West Virginia’s Classification Problem Explained and Explored (Opinion)

Classification has always been a fascinating section in Mountain State athletics right beside postseason rules. There has been plenty of modifications and changes over the last hundred years. For some time, champions were decided via vote until they introduced a title game then a 4-team playoff then 8-team and now, the 16-team playoff. Some have proposed adopting the sectional-regional setup every sport uses outside of football. Some claim the 16-team playoff is outdated due to the fact it was installed prior to the consolidation and disappearances of many schools.

Many must agree, whether a 16-team or 8-team, classifications can solve the majority of problems. For the last fifty years, West Virginia has been using the three class system. The most recent reclassifications several years ago made the class cutoffs at 933 and 460. What stood out the most was the disparity in class size with Class A having 43 schools, Class AA having 44 schools, and Class AAA having 29. This has mostly been scrutinized to cases where AA schools have missed the postseason at 7-3 while some AAA schools made it at 4-6.

There can be criticism to worrying so much about bubble teams since they very rarely make much noise. The impact of program pride and financially of making the playoffs can’t be denied. We veer away from the idea of moving to 8-team playoffs (unless classes are smaller) because just two years ago Wheeling Central won the title as an #11 seed.

So, what’s the debate? There’s several. First and foremost, you have the public vs private debate that is near weekly. Currently, four private schools participate in Class A football: Notre Dame (Clarksburg), Madonna (Weirton), Parkersburg Catholic, and Wheeling Central. We will revisit the issues with this later. Secondly, you have the size disparity and which is worse: is 1800 to 900 worse because its 2x the size or 700 more students? In this case, how is it fair for a school with 100 to play a 400-student school (4x)? Would making AAA larger (evening out the class sizes) put the lower teams at too much of disadvantage? Finally, and most freshly proposed, is there an absolute advantage for “Urban” schools over “Rural” schools? Let’s look.

These problems are unique to West Virginia due to the extreme differences in areas. While some are still old-time small towns and coal towns, some cities are growing at rapid rates especially within the eastern panhandle. As schools consolidate to stay open in some areas, others are losing kids to new schools being built. It is expected that this has a direct effect on athletics.

Below is a graph we have created using two variables: C&C Rating (Y-Axis) and School Enrollment (X-Axis). Our C&C Rating is an acclaimed mathematical formula that has been tested and modified to provide teams with a true rating (regardless of class) based off strength of schedule, domination, consistency, and quality of wins and losses. For proof of its proficiency, it has predicted 96% of its matchups. Martinsburg scored the highest with a 82.1 rating. 2017 Martinsburg has scored our highest rating ever at 84.1. For comparison, Fairmont Senior scored our highest ever AA score at 77.6, and Wheeling Central scored a very high 64.2.

Explaining the graph above: schools were plotted based off their rating and enrollment. Higher enrollment is further right where as the smallest schools in the state are far left. The vertical alignment is based off their rating (how good they were in 2018). Yellow dots represent “Rural” based on the standards proposed for the reclassification. White dots represent private schools. The red dotted lines represent class change. The orange logarithmic trendline is the mathematical average flow of the size/quality comparison.

So, let’s dissect the findings. We tried to label as many teams as we could without making the graph looking too cluttered but enough to give an understanding of what is being portrayed. We really wanted to make sure we labeled outliers. All championship/runnerup teams are mostly outliers- as expected. However, the only school that is nearly that far below the trendline is Berkeley Springs- a school who faced a late coaching change and a young roster.

Several schools perfectly matched their enrollment size to their team quality: Paden City, East Hardy, Tygarts Valley, Clay-Battelle, Ritchie County, Chapmanville, and Spring Mills. Judging by this trendline, it appears rather sporadic with mostly every schools being significantly higher or lower than the average trendline. These two observations can lead us to believe that enrollment does not have always have a consistent effect the lower you go. Let’s look at the separation between “rural”, “urban”, and “private” schools.

Only five “rural” schools exist in AAA, and four of them are easily below the trendline. Ripley is the lone wolf, and they had one of their best teams in school history alongside a favorable schedule to just narrowly get over the line. In AA, 6/22 “rural” schools crossed over the trendline and mostly with ease. In A, 10/34 “rural” schools were over the trendline. Overall, roughly 1/3 of “rural” schools make it over the trendline. Inversely, roughly 2/3 of “urban” are listed over the trendline. Let’s use all this data to answer these questions:

~How should we handle Public vs Private?~

This debate will not stop here and perhaps, never stop as long as small public schools play against private schools. Since their inclusion in 1977, private schools have won 13 titles (20 overall appearances) out of 41 title games (82 appearances). In the 2010s, they have won 5 of the 9 titles so far. In the 2000s, they won 7 out of 10. So judging by this, the issue of private schools winning at a high rate is a recent thing. Is it truly unfair and a problem?

Public schools find it problematic that a private school has two major advantages: a talent pool in a big city and the opportunity to “offer” kids paid education at a discount or for free. Let it be clear, we are not insinuating that just because a player was good for a private school that he was gifted a deal to play there. For the most part, these are allegations. The first part makes reasonable sense. In a class where one or two players can make such a big difference, the chances of a high-caliber player being found and attending (perhaps, attempting to pursue wins) is higher in a city due to population difference.

Other problems are an issue but those will be addressed in the “Rural” and “Urban” section. Sticking mainly to Public and Private, let’s observe the graph. All four current teams placed above the trendline. Only Wheeling Central was incredibly far above. The rest were public schools. The Maroon Knights actually were defeated by Magnolia last year, a public school. Wheeling Central, the main “antagonist” in the public’s argument, is primed to return much of their talent and be the favorite in 2019.

If you remove Wheeling Central from the field, is there a debate? Do people get riled up about Madonna’s 2009 and 2013 title wins? Is there a storm of rage when Williamstown and Doddridge County rematches in the Super Six and Parkersburg Catholic went home first around? Could Wheeling Central’s success be connected to their appealing academics and also long tenured (with much success) coaching staff?

Don’t get us wrong, there is advantages private schools have. There is also disadvantages such as kids transferring to bigger nearby schools (ex. Donovan Kirby in 2018) and directly damaging a team’s stock. Our biggest thing is we strictly believe transfer rules should remain the same across all WVSSAC schools. If they want to attend a private school? Fine. But if you transfer to it without a physical move (as is the rule with public schools), you should have to sit out as if it was public. Apply the same rules to everyone. Other than that, if you aren’t complaining when St. Marys and Magnolia win, is it fair to complain when they don’t?

~Is 400 to 100 (4x) worse than 900 to 1800 (2x)?~

This is a weird question but the question is mathematically-based. Is Van at more of a disadvantage playing Sherman (4x bigger) than Ripley playing Cabell Midland (2x bigger)? The difference in students is 300 to 900. Strangely enough, this should be the number one question asked when deciding classes. People complain about the small class of AAA but how many more teams can be added and legitimately be said to have a fair shot at schools with up to 900 more students?

A four-class system makes the most sense here. The graph illustrates how spread out AAA already is in terms of population. The clustering of points in AA and A answer our initial question. Mere size is more important than school’s being just twice or three times bigger on a small scale. This might have been common sense to some.

Is AAAA really the settling factor? Is splitting the teams roughly around 30 per class the best way? We actually approached this question recently with what a four-class system what of looked like in 2018 based off our ratings? Note: in the four-class, we moved private schools to Class AA.

Four-class and Rural/Urban theoretical 2018 rankings

In a lot of ways, nothing changes, especially at the top. In fact, based on all three classes, the average rating difference is most even in the three class system. Perhaps, 2018 was just a year of outliers. We don’t have the data to compare past seasons, but we can all agree all classes were very top dominant? It’s like that sometimes. There really isn’t much in common between Martinsburg, Spring Valley, Fairmont Senior, Bluefield, and Wheeling Central. Literally, all come from different areas with different advantages. If you scalp them off the board, this year is actually extremely competitive across all classes.

Even in the four-class proposal, either Williamstown or Doddridge County would have to play Wheeling Central (dependent on if private’s moved up). Who wins that argument? Again, this is all super theoretical. Teams with more favorable schedules could win more games and thus ride that wave of motivation to up their ante. This is, again, an argument for fairness from top-to-bottom not just teams competing for a championship. Maybe the “Rural” vs “Urban” can point us in the right direction.

~Is there a case for “Rural” vs “Urban”?~

This difference is grounded on “urban advantages”. These range from talent pools, travel distances (compare a city school kid travelling to the stadium for two-a-days to a county-wide school kid travelling to the stadium), and potential resources (private trainers, better equipment, exposure to camps, higher competition growing up). All, in our opinion, are solid points. Judging by the plot chart above, as we said, an “urban” school is 2x as likely to place above the line than a “rural” one.

These divisions were based strictly off a proposed system that separated schools according to their proximity to large populations. It’s not perfect nor has been edited under high scrutiny- take it with a debatable point of view.

In 2018, under these guidelines, Point Pleasant would have won the title. They and Mingo Central were notably better than mostly all “rural” schools. The same can be said for Midland Trail and Doddridge County in Class A, too. Large Rural and Small Rural look very similar in terms of competitiveness in cross examinations. This would perhaps be the best way to decide a rating system. Keep Large Urban as AAA points, Large Rural/Small Urban as AA, and Small Rural as A.

This, however, is not a likely solution. What “small urban”, placed in Single A, is going to vote to go from playing Doddridge County to Fairmont Senior? It’s understandable. Coaches would line up at the dozens to keep this from happening. However, it is undeniable. The idea should be at least looked at and considered to some extent to give team’s honest chances.

Our final consensus: wrapping it all up, the data tell us this: being in an urban area and having a vastly larger size than your opponent is a legitimate advantage (maybe common sense) and much more so than being private over public. A four-class system seems to give the little guys a better shot according to the vast dip at the beginning of the graph and keep the disparity in enrollment differences being so gigantic at the top. The middle of the field will always be competitive. The top division winner will always be a school with a 1000+ population.

Our proposal would be a four-class field with roughly 30 schools per class. Private schools in urban areas play in AA. Certain schools can advocate for some type of rural disadvantage (example: Preston/Hampshire/Lincoln County) to go down a classification. They would have to go through a judging process for this, and it would not be common thing. Whether or not playoffs would be go to 8, 12, or stay at 16 is an entirely different debate.

What’s your opinion?


  1. This is without a doubt the best analogy about classification I have ever seen. Although I’m just an old retired wrestling official and not affiliated with any school I applaud the folks responsible for the effort and time it took to analyze and apply the specific info to the classification issue in our state. Hopefully this effort won’t go for not!!!!

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