Public-private school split causes issues in Year 1

Split costly to pair of Brookstone teams, beneficial to two Marion County teams

dmitchell@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 20, 2013 

Split costly to pair of Brookstone teams, beneficial to two Marion County teams

By DAVID MITCHELL

dmitchell@ledger-enquirer.com

Heading into the 2012-13 academic year, one of the major questions in Georgia high school athletics was how a split between the public and private schools in the postseason in Class A would affect on-field competition.

The split came about after an overwhelming majority of the Georgia High School Association executive committee voted in its favor in early 2012. It was an effort to balance competition in the state's smallest classification, which contains both public schools in lesser populated areas and private schools from much larger metropolitan areas.

Public schools complained that private schools have more resources and threatened to leave the GHSA if their demands for a separate playoff was not met.

Under the old system, which is still used for the GHSA's five other classifications, the top four teams for each of the eight regions would qualify for the postseason. The split in Class A meant there would be two 16-team tournaments.

Throughout the first year of the system, coaches expressed some concern about a power-ranking system that would select determine a majority of the the 16-team fields -- only the region or area champions were guaranteed a postseason berth.

The system takes into ac

count wins and strength of schedule, often rewarding teams that may win fewer games but play teams from higher classifications.

Despite some lingering concern, coaches, whether for or against the system, said it was relatively successful in reaching its goals.

Brad Dehem, the football coach and athletic director at Brookstone, a private school, summarized it in three parts: It did even the playing field for a handful of sports that previously had a competitive imbalance; still, different sports are affected in different ways; and it's still too early to see what the system's full effect will be.

Dehem pointed to tennis as one sport where the change was needed.

"I coached tennis for 14 years," said Dehem, who was at Wesleyan -- also a private school -- prior to 2012. "The way they did tennis this year, I don't think any coach on either side would have a complaint about separating. Public schools need to be separated."

That despite the fact Brookstone's girls tennis team failed to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 1999 as a result of the increased competition on the private side.

Rather than play easier teams early in the playoffs -- usually public schools -- Brookstone had to battle Holy Innocents in the first round before losing to Walker, the eventual state champion, in the second.

"It did hurt us," Lady Cougars coach Mary Lynne Cumiskey said. "We lost to the eventual state champion in the second round. Having (it) the old way, we probably would have made it a lot deeper."

She admitted that it was frustrating and that she did like the old system better, but acknowledged that, while it helped public schools, not much will change for private schools in the long run.

"If you're the best, you're the best," she said. "You may not meet them until later (in the old system), but you still have to prove you're a better team no matter when you play them."

On the flipside, Marion County -- a public school -- was able to secure a state title in boys tennis. Coach Jill Peacock agreed that the change was a major advantage for hers and other public school teams.

"We had been in a region with Brookstone in the past," she said. "They were the one team that just gave us fits. When we were in Double-A, we'd come up against Greater Atlanta Christian in the second round of state and get bumped. When we have kids that don't play tennis year round like most private schools, that really helps. … It gives a lot of kids a chance in public schools, kids who don't get as much of a chance to excel, to really do well."

Marion County also won a state title in girls track and field, a title it wouldn't have won under the previous system. If the school's results were mixed among the private-school results, it would have finished in fifth place behind Our Lady of Mercy, Athens Christian, Holy Innocents and Whitefield Academy, all private schools.

Another sport where Brookstone was hurt was boys basketball. The Cougars didn't make the postseason last year, finishing 17th in the power rankings, one spot out of the playoffs.

This despite losing the Region 4-A championship game by four points. In previous seasons, a region runner-up finish would have earned Brookstone a No. 2 seed in the state playoffs.

Is it needed for football?

As Dehem stated, though, different sports are affected in different ways.

For his football team, he's not entirely sure the split is necessary. He thinks there is already a fair balance among public and private teams in the sport.

"There was a time in Class A where everyone thought Wesleyan was a powerhouse," he said. "Then it was Wilcox (public). Now you've got Eagle's Landing Christian (private). I think it gets overblown, public to private and which is more competitive."

Public and private schools continue to play each other in the regular season. Brookstone shares its region with Marion County. Dehem noted that the overlap does complicate things when it comes to fairly selecting playoff teams.

Dehem expressed the wish that each sport could be handled individually rather than a blanket split for all public and private schools.

Coaches agree, though, that it's really too early to tell what the long-term impact of the split will be.

In most sports, scheduling may be the primary issue to watch. With the power rankings comes an increased value on each team's opponents, the opponents of their opponents and so forth.

Teams had already made their 2012 and 2013 schedules prior to the split, so it isn't clear exactly how the power rankings will affect future scheduling. Dehem noted, however, that future scheduling decisions will likely be made with the power rankings in mind.

"It's going to be real interesting to see going forward what the mindset is," he said. "Who do you play? Who don't you play? I think it will get a little crazy."

Dehem said that he has spoken with his coaches and expressed the need to schedule wisely, in a way which will give their teams a better chance of making the postseason.

The lingering concern is that the ratings will make it more about scheduling and less about what happens on the field.

"That's probably one of the biggest complaints among coaches," Dehem said. "You want to be able to play your way into the playoffs, but it may become a battle over who can schedule the best."

There will certainly be a strategy in how teams decide on opponents, a cost-benefit analysis of sorts that balances the risk of losing too much with the potential reward of a difficult schedule.

"I can promise you, when it comes time in December and January, I'll have some of the greatest mathematicians at the school to help me," Dehem said. "I'm sure other coaches will do the same."

David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.

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