Pomona’s wild 56-49 victory over Eaglecrest in Saturday’s Class 5A championship closed another Colorado prep football season that exemplified how the free agent nature of the state has turned the sport’s classification into an oligarchy.
“With open enrollment, it’s going to stay that way for a long time,” said Pomona coach Jay Madden. “People are out there looking around before their freshman year, and they know what the top football schools are — and they end up going to those schools. It’s really hard to build a program from the ground up anymore.”
It’s a trend easy to identify but difficult to rectify. In the past four seasons, the state’s five preeminent heavyweights — Valor Christian, Pomona, Cherry Creek, Columbine and Grandview – have combined to earn 13 of the 16 possible 5A semifinal playoff spots.
The current “waterfall” playoff format, installed two years ago to even out disparity among the state’s 5A programs, instead magnified it with slews of blowouts in conference play. It also led to discontinued rivalries, skyrocketing team travel costs and a decline in attendance. Those are the main reasons that Class 5A will likely be moving away from the waterfall and back toward a more traditional conference alignment for the 2018-20 cycle when the CHSAA football committee convenes on Thursday, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
“Anybody who’s watched the last two years and can come up with the notion that the waterfall is good for high school football — I’m not sure how that explanation could happen,” said Cherry Creek football coach Dave Logan. “You’re playing teams you have no history with, no rivalry with — we’re trying to support high school football and for fans and student bodies to show up, and you’ve eliminated all the natural rivalries in the second half of the season.”
Logan’s Bruins went 10-0 and outscored their opponents 460-102 over the past two years in the Mount Elbert conference. That sort of domination was also common by Pomona, Valor Christian, Grandview and Regis Jesuit — all of whom went undefeated in conference play in that span and won most games by lopsided scores.
But if the mathematically perfect alignment created by the waterfall — — which split Class 5A into seven leagues of six teams based on each team’s two-year average in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) — isn’t the answer to restoring parity to big-school Colorado football, then what is?
Time to try 6A?
One idea that’s been widely discussed by 5A coaches and athletic administrators but has not yet been formally proposed within the CHSAA football committee is a 24-team playoff field, with the top eight seeds siphoned off into a 6A bracket.
Such a proposal is off the table for the 2018-20 cycle, partly due to missing the window of a CHSAA bylaw that says amendments to classifications must be considered “no later than six months prior to the classification going into effect.” But that doesn’t mean a 6A/Open classification wouldn’t be considered for 2020-22 and beyond, especially considering the success other states have had with open classifications.
California has open classifications for basketball, volleyball and football, with those divisions being determined not by enrollment but rather by competitive equity based on rankings as well as a program’s past performance. In the Los Angeles section, football advisory committee chairman Andy Moran said his coaches voted 90 percent in favor of creating an open division before this season started in an effort to restore some semblance of parity.
“The same four teams were in the section finals of Division I for the past eight years, and we have one team that’s head and shoulders above everyone else in our section right now,” Moran said.
Sound familiar, Colorado?
Valor Christian is the “head and shoulders above everyone else” program in Colorado. The Eagles were upset in the 5A quarterfinals this season but have won seven state championships and played in eight title games since 2009. That domination is also why some 5A coaches are hesitant at the notion of an open classification and/or playoff bracket in Colorado.
“If you’re that eighth team (in 6A), I’d much rather be ninth and be a frontrunner for the state championship in 5A than to have to play Valor every year,” Madden said. “Whoever is in the bottom half of 6A is going to be sitting there saying, ‘Wait a minute? How did we get stuck in this group?’ And it’s going to be us, because we’re not going to be super dominant forever.”
But with enrollment continuing to be an often-deceiving factor in big-school football success — seven of the 16 teams in this year’s playoff field aren’t true 5A schools — it’s become increasingly difficult to isolate one variable to achieve parity in the alignment process.
“As a whole, a lot of programs you see have a couple good years then they dwindle off — there’s not many schools that do it consistently,” Cherry Creek athletic director Jason Wilkins said. “And the powerhouses are all different — you’ve got some 4A schools playing up like Columbine, some that rely on open enrollment like Pomona, some like Grandview and Creek that are really big in numbers, you’ve got private schools and public schools — you’ve got a lot of different entities there, so you can’t put your finger on it and say, “Oh, it’s only the big schools or the private schools.’”
Looking for fairness
On a national scale, other high school athletic associations are also wrestling with competitive equity in football and how to keep the game enticing — and safe — at all levels.
“The look at classifications is ongoing with all states,” said Bob Colgate, the NFHS Director of Sport for football. “But no state is identical in what they’re doing for classifications in football, much less all sports.The key thing at the end of the day is that it’s fair. That, of course, is open for interpretation.”
To a school laden with both numbers and football talent such as Cherry Creek, the fairest solution might be a return to the top-heavy Centennial League — “competitive balance doesn’t necessarily mean you create a bunch of conferences that are equal,” Wilkins pointed out.
To most of the other middle-of-the-road 5A programs that are simply trying to stay afloat, fair might mean a conference like the South Metro League was for Arapahoe in 2015, when the Warriors were grouped with other schools mostly similar in size, geography and talent.
“When we were in a league like that, it was fun to compete for a league championship even though probably in my heart of hearts I knew we had no chance to go beyond a league title and winning a playoff game or two,” Arapahoe coach Mike Campbell said. “But it was still exciting for our school and for our kids. I don’t think it’s all that exciting for your school or your kids to try not to get routed.”
Campbell’s sentiment embodies what many 5A coaches and athletic administrators believe: No matter how regular season alignment is structured, the shuffling of teams and conferences won’t change outcomes when it matters most come playoff time.
“No matter what they do with RPI, or wild card points, or different leagues,” Madden said, “it’s the same four, five, six powerhouses — plus a program or two that’s on a recent surge like Eaglecrest — who are contending for the 5A title every year.”