WV High School Football Moving to Four Classes

Coalfields & Co. is not the first, or the last, to discuss the highly charged topic of classification for West Virginia high school athletics. Whatever arbitrary lines are devised could ultimately decide a program’s fate of success or failure. Ask borderline teams the difference between being the largest school in the class as opposed to the smallest. Then, of course, there comes the private school debate that really only rises when Catholic schools are winning titles; do they really have an advantage outside of their enrollment? Also, over the past few years there has been a focus on the difference between “urban” and “rural” schools, which might have more merit to it than any other variable. Two years ago we took a stab at analyzing the situation and gave a range of solutions (link). With the state coming off an interesting year experimenting with four classes in basketball, it felt like a great time to revisit the topic.


What are the goals and objectives with classification?

All discussions surrounding classification should begin here. More often than not, multiple parties with differing viewpoints debate ways to categorize programs without being on the same page with exactly what they are trying to accomplish. One could argue there are two foundational perspectives: “Fairness” as a priority and “Parity” as a priority. Both perspectives bring understandable points in terms of high school athletics. Both also have credible disputes towards their validity.

The “Fairness” viewpoint focuses solely on every team getting the same opportunity as the rest in their class; the outcomes are irrelevant. A good example of this would be Martinsburg in AAA. Martinsburg is the ninth largest school in the class yet won eight of ten titles from 2010-2019. Disregarding conspiracy theories on recruitment, the Bulldog program had the same opportunity as the rest of the classification so their outright dominance is acceptable. The “Fairness” viewpoint comes under fire, however, when the question of what is fair arises. Obviously every school has its advantages and disadvantages. Martinsburg and Morgantown exist in growing areas. Kanawha Valley schools have more total athletes who could choose to come to their school in the ninth grade. But what about county-wide schools like Preston and Hampshire? Is it fair for private schools in urban areas to play against sub-200 schools in rural areas?

The “Parity” viewpoint focuses moreso on outcome rather than a blanket approach that seemingly sets all programs on a level playing field within their classes. The theory behind this perspective is that the variables behind fairness are deep, complex, and impossible to track. Instead of trying to calculate what makes everything even, why not look at the results? Programs who have historically and consistently been at the bottom (or top) might seem similar to the rest of the group but perhaps they have some immeasurable disadvantage/advantage outside of tradition, coaching, and culture. Setting up the classifications to promote the ‘competitive’ matches is the goal here. A perfect positive example of this would be Bluefield. Despite steady depopulation for decades and being in the bottom half of enrollment in AA, the Beavers continue to dominate. The counter argument here is that teams who outperform their enrollment are punished by moving up classes while underperforming programs are rewarded by getting to move down classes, all in the name of fixing the outcomes rather than just providing a “fair” playing field.

More often than not when two polarized perspectives have reasonable claims/disputes, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Moving forward with how to perfect the classification system, the ideal move would not be to completely subscribe to one or the other. Instead, try to understand that there is no way to make every school completely even. It would not be reasonable to organize the classes solely to promote competition as many schools experience fluctuations in talent. Here, a blanket approach with solid boundaries seems the most fair. However, sustained outliers, positive and negative, should be examined to see if there is a decent case for severe advantage/disadvantage. If so, it might be the best route to move these specific schools up/down accordingly.


What does the data say?

Back in 2018 when we wrote our first article on reclassification, we only had one year of own data to go off of. Now, we have compiled four years worth of team’s CCR (Coalfields & Co. Ratings) to average out and truly assess a program’s competitiveness. For those unfamiliar, CCR is an in-house mathematical formula that’s sole objective is to rate a team’s true standard of play. Point margin, strength of schedule, consistency, and other objective inputs are apart of its formation. Over the past four seasons, it has had a >90% successful prediction rate for games, not just for similar teams but across classes.

Explaining what the graph is showing, you will see that the further right a program’s point is, the more students they have. This does a great job of reflecting the level of size disparity between the smallest AAA programs compared to the largest. It also reflects how similar enrollment levels are for the majority of AA and A teams based off of the most recent 2020 classifications. We added two vertical dotted lines to reflect the current thresholds for each class to reference.

The further up a program’s point reflects how good they have been on average since 2017. For anyone who follows prep football in the Mountain State, this seems pretty intuitive. You will see the outliers of Martinsburg, Spring Valley, Fairmont Senior, and Bluefield lining the top. You will also see teams who did not perform well. The blue curved line that goes longitudinal through the graph is a logarithmic trendline. This is derived mathematically as a point of reference based off the plotted data. Meaning that it shows how high a team’s CCR should be if they had a certain enrollment. This can display what teams overperform and underperform their respective enrollments.

We added a third dynamic to the chart since these two points are always at the forefront of classification discussions. Points that are colored yellow reflect ‘rural’ schools. Though this is a somewhat subjective term, we are basing it off the definitions from the leaked Urban/Rural idea that came about in 2018. Of course, there are many different ways to classify the two which we discuss later. The other is that private schools are highlighted red. We wanted to revisit the argument of Public vs Private, and if it has held any water in the last four years.


Outliers and size disparity

Oddly enough, four programs throw off many seemingly intuitive strategies of division: Spring Valley, Fairmont Senior, Bridgeport, and Bluefield. When you look at the graph above, the relationship between CCR-Enrollment is very clean. It does begin to disperse past 1200 students but the principle remains. That is, except for Bluefield, Fairmont Senior, Bridgeport, and Spring Valley. We would bet that there are four to five of these “outlier” schools existing in each sport. They pose a troubling issue. Is it a false example of what is possible or a legitimate blueprint for other teams to follow? Can other schools dominant AA with less than 600 students like Bluefield? Can other schools remain at the top of their class despite moving up and down like Bridgeport? Can other schools be a perennial threat to the AAA title with under 1000 kids like Spring Valley?

The reality is that if these four schools did not exist, there might be very little argument about breaking into four classes. It would make a lot more sense actually. However, when you start dividing the classes evenly you see the likes of the Bluefield’s and Spring Valley’s dropping down a class. These outlier schools almost cripple the evenly separated classification ideas. Yes, you could always permit them the option to play up. But, what if they look around and decide not to? How dominant would these programs be in a less competitive class? Would it be fair? That is the tough question.

As noted above, the disparity in overall enrollment is most severely seen in Class AAA. The largest AAA school (Morgantown) has over 1,000 more students than the smallest AAA (Bridgeport). Class AA sees a much a smaller disparity of just over 300 and Class A has one of right around 350. Due to the low amount of schools with exceedingly high enrollments, there is a not a lot to do in terms of lowering their overall enrollment disparity unless a super small class with a cut-off of 1200 was made. Considering that Spring Valley, South Charleston, and Bridgeport have proven that the smallest in the biggest class can compete/win titles, it seems that the AAA size gap is sufficient. The real losers of this all might just be the incredibly small Class A schools that a see a significant drop off in CCR under 200 students.


Rural versus Urban & Private versus Public

If this graph does illustrate one thing extremely well, it is that there is a legitimate argument to rural schools being at a disadvantage. Repeating, rural schools are colored yellow and their position relative to the trendline dictates whether they performed above or below what they should with their given enrollment. In Class AAA 1/6 schools met or exceeded the trendline (Ripley). In Class AA 3/15 schools (Point Pleasant, Mingo Central, Nicholas County). In Class A, 12/35 schools. Across classes, that means roughly only 1/4 of rural teams will meet their expected level of play if solely based off of enrollment.

There can be plenty of theories on why this is. Perhaps, less resources, less competition, and/or overall poorer areas. For county-wide schools, kids might not be able to participate in extracurricular activities because they live so far away from the actual school. Regardless, there is substantial evidence that these ‘rural’ schools face significant disadvantage. Firstly, a clear-cut and agreed upon definition of “rural” needs to be made whether it is by population, distance to the county seat, etc. It would then appear completely reasonable to offer these rural schools the ability to move down classes if their enrollment is not a certain percentage higher than the cut-off (ex. so big rural AAs could not just drop all the way down to class A).

Finally, the private versus public debate lives on. Though this might be more impactful in other sports (which can always explore different classes like in collegiate basketball), it surely does resonate for football. Once again, one outlier fuels this argument: Wheeling Central. Above and beyond the best Class A football program in the last four years, the question remains for whether they should play in the smallest class. There probably are some advantages to being located in an urban area as we have witnessed, but we also cannot cherry pick. The other private schools, Madonna, Parkersburg Catholic, and Trinity, have not necessarily dominated. So, are we punishing Wheeling Central for being the standout? As we have said many times before, there is no evidence (for football) that being private is an overwhelming advantage. Yet, all four do distinctly outperform their enrollment. And, we completely support and believe that the transfer rules for private schools should be the same as public (being that a year must be sat out if a physical move is not made). Do not confuse our belief in that rule change in saying that Wheeling Central would not have still been the best team in the class if it were in place.


What is the best solution (or is one even needed)?

Realistically, it appears that there are 2.5 options for how the state could move forward with classifications. The first being to remain under the three class system which separates schools based solely on enrollment numbers. The second is that football (and other sports) adopt the four classification system that basketball used in 2021. Classes are smaller, of course, and there are schools that bypass the enrollment checkpoint due to variables connected to the rural/urban viewpoint. The “half” is that the state adopts some pivots to how exactly the four classes are constructed that differ from the 2021 basketball experiment.

Understanding the graph above, we are using the same CCR numbers from the scatter plot earlier- that being a program’s average CCR from 2017-2020. Based off the current three class, basketball four class, and our own four class, we display (theoretically) what programs would have been the top eight annually from 2017-2020 if that classification was in play. On the right we have two metrics to just dive deeper into what the classifications show. Average CCR equality is based off a mathematical formula known as the Gini Index. It measures how equally distributed a set of numbers are. In this case, the lower score equals a more level playing field. The average size disparity is derived by taking the difference between biggest and smallest enrollment in each class and then finding the average separation. We added colors to represent how they compare against the other options (green = best, yellow = middle, red = worst).

The three class system succeeds in its overall objectiveness. Enrollment size is paramount and in stone. Surprisingly, the three class system actually has the smallest average size disparity between the three options (because it does not move higher enrollment, higher rural schools down classifications). Its shortcoming is its equality rating which is significantly worse than the four-class options. Ultimately, ignoring the issues with rurality and the potential to move up private schools leaves a general uneven distribution in success. As we have seen, Martinsburg, Fairmont Senior/Bluefield, and Wheeling Central reign supreme here.

Basketball’s four-class system is based off where teams were originally classified because we don’t believe you can assume schools will always play up, especially in larger team sports such as football. This classification scores middle of the pack in both metrics. One critique many might have would be the confusion of what allowed certain schools to move down based off their “rurality”. This had some interesting consequences such as placing Mingo Central, with over 750+ students, in the AA division with the likes of Trinity (Morgantown) who has 72 students. Results would change somewhat with Martinsburg remaining the top dog in AAAA, while Fairmont Senior and Bluefield would take AAA/AA (that is unless the Beavers played up leaving it to Mingo Central… who also might be play up). Doddridge County might have very well have played against James Monroe and East Hardy for the Class A titles in this version. To note, in four classes, we would expect the playoffs to move to 8 or 12 teams (with the top four receiving bye weeks).

Our four class is very similar to basketball’s. Enrollment breakoffs include 799, 584, and 375. Key differences include that we group in several more schools in AAAA but would place the likes of Preston, Buckhannon-Upshur, Lincoln County, Ripley, and Hampshire down in AAA (because of rurality). Philip Barbour would also move from AAA to AA and River View from AA to A for the same reason. Private schools would play in the AA class as to make point of their urban advantage but not force them play previously large AAs. Size disparity ultimately suffers compared to other options but it scores the best equality score (and yes, we understand there is significant bias in constructing classes based our own measures of success). Ultimately, the results are similar except with the potential of Fairmont Senior moving up to AAAA and Bluefield to AAA leaving Poca as the top dog in AA. These borderline schools could always be up for debate but we think the true benefit here would be that super large rural schools and super small rural schools might actually have a chance to build a very competitive program.


Conclusion

There is no perfect answer. There will always be outliers, and it will never be clear what schools standout because of unfair advantages or just excellent culture. We think talking about classification with an open mind should be embraced. High school athletics can be a pivotal moment in a young person’s life. And, it can detrimental to a community if their local program is in shambles because it is constantly outmatched. Fairness, competitiveness, and fun should be strived for. The current three class system is not entirely bad. In some ways, it is the most objective. But, there is something to be said for a four-class system that weighs in rurality and the small advantages of private schools. We think positive action has been made with the recent four-class experiment and hope to continue seeing improvement.

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