Barring a last-second hail mary, it appears that Carroll County’s athletic teams will be playing in the River Ridge District for at least the next two seasons.
Final in-person appeals to the Virginia High School League by Carroll County and Pulaski County on Sept. 11 in Charlottesville were denied to keep Franklin County out of the River Ridge if the VHSL approves a new 6A classification system beginning next year.
As a result of the appeals being denied, the River Ridge District would include Carroll County, Pulaski County, Franklin County, Patrick Henry-Roanoke, Salem, Hidden Valley, Cave Spring, Blacksburg and Christiansburg.
The VHSL denied an appeal presented by Pulaski County that included a 6-0 vote from the existing members of the River Ridge to prevent Franklin County, the largest school in the state west of Richmond, out of the district. An appeal by Carroll County to the same effect was also denied.
Under the new format, in which 3A district members would not be required to play 6A schools, Carroll County as a 4A school would be the only district member required to play the district’s two 6A schools – Franklin County and PH-Roanoke.
Part of Carroll County’s appeal included a request to be placed into the smaller Mountain Empire District if Franklin were to enter the River Ridge. That motion died for a lack of a second during the VHSL hearing.
The last remaining hope for Carroll is a written challenge to a 23-member panel of the VHSL’s executive committee. The challenge was due Sept. 14 and will be heard Sept. 19.
Carroll County reaction
Carroll County head football coach Tom Hale was not in a happy mood Sept. 12 when asked about his reaction to the denial of appeals by the VHSL. He simply does not see any scenario in which a school with 1,208 students should be told it has to play a schools with 2,195 students (Franklin) and 1,973 students (PH-Roanoke).
“It is unfair to force us, or any school for that matter, to play another school that is 1,000 students larger,” Hale said. “How can you force someone to do that and force someone to play in a district when a district doesn’t mean anything? All the appeals we have done have fallen on deaf ears. It is my opinion, and I am sure there is other people that would agree, that Carroll County is going to be put in the River Ridge to fill out schedules for Patrick Henry and Franklin simply because we are a Division IV school.”
Less than a 100 students away from being considered a Division III school by the VHSL, Hale said it’s entirely possible Carroll County’s numbers could fall into the Division III ranks over the next two years. But by that point it wouldn’t matter because every school is locked into two-year contracts.
Hale said there are many factors that should be considered into the equation. While Carroll County will have comparable enrollment figures to most other members of the River Ridge District, it is not an apples to apples comparison. Carroll County is a rural, agriculture community, while the majority of the River Ridge schools are located in urban environments near Roanoke.
“You can’t just look at the population of a school and say they should be able to do it. That is not a very informed way of looking at it. But it seems like to me that is what the VHSL is doing and obviously they have the backing of most of the people of their community,” Hale said. “You look at our school. We have less than a tenth of the boys in this school playing football. Our numbers here for the size we have have never been what I consider great, but I will say it is not from a lack of effort on my part or our coaching staff’s part. The population density is so much closer to the school (at other River Ridge schools) and that means a lot.”
Carroll County Athletic Director Darrin Matthews said the school pursued the Mountain Empire District because it felt like it was a better option than the Piedmont District. Carroll already plays two of the league’s six members – Galax and Grayson County – in most sports. Travel would also be much easier in the MED as opposed to the River Ridge. And because of the rule that allows a school three levels lower than another from having to play a school in its own district, only Graham and Grayson would have had to play Carroll under the new format.
“And really that is about where the level of our competitiveness would be,” Matthews said. “But the motion died for lack of a second. I didn’t know it would come to a motion, but the superintendent from Cave Spring was sympathetic to our situation and travel woes. With them not having to play Franklin County, he could respect the fact of us having to play them so he made the motion for us to go to the Mountain Empire. The interesting part to that, the River Ridge had six votes, seven counting Carroll’s vote, not to allow Franklin in and that doesn’t matter. But if you take the Mountain Empire District and they take a 6-0 vote against us, that carries weight. So what is fair and equitable about that? I am just saddened by I thought the VHSL had a better grasp on things. This was supposed to make things, according to their terms, fair and equitable. There is nothing fair and equitable about Carroll County students having to travel three hours to play a school with 1,000 more students.”
The Mountain Empire District
Matthews said Thompson spoke by phone to principals of the six members of the Mountain Empire District. After receiving no negative responses except for issues stressed by Bland County, Matthews said both he and the CCHS principal felt good about inclusion into that district. Somewhere along the line the tide changed, Matthews said, and he’s not sure why.
“We were just looking to play close to home and not having to travel out of the world and be competitive. Right now, this fall we have not had great success and we have played Single A schools. We lost the last two years in football to Galax,” he said. “Over the last two years they have beaten us in every sport we play except softball. Grayson is the same way. We are not dominating anybody. It’s not the same scenario as sending Carroll to Franklin with a team coming off three nine-win seasons.”
Another difference would have been demographics. Carroll County is much closer to Galax, Grayson and Fort Chiswell than it is to Franklin and Patrick Henry.
“We may be bigger in numbers but Carroll County operates with a Single A attitude, which is we share all our athletes. We probably have 5 to 8 percent of the total student population involved in athletics. Out of 138, 104 will play another sport. And probably 75 to 80 percent may play three sports. So even though we may have close to 1,200 students, we don’t have the kind of participation I think other schools think we do.”
Galax Superintendent of Schools Bill Sturgill said members of the MED saw it differently, however. Attending the meeting in Charlottesville representing the six MED schools, Sturgill said he was prepared to speak on the situation if necessary before it died for lack of a second.
“The purpose of the redistricting committee I think when it started some 20 months ago was to preserve the districts. That was our main objection, if a school the size of Carroll County enters into the Mountain Empire District, then what we consider a district would fall by the wayside because we would no longer have district tournaments,” Sturgill said.
Sturgill said the MED’s second objection mirrored the objectives of the redistricting committee. With an objective of maintaining balance and equity, the size of Carroll County as opposed to enrollments at most MED schools would be way out of balance.
“Really all the same reasons Carroll County objected to Franklin coming to the River Ridge, all those objections would stand for them coming into the Mountain Empire, so it was a little ironic,” Sturgill said. “The equity difference would have been far greater in the Mountain Empire if you look at the percentage of difference in the enrollments. Narrows has 229 students in grades 9 through 12, so there is simply no logic in a school that has 1,195 students being in a district with 229. Carroll has 1,208 and Franklin has about 2,200, which is about a 100 percent difference. But when you look at Narrows compared to Carroll, it is about a 500 percent difference.”
A former Carroll County student-athlete, Sturgill said he empathizes with the situation Carroll faces. But he said the solution to the problem is not creating one for the Mountain Empire District.
“And most certainly I am not going to make a statement that I know the answer for Carroll County, but I know the answer is not to bring Carroll into the Mountain Empire to completely disrupt the district to solve their problem,” Sturgill said.
Asked what may have changed to steer officials within the Mountain Empire District from being in favor of Carroll County to against the school, Sturgill said he didn’t have knowledge of what conversations may have occurred between principals. But the superintendents of the six schools were against the idea from the very start.
“I can assure you the superintendents of the Mountain Empire District schools were absolutely opposed from the very beginning of Carroll County coming into the MED,” Sturgill said. “This is a 20-month process. If this conversation had occurred a year-and-a-half ago, we might have gotten somewhere with it, but not when this type of conversation occurs in a matter of days before final decisions have to be made.”
Obviously, Carroll’s schedules will be fairly full for the next two years if it does indeed become a member of the River Ridge District. Even so, Sturgill said he hoped that Galax and Carroll could continue to play each other.
“I love the competition with Carroll and it is something we hope continues. We think competing with Carroll is good for the communities. They are good gates and good competition,” Sturgill said. “We support that and hope it will continue.”