Looking to renew old rivalries and bolster gate revenues for a struggling athletic department, Carroll County High School is hoping to make a move to the Three Rivers District.
As the Virginia High School League (VHSL) rolls out its proposed 24-region realignment plan for the two-year cycle that begins in 2017-2018, Carroll County has filed an appeal to move from the River Ridge District to the Three Rivers District, which currently includes Giles, Glenvar, Radford and Floyd County, plus recently approved newcomer James River.
A 4A school, Carroll’s current River Ridge District home includes fellow 4A members Salem and Pulaski County, 3A members Hidden Valley, Cave Spring, Blacksburg and Christiansburg, and 6A member Patrick Henry-Roanoke. All five current members of the Three Rivers District are 2A schools with the exception of Radford, which is expected to make the jump to 2A in the latest round of VHSL hearings.
If approved, a move to the Three Rivers District would be a step down in in terms of enrollment of opponents for the Cavaliers. But more importantly, the potential transition would have several advantages for Carroll County, most notably the potential for more revenue for an athletic department struggling financially in the River Ridge District. At previous times in its history, Carroll County was aligned with Radford, Giles and Floyd County in the old New River District.
“The move to the Three Rivers District is one based on economic reasons. We feel that creating more local rivalries will increase revenue,” said CCHS Principal Chuck Thompson. “The problem that we see being in the River Ridge District is that we are an outlier school with no natural rivalries within the district. Consequently, fewer fans travel, which hurts revenue. Our fans have been tremendous in supporting our teams regardless of location, so we know that will continue regardless of the district.”
Carroll County Assistant Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Burnette also believes a move to the Three Rivers would also benefit the Hillsville-based high school by reviving old New River District rivalries. Not only would that help at the gate, it will give the Cavaliers more flexibility in scheduling opponents. In the current River Ridge District, Carroll plays 14 district games in most sports but football, limiting the amount of non-district games the Cavaliers can utilize to bolster gate revenues.
“That’s a lot of district games. I think a move to the Three Rivers District will give us an opportunity to renew some old New River District rivalries, natural rivalries,” Burnette said. “That should help us with our gates, but give us more flexibility in scheduling, too. My son played golf and he had to miss 10 days of school between the conference schedule and the district schedule. That is a lot of time taken away from school for our kids. Pulaski and Salem travel well, but aside from those two the Roanoke-area teams don’t travel well to Carroll County.”
Athletic Director’s perspective
Carroll County Athletic Director Darrin Matthews said the biggest reason behind the school’s appeal to the VHSL is due to decreased revenues. Cavalier fans are still attending Carroll sporting events, he said, but there is just no interest in the teams from Roanoke to travel to Hillsville.
Gates for Carroll County football games are not even close to what they were in the Southwest District, Carroll’s previous home prior to the move to the River Ridge in 2012. Gates are down about an average of $2,000 per home game. On average, that is a loss of $10,000 per year just on the gridiron.
“Even when we played Richlands, Tazewell, Marion and Abingdon in the Southwest District, football gates were good. The average gate ran $6,000-plus,” Matthews said. “Now the average gate since we have been in the River Ridge is $4,000 or less, so basically one-third less people are coming. Yes, we have less fans coming because we have not been very good in the River Ridge District, but the other teams are not bringing anybody. When we played Richlands, they brought a ton of people. It was generally a $10,000 gate. There is no substitute for that. Basketball and softball the last couple of years have done very well, but they can’t make up the difference for football.”
Additionally, a move to the Three Rivers would help the Cavaliers schedule more non-district games against teams that would travel well. By joining the Three Rivers, Carroll would have two more non-district contests available for football and several more additional dates in all other sports.
“It would give me a little more flexibility so I could be sure to schedule Galax, Grayson County, Patrick County, and maybe Fort Chiswell – folks close to us to generate more revenue,” Matthews said. “And then we can make the schedule for softball and girls’ basketball as tough as we want to, provided other teams will play us. It would allow us to play Floyd in every sport. They are just 40 minutes away, which is great.”
Having played in the New River District as an athlete, Matthews remembers many district games at Giles and Radford. Renewing those rivalries would be appealing to a lot of Carroll County folks, he said. As far as travel, the Three Rivers would be similar to the River Ridge. Floyd and Radford are both under an hour, while Glenvar and Giles are both about an hour and 15 minutes away from Hillsville. James River would be the longest trip at about two hours away.
“And it’s still a strong district. A lot of people will say it is a step down in competition, but looking back over the past four years, they have had a state champion in just about every sport,” Matthews said. “In the River Ridge District, we have yet to win a football game. We haven’t won a varsity boys’ soccer game in the River Ridge. The girls’ varsity soccer team has won two games. Look at baseball. We have fallen off big-time. In the Three Rivers you are still playing some pretty lofty competition.”
While the VHSL uses enrollment numbers to classify schools, Matthews noted those numbers don’t take into account demographics. Carroll County is a rural school that operates much like the 1A and 2A schools in the area such as Galax, Grayson County, Giles and Fort Chiswell.
“We depend on the same kids pretty much to play multiple sports. That is the one variable. It is not like Salem where everybody lives within five miles of school,” Matthews said. “It is a different dynamic, and unless you have been in it you don’t understand that. Franklin County is suffering from the same thing. They have 2,300 students but they are not competitive at the 6A level where they are placed, so they have petitioned to go to 5A and they were would like to be in the River Ridge. Maybe they are a better fit for it than we are. But to me, looking at our programs, I think the Three Rivers would be a better fit.”
The Carroll AD said he has spoken to all the high school’s coaches, and the majority of them are in favor of moving to the Three Rivers. The postseason setup will be different than in the past anyway, meaning a move to the Three Rivers won’t hurt the Cavaliers’ playoff chances too much.
The VHSL is changing all classifications into four regions instead of the current two region-setup. Also beginning in 2017-18, conferences will no longer exist. Because of that, there will no longer be conference playoffs. Instead, regional playoffs will move to a two-week period with all teams making the postseason except for in football. Each region would then send two representatives to the state instead of one, which was the case with the conference setup.
“I don’t think it would hurt Carroll County come postseason time. I will try to help a coach make his schedule as tough as he wants to make it,” Matthews said. “You look at our softball team. They won the state last year and opened with William Fleming, a 4A school we played in the first round of the conference tournament. We beat them 27-0. Now tell me that benefits us to play them when we can go to Patrick County and play a 1-0 game that is a well-pitched game where you have to scratch and claw. Which do you get more out of? We can’t play a Patrick County now because we are locked into 16 games in the River Ridge. We want to play Galax and Grayson as much as we can, and therefore we only have a few games to play around with.”
Matthews said Carroll’s appeal hearing is set to be heard Jan. 11 in Charlottesville at VHSL Headquarters. If approved, the move would take place beginning with the 2017-2018 season. He doesn’t know how it will play out, but believes a move to the Three Rivers would benefit Carroll County all the way around.
“Just a little bit of success would breed a lot more success in the future. Win a few games in football and the kids would be excited and we would get more kids out. Having the stands full is more fun than nobody being there. There are a lot of things to look at, but I just didn’t feel like the River Ridge was the best fit for us,” Matthews said. “The last thing I ever want to do is to do anything to harm the athletic program at CCHS. I don’t want to do anything to hurt the program. My most important job and goal in life is to make sure that program runs and runs well.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN