Within the first two months of 2017, Justin Northwest’s future Class 5A existence could be pigeonholed. With an enrollment of 2,079, this high school may find itself permanently in the Division I football playoff brackets as early as the 2018 realignment.
By late January or early February, the University Interscholastic League will ask 213 superintendents in the current 5A alignment to vote on splitting the conference into two separate football divisions.
While that doesn’t sound like it’s any different than what fans are currently watching, it really is. In conferences 1A-4A, schools are aligned into two different divisions based on enrollment, with the largest half in Division I and the smaller half in Division II. They are then assigned into 16 districts for a two-year alignment period. The top district’s top four finishers from each division advance to the playoffs. That impacts 2A-4A, as 1A is six-man football.
In the fall, the UIL ran a survey of superintendents asking if they would be in favor of a split. They didn’t, as 53 percent voted against the idea. But the UIL moved forward with the referendum because the overall feedback was tight enough. Region III was the only region against, as 45 of 69 districts voted against it.
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“The biggest concern I would have is that it would keep certain matchups from ever happening,” Northwest ISD Athletics Director Joel Johnson said. “You could never see a team like Northwest play another program like Cedar Park in the playoffs, because they would be in Division II and Northwest would be in Division I.”
The current format takes the four playoff teams and assigns them to the divisions based on enrollment. If passed, this measure would take the guesswork out of it. The potential enrollment dividing line is 1,600. The current UIL 5A enrollment features schools with enrollments between 1,100-2,149.
To take Johnson’s example, if Northwest ever played Cedar Park, that game could only be played during the non-district season. The 2016 Class 5A state champions – Highland Park in Division I and Aledo in Division II – would never face each other in the postseason because of the enrollment difference. Aledo’s current enrollment is 1,594. Highland Park’s is 2,116.
The only certainties that come from the current format is that the schools with the top two and bottom two enrollments would know what divisions they would be playing. But the uniqueness made the real possibility that the No. 6 school in enrollment could be playing in the Division I bracket.
Now, that may not be equitable, because that school could be facing an opponent twice its size. But it made for dramatic games.
Johnson said he has talked with Northwest football coach Bill Poe about the possibility. A split conference would mean a different district executive committee, a different venue where there are hearings for players and different guidelines. Northwest V.R. Eaton likely wouldn’t be affected by this, because it is projected to move into Class 6A in the 2018 realignment.
“You’re just looking at dealing with a different set of people,” Johnson said. “But the argument for it to pass is because people have seen that the model has worked well in the other conferences. It created an equal playing field.”