Ohio adds 7th tier for posteason

Whitmer, Findlay only area schools in D-I

6/15/2013
BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The Ohio High School Athletic Association has released its new school enrollment figures and divisional alignments for the 2013 and 2014 football seasons, which will feature an expansion from six to seven divisions for the postseason.

The biggest change was the creation of a Division I grouping of the top 72 schools based on projected enrollments for grades 10-12 for the 2013-14 school year. This alignment will be in place for two years.

The new upper division, designed to create better competitive balance for the 715 member schools with football programs, leaves the northwest Ohio area with only two D-I schools. Those are Whitmer, which will have 806 boys in grades 10-12, and Findlay (711), both from the Three Rivers Athletic Conference.

Come playoff time, Whitmer and Findlay will be classified in a new northern region with 33 other schools, and they would have to rank among the top 16 teams in that region to qualify for postseason play.

The southern region will include 37 D-I schools. The north-south border in this regional alignment basically draws an east-to-west line that runs just above the Columbus area.

“Everybody else [in northern region] seems to be all out to the east,” said Whitmer’s Jerry Bell, who guided the 14-1 Panthers to the D-I state championship game last season in his first year as head coach. “It’s going to make things more challenging for us to get back to that title game.

“Our chances of playing some of the bigger programs, like Cleveland St. Ignatius and Lakewood St. Edward, are more likely before we get to that state semifinal round.”

Before losing to Cincinnati Moeller 20-12 in the 2012 state final, Whitmer lost to eventual state champions St. Ignatius (17-6) and St. Ed (23-13), respectively, in the 2011 and 2010 state semifinals.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this all pans out with 16 teams getting in from the northern part of the state,” Bell said.

The remaining 643 schools were aligned into six divisions ranging from 105 to 108 schools each. Those six divisions will each be divided into four regions, with eight teams per region qualifying for the playoffs.

Locally, the new seven-division format has 37 of the 55 schools in The Blade’s northwest Ohio circulation area dropping to a lower division than what they had played in last season.

Most notably, defending Division II state champion Central Catholic (14-1), which went from 374 boys from the 2011-12 alignment to 375 for 2013-14, will drop to Division III.

“Just about everybody but that top half of Division I is knocking down one division,” Central coach Greg Dempsey said. “We’re still going to be facing a lot of the same teams in our region if we’re able to qualify for the playoffs.

“Then you throw Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary into the mix, and they were the Division III state champion last year, and a team like Mentor Lake Catholic. I look at it as a new challenge in Division III. I think it’s real tough competition at that level.”

Presumably, this drop will provide a less-competitive road through the playoffs, provided Central qualifies.

The Irish are expected to be strong state-title contenders with seven projected starters back on offense and four on defense. That includes highly regarded quarterback DeShone Kizer, a rising senior who earlier this week committed to Notre Dame.

“We have a good amount of experience coming back, and playing 15 weeks last year was huge in terms of getting a lot of extra practice time for the younger kids,” Dempsey said. “Also, the [lopsided] scores of some of our games last year made it possible for a lot of kids to see a lot of game time.

“We’re excited to [potentially] see some new teams that have won a lot of games and qualified for the playoffs many times. I hope we can make it and get a chance to play some of these new teams.”

Area schools dropping from Division I to Division II are Anthony Wayne, Bowsher, Southview, Start, and St. John’s Jesuit.

“This is the first time we’ve ever been in Division II,” St. John’s coach Doug Pearson said. “For us, it’s still going to be very competitive in the new region that we’re in.

“Sixteen of the teams were in the playoffs last year, either in D-I or D-II, so I think it’s going to get very competitive in a hurry. Scheduling could come into play, just trying to get into the playoffs, especially when you play a schedule like we do. The six teams that beat us last year lost a combined eight games all year.”

Division II will be more competitive with the influx of roughly 50 schools that were previously in Division I.

“It’s going to change the landscape for a lot of teams,” Pearson said. “You’re going to see a lot of teams’ schedules change. Obviously, we expect to be better than we were last year. But we’re also going to be young, so I think it is a good time for us to move.”

Pearson doesn’t expect the new playoff format to remain very long, especially because a sizable faction of schools is still pressing for separate tournaments for public and nonpublic schools. The OHSAA is also pursuing an alternative, seeking a competitive balance equation that can be approved by a majority of the member schools.

“I don’t see this as lasting a long time,” Pearson said. “It’s maybe just a two-year stint. The group that’s pushing for separate tournaments is not going to be happy until they get what they want.”

Added Dempsey: “I think this is a step in the right direction with seven divisions. It will create some of the balance they’re looking for.”

Not only will the 2013-14 alignments be different but — because of declining enrollments within Toledo Public Schools — two City League schools have actually dropped two divisions in the new alignment.

Waite, which was a Division I school with an enrollment of 515 boys for the 2011-12 seasons, has dropped to 399 boys and will be in Division III. Scott, which went from 342 to 275 boys, will drop from Division II to Division IV.

Start is the only CL school to increase its enrollment from the previous count two years ago, going from 590 boys to 602. Bowsher went from 588 to 497, Rogers from 381 to 298, and Woodward from 368 to 290.

In all, 31 of the 55 area schools dropped in boys enrollment in the last two years, with two others remaining the same.

Other Division II schools moving to Division III include Bowling Green, Maumee, Rogers, and Woodward, and those moving from Division III to Division IV will be Bryan, Port Clinton, Rossford, and Wauseon.

Three schools — Delta, Eastwood, and Swanton — will drop from Division IV to Division V.

Interestingly, three Northern Buckeye Conference schools — Genoa, Lake, and Otsego — all have 213 boys in grades 10-12, which puts each team just one above the cutoff between divisions IV and V.

Eastwood of the NBC fell just two boys below that cutoff, putting the Eagles in D-V.

The seven schools moving from Division V to Division VI are Elmwood, Evergreen, Gibsonburg, Lakota, Northwood, Patrick Henry, and Woodmore.

Former Division VI schools moving to the newly created Division VII are Arcadia, Cardinal Stritch, Danbury, Edon, Fremont St. Joe, Hilltop, Holgate, McComb, North Baltimore, Ottawa Hills, and Toledo Christian.

Come postseason time in the fall, divisions II, III, IV, and VI will have their playoff games on Friday nights, and divisions I, V, and VII will play on Saturday nights. One of the divisions to be determined will have its state championship game played the night of Thursday, Dec. 5.

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.