VHSL playoffs will have major changes in 6-group system

Posted: August 15, 2013

WINCHESTER — Time to forget everything you knew about how the Virginia High School League postseason works.

The 2013-14 school year is the first year of the VHSL’s new six-classification system, which was made official in October of 2012.

It’s indeed a major change.

In 1970-71, the state introduced a three-classification system for its schools, which were labeled Group AAA, Group AA and Group A. For the most part, each of those groups consisted of four regions, and each of those regions consisted of four districts of varying sizes.

There have been notable changes since 1970 — in 1986, each of the three groups was split into two divisions for football, and the last six years have seen basketball at the Group AA and A level and baseball and softball at the Group A level split into two divisions. But for most sports over the last four decades, only three state champions have been crowned for each sport.

Now, there will be six state champions crowned in most sports, and their path to a state championship is going to be a lot different than it used to be.

In the postseason, teams and individuals will first have to survive their conference tournament or meet — conference play is a new, postseason-only level of competition that every school in the state qualifies for and applies to every sport except football — before moving on to region competition and then state competition. Each of the six groups — 6A, 5A, 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A — is made up of two regions, and each of those two regions is made up of four conferences. Each conference has between five and eight schools.

In football, each of the six groups will be split into two regions, and the top 16 teams in each region — which will be determined by a power rating formula — will qualify for the playoffs. In Group 4A — which includes Handley, James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando — the winner of the North Region will face the winner of the South Region for the state championship. In Group 2A — which includes Clarke County — there will be cross-bracketing for the state semifinals. That means pitting the top-seeded team from one region against the lower-seeded team from the other.

The following is a guide to what each level of competition now entails in the six-classification system, specifically in terms of local schools Handley, James Wood, Millbrook, Sherando and Clarke County.

District competition

For the longest time under the old group format, a team’s performance in their district was significantly important. You could earn an automatic berth into the region tournament by winning the regular season competition, during which teams would play every other team in the district twice in team sports. If you didn’t win the regular season, you could also earn a region tournament berth by winning the district tournament, or taking runner-up in the district tournament to the regular season champion.

In the new system, the only real purpose to having districts in place is to help schools with their regular-season scheduling, because teams within the same district are required to play each other unless there’s a difference of more than two class sizes between two schools. Conference play is where teams and athletes will need to make their mark to move on to region competition.

However, the two local districts — the Northwestern and the Bull Run — won’t be acting as if district play is meaningless in the interests of maintaining local bragging rights and giving their athletes a reward for their efforts. Both districts will crown regular season champions and field all-district teams. The Northwestern District will not hold a district tournament, but the Bull Run will.

Though some coaches have said they’d rather do away with districts and be locked into games in the regular season with schools they will compete against in their conference, area athletic directors have consistently said they like the fact that districts will be maintained.

For one thing, historical rivalries exist within district play, some of which are with schools that are no longer in the same group classification. And typically, schools within the same district are within close geographic proximity, so it doesn’t hurt the travel budget to be locked into games with nearby schools.

For at least the next two-year cycle, the Northwestern District membership will be the same as it was in the past — Handley, James Wood, Millbrook, Sherando and Skyline. The Bull Run District will feature eight holdovers — Clarke County, Central, Madison County, Manassas Park, George Mason, William Monroe, Rappahannock County and Strasburg — and newcomer Warren County.

“It maintains the local rivalries, and it’s a great environment for local athletes and the community,” Handley director of student activities Rick Lilly said.

James Wood coordinator of student activities Craig Woshner said from a pure fan standpoint, games against a longtime rival like Handley are more appealing than ones against the Colonels’ future conference foes. Handley and Skyline — whose first year as a school was 2007-08 — are not in the same conference as James Wood.

“You’re going to get a better gate playing Handley twice than you would playing Dominion or Park View twice,” Woshner said. “People are more interested in Handley because of the history. They’d even rather see Skyline twice, because we’ve developed a rivalry with them over the years.”

That being said, James Wood will have all its conference foes on the schedule at least once for 2014-15. (The relative late passage of the six-classification plan and with some schedule plans already in place meant doing that wasn’t an option this year.)

Conference competition

The local schools have been placed in three separate conferences.

James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando will be grouped in Conference 21 of the Group 4A North Region along with Dominion, Heritage, Loudoun County, Park View and Woodgrove.

Handley will be in Conference 23 of the 4A North with Charlottesville, Fluvanna, Louisa County, Amherst County and Harrisonburg.

Clarke County will be in Conference 35 of the Group 2A, East Region with Madison County, George Mason, Strasburg, Stonewall Jackson, Luray and Page County.

In Group 4A and 2A, for the team sports of volleyball, basketball, softball, baseball and soccer, a single-elimination conference tournament will be played, culminating with a championship game. The two championship-game participants will move on to the region tournament. However, for the conferences in Group 2A East basketball, the top four teams from each conference will move on to regional play and will have a 16-team bracket.

Each team in their respective conference tournaments will be seeded, but Conference 21, Conference 23 and Conference 35 each are choosing to seed their tournaments differently.

For this year, Conference 21 will seed its eight teams by their winning percentage in their two respective district contests.

Dominion, Heritage, Loudoun County, Park View and Woodgrove are all members of the Dulles District. Woshner said if there’s a situation in the semifinals where the top two seeds from one district are matched up, Conference 21 might change the matchups. Woshner said that might be done to give a strong second team from one district a fair shot at making the conference final, because that second team might in fact have proven to be better than all the other teams in their conference if they got a chance to play each other in the regular season.

Next season, however, Woshner said all of the Conference 21 teams will play each other, and teams will be seeded based on how they fare over seven games. If a team is playing a conference foe twice — for example, James Wood will be doing so with Millbrook and Sherando — they’ll have to decide which of the two games count toward the conference seedings.

Conference 23 is choosing to use the VHSL’s simplified non-football power rating scale for tournament seeding. In that system, teams will receive seven points for each win, one point for a loss to a school one level above their classification, two points for a loss two levels above their classification, etc. The total number of points will be divided by the total number of contests played to provide a power rating average for that team.

Conference 35 is made up of schools from two districts — the Bull Run and the Shenandoah — and Clarke County athletic director Casey Childs said they will seed teams in their tournament based on tiebreakers like head-to-head competition and winning percentage against Group 2A schools after they are placed on the same line. For example, they’ll first compare the No. 1 team in the Bull Run against the No. 1 team in the Shenandoah. If the No. 1 Bull Run team is better, the No. 1 Shenandoah team will then be compared to the No. 2 Bull Run team to determine the No. 2 seed, and so on.

In competition cheer, the top four teams at the conference meet advance to regionals.

For sports with individual aspects, the setup is a little different for local conferences.

In 4A North tennis, the team component is exactly the same as it is for volleyball, basketball, softball, baseball and soccer. Singles and doubles play will also be single-elimination, with the championship match participants moving on to the region tournament. Group 2A East hasn’t determined advancement.

In golf, the top two teams in the conference tournament will move on to regionals, as well as the top six individual scorers who aren’t on the top two teams.

In cross country, the top four teams at the conference meet advance to regionals, as well as anyone who places in the top 15.

For swimming, Group 4A North is advancing athletes on qualifying standards only. Group 2A East hasn’t determined advancement.

For Group 4A North outdoor track, the top eight finishers at the conference meet, as well as those meeting qualifying standards, will move on to regionals. For indoor track, it’s the top six individuals and standards qualifiers. Group 2A East hasn’t determined advancement in outdoor track, and Clarke County does not have an indoor track team.

For Group 4A North wrestling, the top four in each weight class will advance to regionals. Both Conference 21 and Conference 23 will be holding a one-day dual meet during the regular season involving each of their conference’s schools. Every school will face the other, and wrestlers will be seeded at their respective conference tournaments based on how they fare at the duals tournament.

Childs said Conference 35 has yet to determine the format and seeding for its wrestling tournament. Childs said the top five from each weight class will move on to regionals though.

Regional competition

Football is the sport that will change the least in the VHSL’s six-classification system, because football has been operating in a six-division system for more than a quarter century. But for the bigger schools, participating in a 16-team bracket will be an adjustment.

Previously in Group AAA and Group AA, each group was made up of four regions, and each group typically had four districts. The playoff field — for example, Region II Division 3 and 4 both consisted of eight teams — was filled out by teams in order of their VHSL power rating. The four regional champions moved on to the state semifinals, and the two semifinal winners met for the championship.

Group A used to be that way, but in 2011 it went to a system that will be almost identical to what it will be for all groups going forward.

The state’s smallest schools — now competing in what is called Group 2A and Group 1A — have participated in a postseason system in which 32 teams in both Division 2 and Division 1 have made the playoffs. Making up the 32 teams were two regions — East and West — comprised of 16 teams each, with those 16 teams seeded 1-16 by their VHSL power rating. The champions of each region then played for the state title.

Again, in Group 4A the two regional champs will face off, and in Group 2A there will be cross-bracketing for the state semifinals, which would mean pitting the top-seeded team from one region against the lower-seeded team from the other, then having the two semifinal winners in the championship.

The only differences going forward from the system that’s been used in Group A are the names for some of the regions —4A-6A is labeling its regions North and South, 1A-3A is East and West — and the power rating formula used to select and seed teams for the playoffs will be altered slightly.

Teams will earn 26 points for beating a 6A team (14 for losing to one), 24 for beating a 5A (12 for losing), 22 and 10 for 4A, 20 and 8 for 3A, 18 and 6 for 2A, and 16 and 4 for 1A. For each game won by a defeated opponent in any classification, teams will receive an additional two points, and for each game won by a non-defeated opponent, teams will receive one additional point.

There will also be a bonus point formula in order to account for districts with multiple classification levels represented.

Teams will receive two bonus points for each level of difference in group classification when playing a team in its district from a lower group. For example, a team in 6A would receive two bonus points for playing a team in 5A, four bonus points for a team in 4A, six for a team team in 3A, etc.

For non-district games, teams will earn one bonus point for playing teams in lower groups. A team in 6A would get one bonus point for playing a team in 5A, two for playing a 4A team, three from 3A, etc.

A team’s power rating is established by adding up the team’s points and dividing that number by the number of games it’s played.

As for the other sports:

For the team sports of volleyball, basketball, softball, baseball and soccer, a single-elimination tournament will be played, culminating with a championship game. The two championship-game participants will move on to the state tournament semifinals. Regional tournament seeding is still to be determined.

In tennis, the team component is exactly the same as it is for volleyball, basketball, softball, baseball, and soccer. Singles and doubles play will also be single-elimination, with the championship match participants moving on to the state tournament.

In golf, the top two teams in the region tournament will move on to states, as well as the top six individual scorers who aren’t on the top two teams. For girls’-only golf, there will be five zone qualifiers that will allow golfers to qualify for one state tournament competition. The top 20 percent of the competing golfers in each zone will advance to the state tournament.

In cross country, the top six teams at the region meet advance to states, as well as the top 10 individuals outside of the top six teams.

In swimming, the top six individuals and top three relays, as well as those meeting qualifying standards, will advance to states.

For outdoor track, the top eight finishers at the region meet, as well as those meeting qualifying standards, will move on to states. For indoor track, it’s the top six individuals and standards qualifiers.

For wrestling, the top four in each weight class will advance to states.

State competition

As a result of doubling the number of state competitions for many sports, the locations and days for which certain state events will be held will also take some getting used to for area fans.

Football: The state format really won’t be much different this year.

Previously for the state semifinals, the location of the game alternated each year — for example, the Region II champ would host the Region I champ one year, and the Region I champ would host the Region II champ the following year.

Now, the state semifinals — which will double as the region championship in classifications like Group 4A — will give the higher-seeded school a chance to host. Just like in the past with Group AA Division 3 and Division 4, the Group 3A and Group 4A championship games will be held at Liberty University. Also, just like with Group AA Division 1 and Division 2, the Group 2A and Group 1A games will be at Salem Stadium. All of those title games will be Dec. 14.

For the team sports of volleyball, basketball, softball, baseball, soccer and tennis, regional champions will face the regional runner-ups from the other region in the state semifinals, and the two winners will meet in the state final.

Basketball: Previously, the VHSL held all state quarterfinal games for five classifications (Group AAA, Group AA Division 4, Group AA Division 2, Group AA Division 2, and Group AA Division 1) at various supersites around the state on the Friday and Saturday before the final week of the postseason. Then the state semifinals and finals for all five classifications were held Monday through Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond.

With no more state quarterfinals in basketball, state semifinal games will now be held on Friday and Saturday at supersites (March 7-8) and only state championship games will be played at the Siegel Center. Those games will be played from March 13-15. For the 2013-14 school year, Groups 3A and 4A will be Thursday, Groups 5A and 6A will Friday, and Groups 1A and 2A will be Saturday. The days for those particular groupings will rotate each year.

Volleyball: State semifinals and finals will take place Nov. 20-23 (Wednesday through Saturday) at the Siegel Center.

Golf: Golf rotates its state championship sites every year, and going forward 6A and 5A will compete at one site, 4A and 3A will compete at one site (this year, Heritage Oaks Golf Course in Harrisonburg Oct. 14-15) and 2A and 1A will be at one site (Shenandoah Valley Golf Club in Front Royal, Oct. 14-15). The girls’ golf state tournament is at Jefferson Lakeside Country Club in Richmond on Oct. 28 and 29. The top six golfers will medal at each tournament.

Cross Country: As always, the entire cross country state tournament will take place at Great Meadow in The Plains. But while previously it was a one-day competition that took place on a Saturday, now all six groups will compete at Great Meadow over two days.

For this year, Group 4A through 6A will be on Friday and Group 1A through 3A will compete on Saturday, and each year the two groupings will switch days. This year’s state championships will be Nov. 15-16. The top 12 individuals will medal in each class.

Cheerleading: Cheerleading will only have five state championships, as Groups 2A and 1A will have a combined championship. All classes will compete at the Siegel Center on Nov. 9.

Wrestling: The VHSL will continue to use the same two venues as before to hold state championships (the Salem Civic Center will hold the state tournaments for Group 1A through 4A), but the tournaments won’t have nearly as many twists and turns as in the past.

Though there will the exact same number of state qualifiers (48) and medalists (24) across all groups as before, the fact that each group’s state tournament will only have eight participants as opposed to the previous 16 means each individual wrestler will have fewer matches. For example, a wrestler who lost in the first round and came back to wrestle for third or fifth in previous years would wrestle six matches. Now, the most matches you can wrestle is four.

Four wrestlers in each weight class will receive medals, compared to eight previously.

Swimming: Previously, Group AA and A were grouped together for one state competition at Virginia Tech, so there were only two state swimming competitions in the entire state. Now, swimming will have five state championships — with Groups 2A and 1A combined — meaning Clarke County will no longer have to compete against much larger schools at the state meet. Medals will go to the top eight in each event.

Track and field: In outdoor track, the venues for the state track and field meet won’t change. The Group AA meet was previously at Harrisonburg High School, and the Group 4A and 3A meets will be there on June 6 and 7. The Group A meet was previously at Radford University, and the Group 2A and 1A meets will be there on June 7. The top eight in each event will medal. For indoor track, Group 4A and 3A will hold their state meets at Liberty University in Lynchburg. The top six in each event will medal.

The remaining sports are part of the VHSL’s Spring Jubilee, and that has undergone a significant change.

In the past, baseball, softball, soccer and tennis for Group AA and Group A have held their state semifinal and final contests in the Radford/Salem/Blacksburg area.

By doubling the number of state championship competitions, the VHSL has added Liberty University in Lynchburg as the Spring Jubilee site for Group 4A and 3A. Radford/Salem will host the Group 2A and 1A championships. With the exception of tennis — which starts June 12 — the dates for all of the other sports at the respective sites are June 13-14.

Of these sports, the only ones that will feature combined championships will be girls’ soccer and boys’ tennis (Group 2A and 1A in both cases).

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at  rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1