High school sports are changing in Ohio: How the big moves will impact state championships

Feb. 26—Big changes are coming to Ohio high school sports next school year, with about 20 more state championships up for grabs but potentially more postseason travel.

Just how much the Ohio High School Athletic Association's vote to increase the number of divisions will affect local basketball, soccer, softball, baseball and girls volleyball teams remains to be seen, but administrators and coaches contacted by the Dayton Daily News were universally supportive.

"I think it's good," Northmont director of athletics Micah Harding said. "For a school like us, we've kind of had declining enrollment for several years now, and we already play in a very competitive league."

This fall, boys and girls soccer will be five divisions instead of three (meaning five state champs, and 20 teams getting a shot at the state final four). Basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball will go from four bigger divisions to seven smaller ones.

Football is already seven divisions and will stay there. Sports like wrestling, track and cross country, which have both team and individual aspects, will stay at their current division configurations for now, but OHSAA says future changes are possible.

With 618 boys in the most recent OHSAA count for boys basketball, Northmont is in the middle of the current Division I, but the Thunderbolts figure to be in the new Division II next year along with fellow GWOC member Miamisburg as well as Troy, Fairborn and Stebbins of the Miami Valley League.

The rest of the GWOC — Centerville, Beavercreek, Fairmont, Springboro, Springfield and Wayne — will still be in the largest division, which will include teams with as many as 1,300 boys (Mason) ranging down to the high 600s instead of the current cutoff of 345.

"Just for us to win the league is pulling off a pretty incredible feat in most sports, but now if we get a special group and we make a run in the tournament, rather than running into a powerhouse like (Cincinnati) St. Xavier or Mason or Fairfield — schools that are twice our size — we're going to be going up against schools with similar enrollment and a similar pool to draw from," Harding said.

Trotwood-Madison also should find itself in a better situation in the future. The Rams made three straight boys basketball final fours in Division II, including winning it all in 2019, but they were in Division I last season after the competitive balance formula was applied.

"I'm elated for all student-athletes across the state to be honest with you," said Trotwood-Madison AD Jonas L. Smith, who commended OHSAA leadership for the move. "I thought it was paramount that something was done, especially for the smaller schools in each division. My whole career, I've always wanted to do what's best for children, and this gives schools an opportunity to win a state championship by adding a few divisions."

Other schools currently at the smaller end of Division I boys basketball are Belmont, Edgewood, Piqua, Sidney, Xenia, West Carrollton, Talawanda, Ross, Monroe, Butler and Tecumseh, all of whom could be in the new Division III after the 64 biggest schools are placed into Division I and the next 64 form Division II.

"We are excited about the division expansions," Tecumseh director of athletics Craig Eier said. "We feel like we will at least have a chance to win a few tournament games when we have a good team. This is a good change for our school."

Dayton Public Schools also supported the change.

Although Dunbar, Ponitz and Thurgood Marshall boys basketball teams appear likely to continue playing teams around their size in the new Division IV, new Superintendent David Lawrence suggested more chances for teams to make tournament runs that rally the community could also help the district retain some local students who are currently attending other schools.

"Sports is a big recruiting tool, and when you win, people want to be part of that winning," Lawrence said. "So that for us is important as we try to help get students back into public schools and recruit them back from charter schools and other places."

The change will create some logistical hurdles, however, potentially including finding enough places to play.

"Our enrollment has consistently kept us in Division I, but I think one of the bigger challenges may be finding tournament hosts for certain sports like volleyball and basketball, where securing suitable venues and willing hosts can be challenging," said Springfield A.D. Mike Dellapina. "Ultimately, kids want to be able to compete for championships, so increasing the opportunities for students will be a benefit in my opinion."

Different teams' tournament experience could vary, because the Dayton area may have very different numbers of teams from division to division.

For example, there could be around 33 teams in D-III and D-V boys basketball locally, while the new D-II projects to have only around 13 teams. So those in Division II could end up having to compete with teams from outside the Southwest District come tournament time.

How that shakes out remains to be seen after final enrollment numbers, including adjustments for competitive balance, are determined this summer, but football offers a hint.

Not only has football already had seven divisions, it also features teams playing across regions, including Southwest Ohio teams being matched up with teams from the Central District and even the Northwest.

"I don't think it's gonna be set up totally the same as football, but it'll be similar," said Lakota West athletics director Scott Kaufman, who is also a member of the board of directors for the Southwest District Athletic Board.

While some regions currently combine at the district final level in the basketball brackets, Kaufman said to expect that to begin earlier in areas where there aren't as many teams of similar size.

That likely will also mean more travel for some teams and their fans.

"If you don't want to have any more transportation, then we got to stay the way we are, and I'll be honest with you: Every conversation I've had since probably November, I've not heard one person argue against closing the enrollment gap," Kaufman said.

Tri-Village boys basketball coach Josh Sagester also expressed concerns about how the new plans for the state semifinals will play out.

Instead of holding the state semifinals and finals at one site over three or four days, OHSAA chief Ute indicated on a conference call with statewide media last week he could see only the state finals in every division being played at one site, as is the case with football.

That could mean having to find a neutral site for state semifinalists that come from long distances apart.

"That's kind of the holy grail with the state semifinals and the finals all in one venue, and now there's gonna be a significant change where they regionalize that state semifinal game," said Sagester, who has taken the Patriots to the Division IV final four three times and won it all in 2015.

He also got to watch his daughter, Rylee, win a state title in girls basketball last winter.

"For a guy like me that's getting a little bit older and has some experience behind me, that's certainly a different feel," Sagester said. "I'm not saying that won't go well and may be a good change, but that's gonna be the difference for us, or at least for me."