DOVER — The DIAA had already started a preliminary study on realigning the state’s high school athletic teams.
But before the DIAA went any further, Kevin Charles — the DIAA’s executive director — asked the group’s membership one simple question.
“This is what it would look like if we went in this direction,” Charles told the member schools in January. “‘Do you want us to stop now or do you want us to continue to explore the issue?’
“And it was nearly unanimous to continue to explore the issue.”
While that informal vote hardly means anything is written in stone, it does mean the DIAA is very much considering a move that could have a major impact on Delaware high school athletics.
Essentially, the realignment would boil down to grouping teams by their relative abilities.
Every school’s sports programs would be evaluated by a specific formula. The enrollment of the school would be one factor but the program’s long-term record as well as its more-recent record in the sport would be part of the equation, too.
Once each program is given a rating, the teams would then be split into two divisions. The top squads would be in one division with the lower programs in the second division.
The teams in each division would then play a set number of games against each other during the regular season. Each team would probably also have some non-divisional games on its schedule, but only divisional contests would count toward making the state tournament.
A similar rating system has been used for years in Rhode Island, said Charles.
Keep in mind, too, that the earliest the realignment could take place — if it was approved — would be for the 2017-18 school year.
The genesis of the proposed realignment was to try to straighten out some inconsistencies in the DIAA’s state tournament point systems.
But grouping teams together by their abilities should also lead to better competition, said Charles. That, in turn, would make the experience better for everyone involved.
“The best-case scenario is that, at every level, schools can seek out their level and have competitive, meaningful games within their division,” said Charles. “They can still challenge themselves and not destroy their season.”
“You’re giving the kid at every school in the state the opportunity to have a very rewarding experience on the field,” said DIAA board chairman Terre Taylor, an assistant principal at St. Mark’s. “Whether they’re going to win a state championship or not, just going out on the field every day, I think that’s big. I think right now it’s hard for some schools to carry a team or keep them motivated.
“They can go out, have fun, improve their skills ... It helps the education process, which is what the DIAA is all about.”
Charles realizes that changes this big don’t happen overnight. Still, he says, school officials seem receptive to exploring the idea.
“It was interesting,” said Charles. “When we took this to the full membership, I think what we thought membership was going to say, ‘Forget this. Drop it right now.’ That did not happen. There is interest.
“But I think what’s starting to creep in now is a little bit of, ‘Wow, this is real paradigm shift. I don’t know if we can absorb this.’ I think that happens in every state. Any time a paradigm shift is proposed, there are going to be a lot of folks that are going to be uncomfortable with change.
“And it is such a paradigm shift that we want to make sure, before we go forward with this, that it is what is right for our membership and for the students.”
Here are a couple things to keep in mind about the proposed realignment as it currently stands:
• Programs would be able to petition to move up or down a division. Moving up, to face tougher competition, wouldn’t really be an issue.
Asking to move down, though, would be a more difficult proposition and probably wouldn’t even be considered unless the program were already in the lower half of the top division.
• The realigment wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the current conferences, including the Henlopen Conference in Kent and Sussex County. Continuing a conference schedule, though, probably would become more difficult in certain sports.
• The lower division wouldn’t necessarily play a state tournament or crown a state champion. That would be up to the DIAA membership to decide.
• The various teams at one school wouldn’t have to play in the same division. For instance, a school that has a good softball program but a struggling girls’ soccer team could have its softball squad playing in the upper division and its soccer team playing in the lower one.
As small a state as Delaware is, geography would be one of the larger sticking points in the proposed alignment. It’s a roughly two-hour drive from A.I. du Pont in the north to Delmar in the south.
While travel time is a concern, the reality is that teams would probably split their divisional games between home and away contests, said Taylor. There could also be a north and south section within the division.
“There’s really not a substantial increase in where you’d be traveling,” said Taylor.
Even if the realignment doesn’t happen, Charles thinks the study could pay dividends anyway. He said there are any number of smaller changes that could come out of the committee’s work.
And if Delaware did try the new system and it did work, Charles thinks it could improve the athletic experience for a lot of people.
“If you ask a child why they play sports, historically the No. 1 reason is to have fun,” said Charles. “That’s why they want to play. And I think, if you want students to participate, it needs to be a fun experience.”
“I think sometimes we get caught up too much in worrying about, ‘Is this going to impact somebody winning too many state championships?’” said Taylor. “We have to step back and see the big picture. This is for kids to play sports and the value of that.”