Atlee and Matoaca are requesting a drop in Virginia High School League classification in 2021-22, and Varina and Henrico potentially will join them.
Along with James River opting to stay in Class 6 and Manchester being forced to go up to Class 6, all the movement may dilute what has been a strong Class 5 group in the Richmond area.
Last year, the VHSL began grouping schools in six classes for a four-year period. Schools with the highest enrollments are in Class 6, and schools with the lowest enrollments are in Class 1.
Schools in different classifications can play each other during the regular season, but they migrate to their respective classifications to play schools similar in size in the postseason.
Adjustments to the four-year plan can come after two years as enrollments change. If a school’s enrollment increases more than 5%, it has to move up to the next class. If its enrollment falls below the line for the class below, it can drop down.
A significant portion of the area’s schools (17) are in Class 5, Region B. That currently includes Atlee, Matoaca, Varina and Henrico, but their enrollments have decreased enough that they can ask to move down to Class 4.
“We want to do what’s going to be competitively fair for us,” Matoaca activities director Charles Payton said.
Payton and officials for the other three schools said they are requesting that switch to the VHSL. Varina activities director Kevin G. Adams and Henrico activities director Rob Welch said their requests are specifically to be placed in Class 4, Region B, which includes schools in the Richmond area and the Fredericksburg area. Dinwiddie, George Wythe, Hanover, Huguenot, Lee-Davis, Monacan, Patrick Henry and Powhatan are in that region.
For Atlee, the move means joining its Hanover County neighbors: Hanover, Lee-Davis and Patrick Henry.
Schools requesting a switch will be assigned to a region by the VHSL’s alignment committee in late July. Following appeals, the executive committee will determine the final alignment on Sept. 23.
Welch said the Warriors “just want to be on a level playing field with the schools that are our size.”
“[Class 5, Region B] is tough. We like where we were. But you’re having to compete with, no matter what the season, you’re looking at a perennial state champ from the Richmond area in every single sport across the board. I think in 4 there’s definitely strong programs across the board, but I think it opens it up just a little bit more in those sports where we were more just kind of a hanger-oner [and] let’s see if we can get to the postseason. Maybe now we can get to the postseason and win a postseason game and that can be of some strength for our programs.”
Concerns about moving to Class 4 are some increased travel and whether the VHSL might rearrange the regions. Region B already is crowded with 16 teams and would expand to 20 with the additional of the four area teams.
Region B could be divided into two 10-team groups. Or teams could be shifted to other regions. Region A has 14 teams, stretching from the Williamsburg area to Chesapeake. Region C, with 15 teams, stretches into the northwest part of the state.
James River, which also had a decrease in enrollment and had the option to move from Class 6 to Class 5, will stay where it is, Rapids activities director Bryan Hannum said.
James River’s Class 6 region includes Chesterfield County colleagues Cosby and Thomas Dale, plus schools in the Virginia Beach area and one (Franklin County) near Roanoke.
“The vast majority [of our coaches] felt comfortable staying,” Hannum said. “Not that the Cosby and Thomas Dale games would have meant less, but they liked those rivalries and we’ve kind of cultivated some good relationships with the Beach schools and Franklin County, and quite frankly, we just feel like we’re really competitive in 6 and we just kind of know where we stand. … After talking to our new principal and kind of weighing some of my own opinions, it just felt like it was right to stay.”
Manchester’s enrollment, meanwhile, has increased more than 5%, and it must move from Class 5 to Class 6 in 2021-22.
Assuming the requests are approved, Class 5, Region B will lose almost a quarter of its schools and some strong programs, particularly in football and basketball.
All of this could change again when a new cycle begins in 2023-24. A plan to go to four classifications is being considered by a VHSL committee.