Mike DiMauro: ECC gives Wheeler a chance the CIAC won't

Feb. 28—MOHEGAN — Until Tuesday night, the only "Wheeler" that really ever accomplished anything in basketball around here was named Tyson. (Father and son). But then there was no stopping No Sto on this night, when all the townsfolk showed up and turned Neon Uncasville into a passion pit.

"You've seen the movie 'Hoosiers?'" Wheeler High athletic director Ellen Turner said amid the celebration. "We're living it right now."

Indeed, the lagoon of maroon was over the moon at what they'd just seen: The Lions won the 2024 Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II title. And they beat their neighbors, Stonington, to do so. Before more than 4,000 fans. Parents of the players were too busy hugging to pull out their phones. Tears of joy here, hoots, howls and hoorays there.

Those better acquainted with Wheeler lore and legend can speak to whether this was the greatest overall athletic accomplishment in school history. But this much we know: It was certainly the greatest overall accomplishment for the ECC as a league.

No other conference in Connecticut could possibly give a school Wheeler's size — 222 kids, fifth smallest in the state — a better chance to achieve what the Lions did Tuesday: Win something of significance on the state's grandest entertainment stage.

And in one night, the plight of Wheeler illustrated the ECC is everything the CIAC is not.

In the ECC, where divisions are fluid and formed by enrollment, program strength and projections for the upcoming season, Wheeler competes among its like-sized and like-minded brethren.

In the CIAC, where divisions are based on enrollment, one-size-fits-all "multipliers" and past success, Wheeler has been moved from Division V (largely consisting of the state's smallest public schools) to the more competitive Division IV. Among Wheeler's competition in Division IV is Bristol Eastern (1,128 students) and Rockville (959).

In what universe should 1,128 play 222?

Wheeler had gone 12 years without a winning season until 2023. And still because of its success, was moved up a division. Wheeler, with 222 kids, competes in Division IV. Tourtellotte, with 223 kids, competes in Division V. Only in the CIAC.

"If you kind of look at our population," Wheeler coach Stephen Bailey was saying after Tuesday's triumph, "and you look at the schools similar to our population, they're all in Division V. I understand our success and (the CIAC's) point system. But I don't think we should necessarily be penalized for one successful season.

"It's an eerie situation. I don't know how it should be fixed or how it can be fixed. But it's just difficult when you see we're number 180. And 181-185 (Westbrook, Parish Hill, Capital Prep, Thomaston, Holy Family) are all in Division V."

The CIAC's arcane formula includes "multipliers," or numbers attached to conference affiliation, enrollment and the granddaddy of them all, CIAC Tournament results data from the three previous seasons. How is this flawed? Let us count the ways:

First, the CIAC arbitrarily assigned the ECC as a "mid-major," assigning its member schools fewer multiplier points than the SCC or CCC, but more than the "low majors," the Shoreline, Berkshire and NCCC. The problem is that the ECC's equitable scheduling matrix doesn't allow for its smallest schools to encounter the largest — the power programs that give the ECC some statewide cachet. Wheeler's schedule is more consistent with the state's low majors and should be factored accordingly. The Lions (and other small ECC schools) should not be penalized for being in a league that recognizes inequities the CIAC does not.

And who decided that CIAC tournament data from three previous seasons is possibly relevant? High school talent's biggest determinant is graduation. Kids come, kids go. Talent levels fluctuate, especially in public schools which can't pluck kids from multiple towns. This year's state semifinalist might be next year's 10-10. We've heard "past performance doesn't guarantee future success" because it's true.

If the CIAC is truly serious about equity, it will reevaluate the way divisions work. Divisional alignments should be fluid and tweaked yearly. Sport committee chairpersons should appoint representatives from each conference who understand the rhythms of their league's programs. They would discuss which programs return the most talent, those hit hardest by graduation, transfer and injury. And then alignments would follow, based on dialogue, communication and research, not a one-size-fits-all formula.

This is exactly what's done in the ECC.

And why we're lucky to have its current leadership.

"Our conference does a great job. Our athletic directors are amazing," Bailey said. "They do a great job giving our small schools chances. Ellen's a big advocate for giving that balance. Back when I was in school, you could have had Wheeler playing NFA and Putnam playing Fitch. So to be able to have this opportunity to play at Mohegan Sun and to compete with developmentally and game-appropriate opponents is phenomenal."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro