freedom in scheduling is the route to better Delaware high school football, and that’s up to conferences and schools, not the DIAA.

That's the way to help the downtrodden. Let schools play who they want to, not who they have to. Diluting the postseason by awarding a third state champion is not the answer.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.