CINCINNATI -- Like it or not, the process of leveling the playing field in Ohio high school sports has begun.
Though the competitive balance measure passed in May 2014 for 821 Ohio High School Athletic Association member schools statewide, implementation is finally ready for the upcoming fall sports season.
The reaction among Cincinnati-area athletic directors and coaches ranges from a shrug of shoulders to outright opposition.
A lot depends on perspective. The size of the member school and whether it’s public or non-public offers insight into how this impacts a particular area school.
“My biggest disappointment with how it has been handled is the timing,” said longtime Cincinnati Country Day girls’ soccer coach Theresa Hirschauer.
“It really has not been given a good timeline. For example, I think we might be Division II but won’t know until April. Our schedule was developed with a Division III mindset. They should have posted the divisions in the fall so we could prepare.”
Western Brown, a Brown County high school, is constantly on the enrollment line between Divisions I and II.
Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Tim Cook, a member of the Southwest District Board, said it will take a couple of two-year enrollment cycles and some tweaking to determine how successful the formula will be.
But he gives the OHSAA the benefit of the doubt.
“I did and still do support the competitive balance option even though we have not gotten to see how it will work yet,” Cook said. “I think everyone is anxious to see what it will do. I felt like it was worth a try with the way the divisions were set up currently.”
For years, the OHSAA has grappled with the question of where parents and student-athletes reside within a school district’s attendance zone.
“I think it’s all about transparency,” said Fairfield Athletic Director Mark Harden, who has served on the OHSAA’s Competitive Balance Committee. “If schools say, ‘we don’t reach out and we don’t recruit and that we don’t have many kids from all these other areas -- their numbers are going to bear that out. It’s going to be pretty simple.”
Starting with fall sports practice Aug. 1, competitive balance will be applied to the tournament divisions of football, boys and girls soccer and girls volleyball.
Competitive balance will also be applied to boys and girls basketball in the winter and baseball and softball in the spring.
“It certainly won’t be perfect in the beginning,” OHSAA Commissioner Dr. Dan Ross told WCPO.com. “But, it is to help start make modifications in how schools get their enrollment. When those modifications occur I think most schools feel very comfortable. It’s as if a coach said, ‘I don’t mind playing that school if they got their kids the same I did.’ And if they didn’t there is a modification.”
Although football, soccer and girls’ volleyball schedules are mostly set for area schools this fall, schools likely won’t know until April their division for those respective sports.
It remains to be seen how specific the OHSAA will be in publishing information once the numbers are adjusted for competitive balance. Athletic directors and coaches are curious as to where certain schools obtain their students.
“Anything that doesn’t have kid data on it is going to be a public piece that (the public) can have the opportunity to view,” Ross said last month. “It will be put up on the website.”
Later this month, the OHSAA Board of Directors is expected to approve the base enrollment figures based upon any further appeals by March 24 before setting in motion the adjusted data for competitive balance.
Every two years, the Ohio Department of Education furnishes the OHSAA with enrollment data in grades 9-11. This school year’s data is based upon Oct. 31, 2016.
From those numbers, the OHSAA then places schools in respective divisions for postseason tournaments. Competitive balance adds a modification to that step.
“We feel like we’ve made the right steps and are going in the right direction,” Ross said. “We also know we have a long way to go. It’s a journey and it won’t be perfect.”
The elephant in the room
All the scenarios in football aren’t known yet for the next two-year enrollment cycle.
Six of the seven state football champions in 2016 were private schools, including St. Xavier (Division I) and the third consecutive title for La Salle (Division II).
Those six state titles gave extra credence to some that competitive balance is needed in Ohio high school athletics.
The Toledo Blade reported in December that since the 2000 football season, 55 of the 106 total divisional state championships have been won by private schools, which make up only 15 percent of the total OHSAA membership.
“It feels to me the whole reason behind (competitive balance) is football,” Cincinnati Country Day Athletic Director Chris Milmoe said.
But it’s applicable in other sports as well. Since 2000, private schools have won 42 of 68 state titles in girls’ volleyball, 32 of 51 in boys’ soccer and 24 of 40 in girls’ soccer, according to the Blade. It’s below 50 percent in boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and baseball and much less apparent in softball.
Still, the disparity in football has been addressed in the past. In 2013, a seventh division was added. That same year, Loveland (2013) won the Division II state title in Canton.
“I think the football model has worked well since taking the top 72 teams and making them Division I and realigning the other divisions,” Cook said. “Hopefully the OHSAA will look at that model after the competitive balance formula is up and running.”
Ross said there is “credibility” to the argument that competitive balance doesn’t directly impact Division I.
“It’s probably one we are going to continue to have a conversation about,” Ross said. “I think criticism is legitimate because we haven’t found an answer to that. But we are certainly going to listen to that.”
Locally, the competitive balance impact on football divisional breakdowns remains to be seen.
The large Division I programs -- Mason, St. Xavier, Moeller, Fairfield and Lakota West -- won’t be impacted in the postseason since those teams can’t move up one division like others.
“It will never affect the big boys,” Princeton Athletic Director Gary Croley said.
Still, Fairfield’s Harden sees some benefits in having the Division I enrollment numbers adjusted for competitive balance.
“I know a lot of the Division I schools are like, ‘why do we have to do this?” Harden said. “And that, ‘it doesn’t affect our numbers.’ I think it’s fair to know true competitive balance of where you are getting kids from. I think it’s fair.”
Because there is an open enrollment factor, Princeton will likely see its adjusted enrollment numbers move it up from Division II to Division I in football in August.
Early indications are that La Salle will remain Division II, but no one will know officially until the OHSAA Board of Directors plan to approve the adjusted roster data for competitive balance and set the fall sports divisional breakdowns April 6.
“However it’s determined, we’ll evaluate it as we go,” La Salle Athletic Director Keith Pantling said last month. “Whatever happens, happens. Our kids just want to play football. Everything else will remain the same.”
‘Take a walk in our shoes’
Hughes Athletic Director Jolinda Miller understands why the OHSAA has made competitive balance a priority. She just doesn’t agree with it.
“You can’t have a true competitive balance without a socioeconomic balance,” Miller said.
Hughes, a Cincinnati Public Schools high school, is Division III in football and Division II in basketball.
“I think kids in the inner city are forgotten a little bit,” Miller said.
Miller, a member of the OHSAA Diversity Committee, says her challenges as an athletic director involve life issues and not worries about the postseason. She’s spoken directly with the OHSAA about her concerns and would prefer competition opportunities for her student-athletes remain the same.
“Winning state championships is the furthest thing from my mind,” Miller said.
Miller said competitive balance doesn’t fix the issues her athletic department encounters. Hughes, like multiple other CPS programs, will be impacted negatively due to open enrollment, according to district Athletics Manager Josh Hardin.
Competitive balance in this form doesn’t aid Hughes, according to Miller. Instead it may present hurdles for teams having to embrace yet another challenge on the playing field.
“I am unclear as to what the OHSAA is going to add to our numbers,” Miller said last month. “I know our virtual school gets divided out amongst our high schools, so that will move our numbers up. They may even add in the students in charter schools in our district to our totals as well since they are technically allowed to participate in our sports. So until I see what other ‘extras’ they are adding to us, I can’t really say if we will move up or not.”
Concerns on the field
Summit Country Day Athletic Director Gregory Dennis doesn’t think this competitive balance measure is fair.
“If you ask me for an answer, I don’t know,” Dennis said. “I don’t see this as fixing the issue.”
The Silver Knights have been a Division VI program the past two years. Dennis is concerned his football program will be bumped up to Division V this fall and it could become a safety issue.
If Summit makes the football playoffs like it did in 2016, it could face an opponent with several more players than Summit’s 30 student-athletes playing both ways on the field.
Dennis said he would have to discuss the team’s safety with his school administrators.
“It becomes a liability issue,” Dennis said.
Hirschauer, the former athletic director at Cincinnati Country Day, has a similar sentiment. Cincinnati Country Day was also Division VI the past two seasons.
“The football safety is something they better keep looking at,” Hirschauer said. “Our team is 20-22 guys -- can you imagine if they went up a division?”
The OHSAA said a roster size is completely out of its control and that it would be up to an athletic director if a player competes both ways in football.
A new reality
The OHSAA is using a formula for the six multiple-division team sports and athletic directors are accustomed to submitting their roster data.
Additional sports may be added later and clearly there exists disparities in other state events, but the OHSAA wants to see how this system operates starting in the fall.
Still, several questions remain.
“The concept of accounting for student-athletes who come from outside of your district is positive and needed,” Wyoming Athletic Director Jan Wilking said. “The process of how we are accounting for student-athletes does not seem completely thought out and there does not seem to have a check-and-balance in place to make sure schools are accounting properly.”
Hirschauer says you may see schools stop having junior varsity ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams in a sport like soccer.
“There are schools that will put their numbers low as a higher priority than allowing every student to play,” Hirschauer said.
Ross realizes there will continue to be questions. It remains to be seen how much movement the adjusted numbers will produce this spring.
But he’s willing to be patient and listen. He wants to visit the remaining 90 schools left on his bucket list since being named the commissioner in August 2004.
Ross, who recently returned to work in late 2016 after a series of health setbacks, downplays that competitive balance is part of his legacy. He prefers the spotlight to be on the student-athletes.
When Ross helped to reach a compromise several years ago with a contingent in northeast Ohio that wanted to split the state tournaments between public and non-public schools year, he was at the forefront of a long-held debate in Ohio.
When the current competitive balance measure passed in 2014, it was the fourth attempt at passing a referendum vote on the topic after the first three failed.
Ross doesn’t want to set a timeline for deeming the plan a success. The membership will be watching closely the next two years.
“I think most of our athletic directors and most of our schools are tickled to death that something is being done,” Ross said. “And they don’t expect it to be perfect. But they expect the association, the board (of directors) and their representatives with the coaches association would have things that they believe would make it better.”
Tune into 9 on Your Side at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9 to see a special on competitive balance in Ohio high school sports.