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High school sports scheduling, especially nonconference, has an art to it | Opinion

Feb. 20—Homecoming high school football is a big deal, as it should be given its high regard.

If alumni are going to come home. If the homecoming court is going to be introduced at halftime.

If there is more interest than there would otherwise be.

The preference there would be to have the opponent be someone, treading lightly, against whom the chances of winning to complement the pomp and circumstance are decent at best.

We have all seen the opponents who are the "homecoming game" multiple times a year, knowing full well why, and feeling a sense of empathy for them. If someone is willing to do it to them, after all, it's only fair they work their way toward getting their turn in that role, too.

We don't talk often enough in high school sports about the art of scheduling.

And while the homecoming example might be on the more extreme end, there is some truth in the notion scheduling isn't always done with an eye for necessity or competitiveness.

Most scheduling, of course, occurs organically within the framework of a conference.

In those instances, if you have a large conference membership, perhaps there might be fluctuation depending on divisional alignments or expansion.

For the most part, though, year after year, you know against whom you're competing.

So in turn, the art within scheduling is found more within nonconference competition — and how some schools and programs approach that is telling.

Leaning back into football, you can decipher a lot when seeing how programs schedule for the first three weeks — or more depending on the size of the conference.

There are those programs that embrace every challenge, regardless of the implication it may have on computer points.

There are those that take what they can get as far as opponents based on enrollment and perennial quality.

There are those, especially when league alignment is altered and forces the issue, that will take on whatever team they can find provided they're also available the week a spot is open.

And there are those who, again treading lightly, want to start 3-0, even if the gain from playing such foes is minimal at best.

In this sense, success on prominent stages is a blessing and a curse.

You want to be successful. You want to have a tradition and track record.

But if you have "too much" of said tradition and track record, chances are there are going to be potential opponents approached over the possibility of playing and decline.

With all those variables in place, it's a tough needle to thread.

In hockey during the winter, we have a unique circumstance that puts a bow on this point.

Divisions are determined on quality and sustainability in the short and long term, based on a Red/White/Blue model. The highest-caliber programs in town are in those upper/Red divisions. The lower the division, the more challenges the programs likely face, whether with numbers, infrastructure and more.

But it also places really good White Division — using the term loosely, mid-level bridge programs for whatever reason amid that model — in a precarious spot. It's something we see play out every winter.

If a White Division team is "too good," then who does it play outside its division in intraleague games and holiday tournaments? Blue teams won't want to play them because of the gap in quality and game speed. Red teams, in some instances, won't want to play them because they don't want to risk losing to a lower-division opponent.

In that case, those White Division teams are on their own island. They want to test themselves for the possibility one day of jumping up to the Red, but how exactly are they supposed to do that if they can't test themselves properly?

It even happens with conference placement, if we're being honest.

Schools, due to competitiveness, declining or smaller enrollment or other factors, decide one conference is no longer a workable fit. So they head elsewhere. Then the dominoes fall ... again.

We all know, when one domino falls in league alignment, others are certain to follow.

Obviously, football has long had a formula to dictate playoff seeding. Similar formulas are being implemented in basketball and, perhaps down the road, other sports.

The formulas need work still — I'm not in the gym during the winter of course, but the idea for example Richmond Heights, a two-time defending Division IV state champion in boys basketball, spent time ranked outside the top five in its district this season based on the formula confirms it. Schedule, sub-.500 record or not, no one in their right mind could contend the Spartans are the fifth-best D-IV boys hoops team in Northeast Ohio.

But hopefully we reach a juncture at which data points and situational reality are refined to such a point formulas to determine postseason placement are as reliable as they are for football. Not that football is always perfect with its formula, mind you, but it wouldn't have been in place for as long as it's been without having some reliability.

Maybe we can reach a point at which in several sports the formulas used for postseason placement can also help avoid some of the soft scheduling we see out of conference. Say in football, at least one opponent had to reach a certain formula number the year prior, or the discrepancy between formula numbers cannot go beyond a certain margin.

Scheduling has an art to it.

You have to be willing to take on certain competition. Your competition has to be willing to take on certain competition. And when there isn't an intersection, the issues begin.

But that art shouldn't be manipulated just to drive up win totals or a false sense of confidence.

Perhaps, in turn, we do need to explore the notion of attaching safeguards to the scheduling process so you can't schedule too meekly or your schedule must have some difficulty to it.

Not everything should be a guaranteed win.

Yes, despite the alumni, court and pomp and circumstance, even on homecoming as well.