Sports column: Size doesn’t matter as much as the MHSAA thinks
Published 8:00 am Sunday, April 10, 2022
Does size really matter?
There are at least a hundred jokes that go with that question, but it was a serious question that the members of the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s executive committee should have asked themselves recently.
On Thursday, the MHSAA approved the addition of a new classification, Class 7A, and the restructuring of its other classifications.
Instead of 32 teams in the MHSAA’s top divisions — Class 5A, 6A and 7A — there will now be 24. The number of teams in each region will be reduced from eight to six for football, and increased from four to six for all other sports.
Class 4A and below will have 40 teams in each classification, split into eight regions of five teams each.
There were a number of reasons behind the decision, but one of the biggest was to reduce the gap between the smallest and largest schools in each classification and eliminate what was perceived to be a competitive imbalance.
The gap certainly exists, but the idea that bigger schools will automatically dominate every sport because of their size is a myth that has been busted time and again.
Warren Central, for example, has been in the bottom third of enrollment in the current Class 6A since it was created — for many of the same reasons as the new Class 7A — in 2009, yet has been very competitive in nearly every sport.
Two other teams that are on the low end of Class 6A, Pearl and Oxford, have won football state championships in the past five years. One of the smallest Class 5A schools, Holmes County Central, has won back-to-back boys basketball state championships.
Biloxi ranks No. 6 in enrollment with 1,717 students and has two football playoff wins this century. West Point, the 22nd-largest school in its classification with 823 students, dominates Class 5A football and could beat any team of any size.
The school that is perpetually atop the enrollment rankings, Tupelo, has one baseball and one softball state title but none in football or basketball in the last 30 years. It is a soccer powerhouse, but that has more to do with a strong club program in the city than sheer numbers at the high school.
Soccer, in fact, is the perfect sport to show where the real competitive imbalance comes from in the modern age of high school sports.
The teams that dominate year after year in the MHSAA soccer season tend to have strong youth programs in their towns that feed the junior high and high school programs. The ones that struggle or punch above their weight — including Warren Central and Vicksburg High — do not.
Quality coaches also elevate a program and are always in demand. Programs that can’t find or keep them tend to struggle.
“The more you’ve got to choose from, the law of averages can help you there. But I also think if you have a good community and you have an identity within your community that can go a long, long way,” said Josh Morgan, who has 82 wins in 12 seasons as Warren Central’s football coach. “You’ve got to have one or the other. If you have both, that’s ideal.”
The secret, of course, is that it’s hard to have both. For every school that finds the perfect blend of size, talent and coaching to create a dynasty, there are 10 that don’t. Or a school does well in one sport but not others.
Reconfiguring the MHSAA will also do little to alleviate the size difference. The new Class 7A still has a 700-student difference between the two ends of its spectrum. Class 6A will still have a 300 to 400 student difference on the high and low ends. Class 5A will close up the gap a bit more.
To be fair, there were other reasons for adding Class 7A to the ranks but even those conflict with each other. The new alignment will give football teams a couple of extra non-region games, but the other sports will have more region contests locked in to their schedules and less flexibility.
The extra region games will make travel a little bit easier, as long as the regions make geographic sense — which is not always possible.
Adding more teams to the playoff field was also mentioned, although only 16 teams instead of the current 24 will make it in most sports.
Adding Class 7A, then, seems like a solution in search of a problem. Finding the right mix of resources and talent is a much better way for a school to level the playing field than taking a bulldozer to a structure that was doing pretty well.
Ernest Bowker is the sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org