When the KHSAA announced that the 15th Region next season will begin a pilot program allowing all of its teams to compete in the regional tournaments held for various sports, champions of change and boo-birds were out in full force. Proponents generally believe change is necessary to help reinvigorate interest in high school athletics; opponents for the most part think the current system works just fine and doesn’t need amending.
What makes it tough for either camp to fully advocate its position is the fact that the criteria used for placing teams in the “super-regional” has not yet been determined. KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett told the Herald-Leader last week that an implementation committee will be formed, most likely with a representative from each 15th Region school, before basketball season ends. The KHSAA will help facilitate those meetings but does not plan to lead the discussion.
Tackett mentioned the Cantrall Ratings, the Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings or MaxPreps’ rankings — or a combination thereof — as possible ranking criteria the region could decide to use. He said there’s no sentiment to erase district tournaments from the equation, and that one possible option already brought to the table would involve protecting the district-tournament winners as seeds 1 through 4, then placing them in the regional bracket based on whatever criteria is used to seed. The same would then be done using the district runners-up for seeds 5 through 8.
“There’s lots of things they can do,” Tackett said. “But in the end, if you’re gonna protect the district winners and the district runners-up in a seeded bracket, then you still have a lot of value to the district tournaments.”
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Tackett is glad the 15th Region is willing to test something different instead of complaining about the inadequacies of its alignment, which has been a divisive topic for nearly two decades. He asked anyone from the metro areas to consider the geographic challenges of the mountain regions before condemning the pilot program.
“Go up there and travel around for a little while,” Tackett said. “Go between schools that look like they’re next to each other when you plot pinpoints on a map, and yet get somebody from Lawrence County to Phelps. Get somebody from Sheldon Clark to Belfry. It sounds like it’s right next door, except you really have to go out of state if you’re gonna take the shortest way. And if you’re gonna take the shortest way, guess what, you’re gonna need an out-of-state travel permit on a school bus. ...
“Obviously, anything that has the two furthest schools in a region in the same district is probably not optimal, and that’s kind of what they had before with Lawrence County’s placements. Now, Lawrence’s superintendent would probably tell you that they didn’t necessarily mind the travel. That’s not necessarily the same opinion shared by those that have to travel the other way.”
Other regions react
Reaction to the 15th Region’s decision has been mixed among 11th Region boys’ basketball coaches. Sayre Coach Rob Goodman is among those who think it could potentially have a positive effect on the state’s athletic programs.
“I think it’s a neat idea,” Goodman said. “I think it makes everyone feel like they’re involved in the grand tournament, which is a great thing for the smaller schools.”
Sayre is already in a unique position within the 42nd District; it has an agreement in place that it will play Bryan Station, Henry Clay and Scott County once each but counts each contest as two games for district seeding purposes. That helps the Spartans, who have a significantly smaller student body than its district mates, gain schedule flexibility. Goodman is unsure about how he would feel if regional seeding was based on one’s round-robin record against every 11th Region member, which some have suggested would be the fairest way to determine seeding.
“They may say, ‘Well, you have to play everybody in your region in order to get seeding.’ And if that’s the case, then I would probably be against it being a smaller school,” Goodman said. “In our situation, there are some years where we would say ‘Sure,’ but other years I might not want to play everybody, quite honestly.”
Maintaining schedule flexibility could prevent round-robin seeding from being considered at all by the 15th Region. Many teams in the region also participate in the All “A” Classic, so requiring a round-robin schedule would prevent them from doing much else if they wanted to continue playing in that event too.
“You don’t have an opportunity to take a trip to Gatlinburg or somewhere else because you would need to play multiple games against every team up there and then you don’t have a schedule,” Tackett said. “So at least by continuing to play a district tournament, if for no other reason — and I stress if — than to help get those seeds for the regional, at least you give them some freedom of scheduling during the regular season.”
Franklin County Coach Tony Wise, whose school is middle-sized but on the lower end of enrollment among 11th Region programs, said a super-regional might make more financial and competitive sense for a region like the 15th, whose teams are mostly the same size, than regions in the metropolitan areas. Johnson Central, the largest school in the 15th, has nearly 1,000 more kids than Piarist, the smallest with a reported enrollment of 42 students in 2015-16. Phelps also is an outlier with only about 200 students; the region’s other schools all have about 300 to 700 students.
Meanwhile, Frankfort — the smallest school in the 11th Region with 214 students enrolled in 2015-16 — has about 2,200 fewer students than Scott County, the largest school in the state. Scott County has about 1,500 more students than Franklin County.
Schools in the 41st District seldom have a realistic shot at winning a regional championship under the current format; a super-regional would not improve those odds, Wise said. He too believes mandatory round-robin scheduling would harm competition in the region.
“Where we are right now, if I had the team to do it and the talent to do it, we would play everybody,” Wise said. “But we already play Henry Clay, we already play Scott County, we play Madison Central. We’ve played LCA. In years past we’ve played Lafayette. If we play those teams year in and year out it’s gonna be difficult for us to ever have a winning record and create pride in our program.”
A different idea
Scott County Coach Billy Hicks appreciates the aim behind what the 15th Region is attempting but believes it waters down the value of district tournaments. He advocates for a plan designed by Ken Trivette, the former executive director of the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches. Trivette’s plan would eliminate half the districts in the state (from 64 to 32), combining them and advancing four teams from each district tournament to the regional competition.
“The problem with the districts we got is that back when we formed all these districts, there were probably eight or nine teams in every district,” Hicks said. “I think it’s become way outdated. ... I think (the 15th Region) has good intentions and I like the thinking on that, that it’s time to change, but I don’t think that’s the answer.”
Some fans have argued that a “super-regional” not only waters down the competition, but creates an unfair advantage because it gives every team a chance to lose and still move on to regional play. Tackett acknowledged that advantage but seemed dismissive of it based on the existing system, which not only advances some losing teams but also allows districts to ignore regular-season records in favor of a random draw for the district tournaments if they so choose.
“To me, as long as the majority of our state continues to want the district runners-up advancing to the regional, you don’t have an argument there,” Tackett said. “You’ve diluted that.”
The 15th Region requested a three-year trial for the new format but could revert to the current format after a year if it doesn’t work, Tackett said. There was no intimation that every region would be required to adopt this format if it proves successful, but Tackett did say it could be used by any region with 16 or fewer teams. There’s also nothing stopping teams with more than 16 teams from figuring out a way to make it work for them.
A couple of fans shared concerns that this could be the first step toward classification. Tackett believes the change discourages it.
“We’ve gotta be willing to try something different if we’re gonna continue to make activities possible,” Tackett said. “I would say it does the opposite. It’s looking at a way to protect the regional tournament and the system they’ve developed. I admire the heck out of them doing it up there, frankly, because that’s a bunch of small schools. If it was all just about trophies, there’d probably be people up there saying ‘Let’s have four or five classes.’ ...
“If we get down the road two years and it looks like a great plan, we’re gonna go ‘God, they were pioneers.’ If we get down the road two or three years and it’s not doing well, we’re gonna look back and say ‘What were we thinking?’ That’s not much different than any other attempt at progress.”