Since 1970, Arizona’s population has increased by more than 300 percent — the second-fastest rate in the country.
As a result, the number of high schools in the state has nearly doubled since the Arizona Interscholastic Association added a fifth conference in 1968.
With the AIA’s membership up to 236 high schools and counting, many believe the time has arrived to re-evaluate how the state is divided. In 2002, the AIA set up a committee of athletic directors to explore the state’s options. After two years of brainstorming and ideasharing, the committee decided some sort of reorganization will be necessary before the next two-year scheduling block but there just wasn’t enough support for major change this year.
"We didn’t do a whole lot as a committee," Glendale Union High School District athletic director Sid Bailey said. "I don’t know that we considered it a failure. We just decided we have to continue watching and exploring. We all walked away from the table knowing there was a problem that would only get worse but we didn’t want to just jump at a solution."
The 4A conference has apparently decided not to wait.
If at least 60 schools are placed in that conference after appeals are heard by the AIA on Oct. 18, 4A will be split into two divisions — each of which will hold its own postseason tournaments and name its own state champions — at the conference’s alignment meeting on Oct. 25.
Sixty-three schools reported 4A-level enrollments (950 to 1,899 students) when those figures were turned in to the AIA on Oct. 1. By the time rulings are handed down on placement appeals from private schools and schools near the enrollment cutoffs on Oct. 18, the 4A conference could balloon to as many as 70 schools.
Fifty-three schools reported enrollment figures at the 5A level (1,900 and over) on Oct. 1, meaning there are 106 schools at the state’s highest classifications prior to the appeals process.
The organization of the state’s high schools seems ripe for change. The question now is how drastic a change is reasonable?
For the 2005-2007 scheduling block, it won’t be dramatic.
Because they rarely add or lose large numbers of schools, the three small-school conferences will maintain their usual alignments and will look to do the same for the foreseeable future.
The 4A conference is expected to split into two divisions of nearly equal size based mostly on enrollment. However, schools near the cutoff line could be shifted up or down in deference to keeping travel costs down or reducing missed class time or maintaining traditional rivalries.
The 5A conference will probably remain as is for the time being. But when smaller 4A schools emerge from under the shadow of larger 4A schools and begin competing for their own state titles, there’s a good chance the smaller 5A schools will start wondering why they are still getting trounced by the likes of Hamilton instead of competing with schools their own size for championships.
That scenario leaves some to believe that the 4A split could be a precursor to the formation of a 6A conference that would include the upper third of 4A and 5A schools by enrollment.
"I really believe it’s baby steps," Peoria Unified School District athletic director Rick Johnson said. "I see (6A) appearing in the next two-year block. I’m not happy about (waiting), but I’m satisfied that some progress is being made. People naturally don’t like change."
Of course the creation of a whole new conference presents its own share of problems.
First, which venues will play host to state championship events and at what cost? The AIA already has trouble finding venues — and the funding to rent those venues — for five state championships, let alone the six it will have to accommodate when 4A splits next year.
Second, what can be done to accommodate schools outside the Valley that already deal with financial and educational difficulties associated with bussing their athletes all over the state?
One proposal would involve expanded use of the powerrating system that was adopted by 5A boys and girls basketball last year. Basketball teams were chosen for and seeded in last winter’s 5A state tournament based on their power rating (a mathematical composite of a team’s record and strength of schedule in 5A competition) rather than their region finish for the first time. Region champions still advanced to the tournament automatically but they were seeded based on their power rating.
Baseball, softball, badminton and volleyball are all experimenting with power ratings this school year.
This winter, a 5A basketball team’s games against 4A teams will count as well, opening the door for more interconference play. That would in turn allow a 6A team from Tucson or northern Arizona to play a 4A or 5A team from Tucson or northern Arizona without hurting its playoff chances — and without taking the long, expensive bus ride to Phoenix.
It would also allow natural rivals of different sizes — such as McClintock and Corona del Sol or Chaparral and Desert Mountain — to play one another regardless of what conference they are in. That could be a key to clearing the way for a sixth conference since some districts have indicated they would resist changes that would result in their schools not being able to play one another.
The most extreme idea involving 6A would eliminate region play and result in the realignment of the conferences every year.
Under that scenario, schools that currently make up 4A and 5A would be divided into three conferences every fall based strictly on their enrollments. Teams would have to qualify for the postseason of the conference they are placed in for that year based on their power rating or qualifying standards in individual sports.
In theory, a school with an enrollment that is near the cutoff could play 6A one year and 5A the next, without ever having to worry about changing its schedule because power ratings would allow for cross-conference play.
"You have to think outside the box a little bit," Mesa Public Schools athletic director Steve Hogen said. "I think there are a lot of different things that can be done and I think now is a good time to start taking a look at some of those things. I think we need to get 4A and 5A people together plus the AIA, but it’ll take some coming together."
Even if the most extreme plan isn’t adopted, the next two years will undoubtedly be a period of change for Arizona high school athletics.
A month of change
Oct. 8 - Conference placement released by AIA Oct. 14 - Conferences hear appeals
Oct. 18 - AIA hears appeals Oct. 25 - Conference realignment meetings
As of Oct. 1, 2004
Tuba City 948 Sahuarita 942 Window Rock 873 Blue Ridge 872 Coolidge 858 Winslow 858 Fountain Hills 849 St. Mary’s 824 Show Low 819 River Valley 799 Chino Valley 795 Snowflake 791 Safford 790 Estrella Foothills 776 Holbrook 774 Globe 733 Alchesay 721 Notre Dame Prep 660 Wickenburg 646 Parker 591 Florence 586 Seton 583 Hopi 569 Santa Cruz 555 Greyhills 516 Round Valley 510 Sedona Red Rock 483 Precision 475 Willcox 475
Many Farms 439 Pinon 431 Camp Verde 429 Bisbee 424 Valley Christian 407 Thatcher 394 St. Johns 390 Bourgade 386 Benson 384 Maricopa 383 San Manuel 375 Phoenix Christian 374 San Carlos 374 Scottsdale Christian 367 Antelope 361 Tombstone 353 Yuma Catholic 349 Valley (Sanders) 349 Miami 341 Northwest Christian 335 Baboquivari 313 Red Mesa 301 Rough Rock 297 Horizon Honors 280 Life School 270 Morenci 265 Phoenix Country Day 259 Pusch Ridge 259 Desert Christian 228 Williams 226 Ray 214 St. Gregory 210 San Pasqual 205 Tempe Prep 202
Shonto N/R Salome N/R Cibecue N/R Valley Union 197 **Canyon State 196 Pima 191 Mayer 191 ***St. Augustine 185 Salt River 183 Fort Thomas 180 Academy of Tucson 179 Mogollon 176 St. Michael 166 Arizona Lutheran 165 Tohono O’odham 164 Superior 163 St. David 159 Ajo 157 Duncan 152 Joseph City 150 Gila Bend 148 Northland Prep 144 Fredonia 129 The Orme School 127 Hayden 125 **St. Pauls 114 Valley Lutheran 104 Grand Canyon 100 Lourdes 91 ASDB 90 Green Fields 87 Patagonia 85 Bagdad 73 Clifton 63 Ash Fork 62 Seligman 58 East Fork 57 Immaculate Heart 53 Phx. Day School/Deaf 49 Music Mountain 45 San Simon 35 Bowie 34 Surrey Garden 33
** - Single-sex school —
*** - Projected enrollment figure
N/R - Not reported - school on break