, Muskogee, OK

November 9, 2012

COLUMN: Split calls falling on sticky ears

By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor

— Finally, the cries are getting heard.

The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association has agreed to discuss next month whether to send to the 32 Class 6A schools a recommendation from its constitution and rules review committee to split the division into two groups of 16, in effect creating a Class 7A.

Those cries have been around for awhile. Count Ron Lancaster among the early voices in the wilderness.

Lancaster has seen it from all sides. He coached at both Jenks and Broken Arrow, two of the biggest reasons this issue is before the association at all. In between he was at Muskogee, one of the 28 or so schools that seem to be forever chasing these others, not just in football but in most sports.

Broken Arrow (4,486.21), Union (4,237.14), Jenks (3,077.47) and Owasso (2,628.00) are the state’s largest schools, based on average daily membership. Since 1997, it’s been Jenks and Union hogging all the gold in football since 1997, with BA and Owasso being frequent visitors to the final four In that same span, those four schools have won all but one state baseball championship (that one going to Edmond North this past spring). In fastpitch softball and both dual and tournament style wrestling, they’ve won half of the team titles over that same span.

Bixby (1,335.39) and Booker T. Washington (1,287.39) are the smallest in the class, 31st and 32nd overall. Muskogee (1,540.85) comes in 21st. Furthermore, only Muskogee (wrestling) has won a championship in those sports in the same period.

But the focus in this measure is football and I thought of Lancaster when the association announced those intentions, and a conversation we had in 2004 when he ran the Roughers. His idea at the time was even more extreme — take the top four and make a superconference.

He laughed when I brought it up Thursday and I’m not sure whether it was the fact my memory did the blind squirrel finds an acorn kind of thing or the long-shot odds of his idea ever being considered.

“But the truth is this, and I said it and believed it when I was coaching at those schools,” he said. “The way it is right now is unfair. When you’re not one of those coaches, you want to compete with them and given the choice of playing up or down, I’d have chosen to play up. Now when I was at Muskogee, we were in a situation where we could compete with the athletes we had.

“But there are some very obvious imbalances between those four and the others and it starts with money. You have the resources to go out and hire more coaches. You have the resources to hire better coaches. You have the resources to build more facilities. With those, there are no comparisons. It’s absolutely one-sided and it certainly gives you a competitive advantage and always will.

“In a perfect world, those four top schools would already have been broken into two or three high schools. Moore did it, Edmond did it, Norman did it and Lawton did it, all over time. Those other four have passed the point that the same kind of decision should have been made and let’s be honest, they’re not ever going to break up.”

Realistically, Lancaster thinks an eight-team or 12-team 7A would work better than 16.

“Anything makes it more balanced and you have to be able to have it where schedule your (non-district) games,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to do it and one I’ve come to like is what they do in Texas.”

Texas has 5A to A and within the two largest of those 32-district classes, teams with the top two in enrollment in each class going to a Division I bracket and the other two going to Division II. That is however two 64-team brackets in each compared to a total of 32 teams split any which way you like in Oklahoma 6A. But it’s the least disruptive with the current alignment.

“If you take it as it is right now, you could maintain the districts you have and the four we’re talking about would go into the 6A-(division)-1 bracket,” he said.

As with the 16-team format being presented, that plan would drop one week of postseason.

“Big deal,” Lancaster said. “Sometimes the first two weeks are walkover games anyway for those teams. Maybe once in a decade you would find a team that could halt that and knock off a Jenks or a Union. That’s about what it’s averaged if you look at it. But taking one week away — you’re not missing anything.”

It’s an idea that should be given serious thought and after those early cries by one of the state’s foremost experts on the subject, it finally will.

The Texas concept might be the most workable. Whoever is 16th of the 32 in enrollment will still feel the effect of the big four but they might end up in a district where they are the third highest enrollment, thereby sending them to the second division

Personally, a 16-team 6A then taking the other 16 along with 5A and 4A and creating two eight-district classes within those groups like they’ve done recently with 3A and under would be my choice. It would also in all likelihood revive a rivalry between Muskogee and Tahlequah. You can call Jenks a rival but with a losing streak dating back to 1992, it’s more like the annual shot to try to take down the neighborhood bully and if you get it, you’re the hero of the rest of the average Joes living in the area.

The problem is, and the history proves it in expanding fashion, the bullies have it on everyone. Which puts us where we are at.