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Prep sports: Placing schools in regions, classes more difficult as another round of realignment has arrived

Utah High School Activities Association releases proposed alignment for 2021-2023 school years

East running back Ij Sula tries to dive over the American Fork defense during a 6A quarterfinal football game at American Fork High School on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
East running back Ij Sula tries to dive over the American Fork defense during a 6A quarterfinal football game at American Fork High School on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

MIDVALE — While winning a region title is still a coveted prize for high school teams, it may be on its way to extinction.

Open enrollment and changing demographics have altered the landscape of high school sports so significantly, it’s made the job of creating competitive, meaningful regions for programs increasingly difficult.

On Wednesday, a discussion about whether or not regions are really the best way to organize teams for competition arose as the Board of Trustees of the Utah High School Activities Association discussed how they will align schools for the 2021-2023 school years.

Board chairman and North Summit Superintendent Jerre Holmes said smaller, rural schools will eventually need to rely on RPI rankings instead of region play, saying the “regions are so spread out, it really burdens districts” that have to travel thousands of miles to play league games.

“I realized that a lot of especially the bigger classifications feel like regions are still the way for us to go,” Holmes said. “As I look at 2A, and even 1A, it looks like there has to come a time when we consider especially with RPI, I think there’s there’s a way to do our classifications without having to have regions.”

Nothing underscored that idea more than 1A football. Duchesne, Layton Christian, Monticello, North Summit and Rich make up the 1A North Region. If Altamont fields a team, which it didn’t last year, it’ll also play in that region.

It is 381 miles — a near seven-hour drive — between Monticello and Rich High. When this was pointed out, executive director Rob Cuff acknowledge the issue, but pointed out it was a once-a-year trip every other year, as teams alternate playing home and away.

Brighton principal Tom Sherwood said he believes most principals and superintendents in urban and larger schools do favor relying on RPI to rank teams for playoffs instead of region play.

“I think the pushback is coming mostly from the coaches in 5A and 6A, wanting to keep their regions,” Sherwood said. “If you speak to any of the principals from 5A and 6A, where they have a high number of programs that are not competitive, yet, they’re forced to over and over and over again play against schools when they feel like they’ve lost before the bus even pulls up.

They just don’t want to continue to do it. And they feel like with regions the way they are, they have to go play those games. They would rather build schedules that are more conducive to building programs rather than demoralizing students.”

He said the idea behind regions was built on an idea that students played in the neighborhood where they live.

“I think that we’re operating under an old paradigm when everybody played where they lived,” Sherwood said. “When everybody played where they live, at least at the time, it tended to maintain a little bit more parity, and now that we’re in the new era of open enrollment, the difficulty for some of these underperforming schools to build programs is just astronomical, to keep kids in that are in their neighborhoods that are talented in these sports.”

He said the student athletes take advantage of first entry and enroll in schools with strong programs, making it difficult for a struggling team or school to build successful programs.

“They go and enroll at schools that are within close proximity that have a strong program,” Sherwood said. “It’s just become so difficult, and we haven’t really changed the way we do things to adjust to an open enrollment athletic environment; it’s really changed the competitive balance, and I think we need to do some things to address it sooner than later.”

For now, Utah schools will operate with a sort of hybrid in which there is an RPI system in place to determine playoff seeding, but there is also region play in which schools are required to compete.

The trustees agreed on the proposed alignments, which offer separate considerations for football than the rest of athletics and activities, with very few changes. They hope to gather information through an online feedback process or at a public hearing next Wednesday that will be held via Zoom at 6 p.m.

Trustees did agree to move Hillcrest from 5A’s Region 6, which included Brighton and Olympus, to 5A’s Region 7, which includes Alta, Mountain Ridge, Jordan, Lehi, Orem and Timpview.

There was some discussion about moving Timpview to Region 8 so it would be in the same region as Provo, but trustees decided to wait for more feedback before making that change.

Among the more difficult decisions was where to place Uintah, a 4A school that’s several hours from any other 4A school. In the proposed alignment, Uintah is in a region with Tooele, Stansbury, Park City and Mountain View.

There was some discussion about putting Cottonwood and Murray in a region with Uintah and the Tooele County schools, but board members said they’d like to hear from principals and superintendents about whether they see travel or competition as a higher priority.

The full alignment proposal for football and other sports can be found at UHSAA.org.