Princess Anne High School’s wrestling team excitedly won three individual titles at its region tournament last month.
The final match at the weather-delayed event near Richmond ended late on Sunday, Feb. 16, instead of that Saturday. The weary Cavaliers didn’t roll back into Virginia Beach until after midnight.
Princess Anne starts classes at 7:20 a.m. Some buses make their first stops before 6 a.m. That meant many of the wrestlers went to school that Monday on fewer than five hours of sleep.
That wouldn’t have happened last year, when Princess Anne wrestlers competed regionally at Chesapeake’s Oscar Smith High School.
Having his son Harrison coming home so late on a school night because of a sporting event left Kevin Martingayle fuming.
He blames such problems on this year’s dramatic realignment by the Virginia High School League – the organization that oversees interscholastic sports in the state, as well as activities such as debate.
“It appears the majority of the kids in Virginia are dealing with a lot of adverse consequences,” Martingayle said.
The more than 300 public high schools in Virginia competed for years in three groups based on enrollment. They were further divided into regions and districts for scheduling purposes and postseason play.
South Hampton Roads schools competed in Group AAA and the Eastern Region. There were three districts: Beach, Eastern – Norfolk and Portsmouth – and Southeastern – Chesapeake and Suffolk.
Starting this school year, the VHSL expanded the number of groups to six for most sports. Each group has two regions, and each region has four conferences, although conference affiliations did not apply to football this year.
The changes were intended to give more athletes the chance to enjoy post-season play and to create more competitive balance. Some schools in past years played against others with 1,000 more students. The greatest disparity now is about 350 students, said Ken Tilley, executive director of the VHSL.
Even some who object to the changes say those goals have been achieved. They have come with a cost, though.
One issue is lost class time. The VHSL does not require schools to play fellow conference teams during the regular season. But skipping such matchups isn’t a realistic option for many athletic directors, who need to fill schedules and want to know how their athletes stack up against teams they will play in the post-season.
Classes this spring at Oscar Smith will end at 3:49 p.m. Its baseball team is slated to play 4:30 p.m. games at Kecoughtan, Woodside and Bethel high schools – all on the Peninsula.
Players could miss more than an hour of class to get to those games on time. Oscar Smith athletic director Todd Parker said he has heard from parents mulling not letting their children play because of all the missed class time.
Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk sent wrestlers to the 4A state meet, which started on a Friday morning in Salem – more than four hours away. Their state meet last year was at Oscar Smith.
Teachers help athletes who miss school, Lake Taylor athletic director Bobby Pannenbacker said. Still, he said, “it’s not the same as when you’re there live in the classroom.”
Long trips have not been limited to wrestling. The 4A state indoor track meet was in Lynchburg; many of the same schools competed in last year’s AAA meet in Hampton. Virginia Beach’s Landstown High School’s boys basketball team played the 6A South Region final in Richmond; their regional last year was at Scope in Norfolk.
Those longer trips are adding up to higher costs for some school divisions. The Chesapeake School Board on Monday approved a budget that included an additional $200,000 to cover transportation for VHSL events.
Chesapeake’s athletes now play in conferences that include schools from Hampton, Newport News and Gloucester. Oscar Smith, Grassfield and Western Branch high schools compete in the Group 6A South Region, which had its wrestling tournament in Stafford in Northern Virginia – a more than three-hour bus ride.
“We’re starting to see some of the problems we thought would be there,” Parker said.
Others see the changes as positive.
The realignment as of early March had cost an extra $8,500 for Portsmouth’s Churchland High School, according to Sharon Moore, the school division’s supervisor of health, physical education, wellness and athletics. But that’s in part because Churchland sent a few dozen swimmers, wrestlers and track athletes to 4A state meets this year. The school had been lucky to send any in the past, athletic director David Moss said.
“As far as the benefits for my kids, I think it’s good,” he said.
Tilley said the VHSL is continually re-examining the realignment. Officials are looking at ways to cut travel, including moving the locations of post-season tournaments.
“We do realize there are some challenges that need to be improved and corrected,” Tilley said.
Martingayle wants something done fast. He noted that the long trips force parents to spend extra money on gas, food and hotels – and sometimes prevent them from supporting their children because they can’t miss work.
More important, he says, they’re hurting schools and the athletes themselves.
“It’s caused a huge travel expense on school districts that are already strapped,” he said. “And it’s put one heck of a burden on students.”
By Mike Connors
© March 16, 2014