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NCHSAA realignment

Questions, answers, thoughts and what-ifs

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association will announce on Thursday the first draft of its realignment plan for the 2021-2025 academic years.

Here’s a primer on the realignment process as well as how it may impact Polk County and where the Wolverines may wind up playing the next four years.

So, let’s start with the basics. What is realignment?
Every four years, the NCHSAA aligns its member schools into one of four athletic classifications – 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A. Aligning every four years allows the NCHSAA to account for new schools, shifts in population and other changes while attempting to keep each class as competitive as possible.

NCHSAA bylaws mandate four classes. The Association gave schools a chance earlier this year to move to five classifications, but that proposal failed in a vote of member schools. Any amendment to the league bylaws requires three-fourths of member schools to approve.

The realignment process historically has used school enrollment as its sole criteria for determining where schools are classified. Historically, that is, until this realignment.

So how does the process work this year?
The NCHSAA is using three factors for this realignment to produce a Realignment Score for each school. Those factors, though, aren’t applied until after a school is placed in either the East or West portion of the state. So, first divide by geography, then rank each half of the state by Realignment Score, which includes:

  • Average Daily Membership, an enrollment figure, but pulled from the 2019-2020 school year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That figure is halved for the Realignment Score.
  • Average Wells Fargo State Cup points over the past three years. The State Cup is a competition each season to recognize the top athletic programs in each class. Schools earn points based on postseason finishes. Multiply by .25 for the Realignment Score.
  • An average of the lowest two of the past three years of Identified Student Percentage. The ISP represents the percentage of students who are on some form of government assistance per U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. A multiplier is also calculated based on enrollment, and those factors produce a number that represents 25 percent of the Realignment Score.

Why all the different factors?
That’s an excellent question. The prevailing, unofficial theory is that the process is designed to push successful charter schools up a class. Again, that’s not anything official, but the consensus opinion of many when considering the addition of factors relating to program success and socioeconomic status.

If that assumption is true, how well did that approach work? Consider the final State Cup points for the past three seasons in 1A, where the majority of charter schools compete:

2019-2020
1 – Lincoln Charter – 302.5
2 – Pine Lake Prep – 270
3 – Research Triangle – 240
4 – East Surry – 232.5
5 – Bishop McGuinness – 227.5
6 – Community School of Davidson – 220
7 – Franklin Academy – 195
8 – Mountain Island Charter – 192.5
9 – Raleigh Charter – 175
T10 – Avery County – 170
T10 – Murphy – 170

2018-2019
1 – Community School of Davidson – 447.5
2 – Pine Lake Preparatory – 400
3 – East Surry – 382.5
4 – Franklin Academy – 377.5
5 – Murphy – 372.5
6 – Raleigh Charter – 370
7 – Polk County – 365
8 – Bishop McGuinness – 350
9 – Research Triangle – 340
10 – Lincoln Charter – 307.5

2017-2018
1 – Lincoln Charter – 502.5
2 – Franklin Academy – 452.5
3 – Mount Airy – 445
4 – Raleigh Charter – 425
5 – Community School of Davidson – 392.5
T6 – Murphy – 385
T6 – Pine Lake Preparatory – 385
8 – Polk County – 360
9 – Bishop McGuinness – 320
10 – East Surry – 287.5

Here are the schools from those three lists who will be remaining in 1A: Avery, Bishop McGuinness, Mount Airy, Mountain Island Charter, Murphy.

Make of that what you will.

So, Polk County’s recent success may have pushed the school up to 2A?
Maybe. But the bigger factor is the schools included in the realignment.

In the last alignment, schools were divided on a 20-30-30-20 model, with the top 20 percent of schools in 4A, the next 30 percent in 3A and so on. But, those divisions were first calculated with all non-football playing schools excluded. Omitting those schools placed Polk County in the bottom 20 percent for the 2017-2021 alignment.

The upcoming realignment will be done on a 25-25-25-25 model, which the top 25 percent of schools in 4A and so on. But, the non-football schools aren’t being excluded this time, and adding all of those 30-plus schools into the mix certainly helped push schools such as Polk County up a class.

But what about Mountain Heritage dropping to 1A?
Polk County’s Western Highlands Conference rival indeed will drop to 1A, and here we see the impact of the non-enrollment factors.

Polk County and Mountain Heritage had an identical enrollment figure, 614 students. Polk County’s ISP percentage was slightly higher, about five points, but the Wolverines had a State Cup factor of 62.083 points compared to Mountain Heritage’s 39.167. That does make a difference when looking at the scores and classes of the lowest six 2A West schools and the top six 1A West schools:

Lowest 2A West schools
Polk County, 2A, 560.9861
East Surry, 2A, 560.6159
Surry Central, 2A, 558.5546
T.W. Andrews, 2A, 557.4192
Trinity, 2A, 555.9851
Reidsville, 2A, 553.3491

Top 1A West schools
Uwharrie Charter, 1A, 549.923
Draughn, 1A, 533.5074
Mountain Heritage, 1A, 532.2615
Highland Tech, 1A, 523.1935
Eastern Randolph, 1A, 517.5104
Avery, 1A, 482.1099

Can Polk County appeal to stay in 1A?
There is an appeal process for member schools. But it’s very rare that schools are allowed to move down – just ask Tuscola, which spent much of the past four years appealing its status as a 3A school to no avail.

There is an appeals process before the realignment becomes official in March. There are also opportunities to file appeals during each four-year period. It’s rare, very rare, that a school is ever allowed to play in a lower classification than intended.

So it looks like Polk County goes back to 2A. In what conference will the Wolverines play?
That’s a good question, and we’ll all learn the answer on Thursday when the NCHSAA releases the first draft of its conference plan. Note that unlike classifications, conference alignments often DO change before the plan is finalized.

It’s helpful to look at where all Western North Carolina schools are classified:

4A: Asheville, T.C. Roberson, Reynolds
3A: East Henderson, Enka, Erwin, Franklin, North Buncombe, North Henderson, Pisgah, Smoky Mountain, Tuscola, West Henderson
2A: Brevard, Hendersonville, Madison, Owen, Polk County
1A: Andrews, Avery, Blue Ridge Early College, Cherokee, Hayesville, Highlands, Hiwassee Dam, Mitchell, Mountain Heritage, Murphy, Nantahala, Robbinsville, Rosman, Swain

The NCHSAA has said that there may be more split conferences this year. Given that, could the NCHSAA opt to group the three 4A schools, plus McDowell, with North Buncombe, East Henderson, North Henderson and West Henderson in a 4A/3A conference? That would then leave an all-3A alignment of Franklin, Smoky Mountain, Pisgah, Tuscola, Enka and Erwin.

Would that plan then, perhaps, take the current six-team Western Highlands Conference, including Polk County, and add Brevard and Hendersonville for an eight-team 2A/1A league, leaving all other 1A schools in the Smoky Mountain Conference?

Or might the Association take the five 2A schools in WNC and place them with Chase, East Rutherford and R-S Central in an all-2A conference? That, though, would leave the three mountain 1A schools with distant options for conference partners and seems much less likely.

There are numerous scenarios that could play out – we’ll see the first take on Thursday. There will be two more drafts presented, and schools can appeal their conference placement after each, before the plan is officially approved in March.

By Andy Rhinehart