School officials mixed on Proposition 9 passage

Not every school in the state came away thrilled from Monday's annual meeting of the Arkansas Activities Association in Little Rock.

There were some schools that view the passage of Proposition 9, a sweeping restructuring of conferences in most sports, as a positive for their athletic programs. Others are less than giddy about it. Put Lincoln in the former group, while Gentry has a completely different viewpoint.

"We're number 96 in enrollment, the second smallest in Class 4A," said Gentry Athletic Director Brae Harper. "Harrison is double our size, so it makes it difficult to compete with that."

Proposition 9 revamps classifications below 7A for non-football sports. The focus of the proposal was to eliminate the current confusing blended conference plan and restructure the classification system into more geographical matchups based on enrollment.

The measure passed by the required two-thirds majority Monday, 141 to 68.

The AAA will now draw the conferences for the 2018-20 cycle using the new system. Class 7A will remain unchanged other than becoming Class 6A for sports other than football. The next step down will be Class 5A, where the current 16 teams in Class 6A will merge with the largest 16 teams in Class 5A to create a 32-team class. Then Class 4A will take the remaining 16 schools currently in 5A and merge those with the next 32 largest schools. Classes 3A and below will be a split of the remaining schools.

Football will remain unchanged with the top 16 schools in Class 7A, and the next 16 in 6A and so forth down to Class 2A.

Gentry's enrollment is 351 students while Harrison is at 602, but they will be in the same non-football conferences under the new system. Gentry will be the second-smallest public school in Class 4A, just ahead of Dover at 347, while Trumann is the largest 3A school at 345. Shiloh Christian (231) will be the smallest school in the conference, but the AAA requires that private schools bump up one classification higher than its enrollment would require.

"I'm not sure what else could have been done differently," Harper said. "I don't think there is any right answer at this point. But we're not going to raise a stink about it. We'll do what they tell us to do."

Most school officials agree, however, that this plan is far better than the current blended conference format. Under the current system, schools in 6A and below are grouped with other classifications for district play, then they scatter to conference tournaments with schools their own class size. The plan has been controversial mainly because of the seeding for conference tournaments.

Siloam Springs Athletic Director Kevin Downing said he supports the new proposal. For the first time since moving up to Class 6A before the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, the district's teams will play basketball, baseball and softball games in a conference without some sort of blend. The Panthers have gone from the 7A/6A-West that cycle to the 7A/6A-Central in 2014-15 to 5A/6A District 1 in 2016-17.

"This will add to our conference games and make those games mean more, and I think our coaches like that aspect more," Downing said. "Under the blended conferences, our coaches found it hard to understand what they were playing for, even though the coaches in the 6A-West did a great job of seeding tournaments."

Lincoln is among the schools to greatly benefit from the proposal's passage. The Wolves will still compete in the 4A-1 for football, but they slide down to Class 3A for the other sports and likely will be grouped with Elkins, West Fork, Cedarville, Greenland and several other current 3A schools. Elkins also will play 4A football but bump down for other sports.

Huntsville Athletic Director Tom Tice said he's looking forward to restoring some of the rivalry games, like the always entertaining basketball clashes with Farmington. The Eagles and Cardinals have staged some epic battles over the years when they were both in Class 4A.

"I think those rivalry games will add a lot of excitement and big gates," Tice said. "And I think our travel will be less. We were going to Marshall and Yellville and places like that. So we'll have closer games, which will be a plus."

While Downing said he fully backs the new alignment, there will be some changes for the current 16-team Class 6A when the new 32-team 5A classification kicks in. The biggest will be the number of teams that make the postseason. Currently six teams from each of the two Class 6A conferences earn bids to the state tournament. That number will shrink to four.

"Now that we will have 32 teams in this classification, it doubles the amount of teams we have. That means more competition, and we will have to be ready for it," Downing said. "It's also going to make going to the state tournament mean that much more.

"We will have to play with the cards we are dealt. This means the state tournaments will be a little bit tougher to make, but it will also be more of an accomplishment when teams get there. That will add to the excitement."

Sports on 08/02/2017

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