MONTGOMERY — A seven-class system for the Alabama High School Athletic Association has been a long time coming, according to executive director Steve Savarese.
But an extension in the biennial classification process from November to January allowed the association the time to finally make an additional class feasible.
The AHSAA Central Board voted Wednesday morning to expand to seven classes in all sports. The new Class 7A is reserved for the state's mega-schools like Hoover and Mountain Brook, and will comprise 32 teams.
The remaining six classes will be divided evenly, with four classes having 60 schools in football and the other two having 59.
Among local teams, Pinson Valey and Center Point will move up to the new Class 6A, Corner advances to 5A, and Fultondale goes up to 3A. Gardendale stays in the new 6A, while Mortimer Jordan and Hayden stay in 5A. Locust Fork, which was facing a possible drop to 3A in a six-class scheme, will instead remain in 4A. Tarrant, as expected, will drop to 2A.
It's the first major change in the classification of member schools since 1984, when the AHSAA went from four to six classes. That came after 20 years of two classes, as implemented in 1964.
Savarese said that the expansion ultimately came down to creating more opportunities for students, he said in a press conference.
“This new system will create about 100 more playoff rounds, and allow roughly 5,000 students to be involved in championships,” he said. “We came to the conclusion that seven classifications will provide the most opportunities, given the current format.”
In football, Class 7A will have four regions, with the top four moving into the playoffs. During the week that other classes play semifinal contests, 7A will have the week off to allow its state title game to be played on Wednesday of the new Super 7.
Two other significant changes are in store for football. The bigger is the expansion of the schedule to 11 weeks in which teams can play 10 games. The extra week comes during what was traditionally used for jamboree games; schools may continue to do that, or play a regular game and take a bye week later in the season. This change allows schools adjoining other states like Georgia, where the season begins a week earlier, to play teams across state lines more easily.
The other change involves the tiebreaker system for playoff spots, particularly the criteria which disallows games played against teams in a lower class to count in a tiebreaking procedure. The criteria has been changed to allow classes up to two classes lower to count, so that a 6A team playing against a 5A — for instance, 6A Gardendale vs. 5A Jordan — will now figure into a tiebreaker equation.
All other sports that have championships for all six classes will expand to seven; this includes basketball, baseball and softball.
Wrestling will undergo significant changes. Championships will now be grouped for Classes 7A, 6A and 1A through 5A. The two larger classes will use eight-man brackets at the state finals, while 1A-5A will go to 16. Previously, 6A had a 16-man bracket, with 1A-4A and 5A having eight men.
Soccer will expand to 1A-4A, 5A, 6A and 7A. There will be area play in 5A and 7A, with the top two teams advancing to the first sub-state round. Sectional play with four advancing teams will be used for 1A-4A and 6A.
Great effort was taken to keep schools in a region or area as close to each other as possible, Savarese said. The AHSAA has long employed the services of Cody Kirkpatrick, a native of Hackleberg who's now a professor at Indiana University. Kirkpatrick uses the enrollment list of member schools to map prospective regions and areas, and then the AHSAA staff works with that data to adjust the boundaries to hold down travel.
That's especially challenging in south Alabama, which is much more rural in nature with schools more spread out from each other.
“South Alabama has always been a problem [in re-classification] because it's so rural,” Savarese said.
The adjustments work better in some regions and classes than others. For instance, the new Class 6A Region 6 includes seven teams, all from within Jefferson County. But Class 3A Region 3 is much more spread out, from newly-promoted Fultondale in the northwest end to Beulah on the extreme east end.
One of the primary reasons for the expansion, though, came down to a large disparity in the sizes of schools in the old Class 6A, from the nearly 2,000 students at Hoover down to the roughly 700 at schools like Hueytown and Gardendale.
Savarese said that he and his staff studied numerous other states and how they handled similar problems. They even looked briefly at a “success-based” classification system in use by some states, where schools move up or down by how well they perform on the field of play — somewhat similar to the promotion and relegation system used in soccer leagues across the globe. “But we quickly determined that simply wasn't right for Alabama,” he said.
Savarese added that the AHSAA will see roughly $500,000 in additional revenue from the expanded championships, with about $300,000 of that coming from football alone.
The Central Board made no changes in the private-school multiplier, used by the AHSAA to adjust for the extra freedom such schools have in getting athletes to come from other areas. The AHSAA multiplies the enrollment number by 1.35 for classification purposes, which has the effect of moving many private schools up a class.