By DAVE BELCHER
Moapa Valley Progress
Valley High School in Las Vegas will drop from its position in the NIAA 4A division down to the 3A for the next rubric cycle. That decision was made by the NIAA board of control on Monday, April 23.
The move came as a complete surprise to the existing members of the southern 3A. And it was particularly frustrating to members of the Moapa Valley High School athletic staff.
“Our main frustration was that it came out of nowhere,” said MVHS Assistant Principal Tony Polzein. “We thought that everything was set, back in the February meeting. Then out of left field this comes along and caught us off guard. No one knew anything about it.”
Polzein explained that the southern 3A had worked hard to put together a schedule with a 10-team southern division. But now an 11th team has to be added into the mix, causing wide-ranging ripple effects. And, of course, there are concerns about fairness.
Valley principal, Ramona Esparza, made the appeal to the NIAA board of control at the April 23 meeting. She wanted her school dropped a division to be able to compete in athletics.
Before that, thirty-one principals had been involved in an initiative to eliminate a proposed 5A league. The proposal had been in existence for just a couple of months. But Esparza claimed she had not been involved in that process. She had favored the 5A, wanting it to draw heavy competition from private schools like Bishop Gorman away from her school.
“We’re just trying to make our kids competitive and keep them safe,” Esparza was quoted saying to Nevada Preps. in April “It’s not about winning championships; it’s not even about winning games. It’s about having our kids have a level playing field.”
Esparza said that she had expected the board to approve the 5A in January. Therefore she hadn’t voiced her concerns then. At that time, Valley was assigned to the 4A, right where they should have been according to the rubric.
But when the 5A, was eliminated, bringing those schools back into direct competition with Valley, Esparza made the appeal to be dropped down into the 3A.
Unfortunately, the rubric system has been loosely applied ver since it was implemented.
Dave Wilson, current principal at Eldorado High School, was the Virgin Valley principal in 2010 when he and a few others devised the rubric system. It was meant to award high school teams points for their finish ranking in the league and performance in the post season. High performing teams scoring more than 15 points were to remain in the 4A classification. Struggling schools that scored fewer than 15 points would be dropped to the 3A.
To protect the integrity of the 3A, a provision was made for the schools with less than 1200 students enrolled. These smaller schools would have the choice to remain in the 3A no matter how many points they would accumulate.
The rubric system originally intended to bring a “competitive balance” to the struggline 4A teams.
“We’ve got Division (4A) schools suffering,” CCSD Athletic Director Ray Mathis told Nevada Preps at the time. “They are going to end up losing programs. I don’t see them surviving unless we throw them a lifeline.”
The plan worked initially. Desert Pines and Clark High School, both of which were among the three best basketball programs in the state, were both dropped to the 3A allowing them to avoid Bishop Gorman.
Because of its magnet school program, Desert Pines also was able to start building a dominating football program by attracting athletes from all over the Las Vegas valley. Athletes who also wanted to avoid Bishop Gorman and win a state championship found that it was ok to participate in the 3A.
After the first points were tallied, Desert Pines, Clark, Chaparral, Mojave, Sunrise Mountain, Del Sol, SECTA and Western were all dropped to the 3A, in accordance with the rubric.
But one other school, Desert Oasis had scored fewer points than several of the schools who were dropped. Desert Oasis, however, was allowed to stay in the 4A. It was said then that, because the school was located in the southern most part of the Las Vegas valley, it would be a travel hardship for it to compete in the 3A. So they were granted an exception.
Thus, the rubric plan had already failed. But that would just be the beginning. The Desert Oasis decision seemed to send a clear message, from the very birth of the rubric, that the NIAA board of control could make changes whenever they wanted, despite the rubric.
In March 2017, the NIAA board voted that the southern 3A would have the same number of teams as in the north. North Valleys of Reno was dropping down to give the northern 3A ten schools. The southern 3A was also to have ten teams competing. The top six teams in football and basketball would qualify for the post season. This would presumably give more schools a taste of the post season.
At the same meeting, the new 5A division was created. It would have separated football from the other sports creating a football league classified differently from the other sports. Southern Nevada schools with an enrollment of 1,301 or more would either be in the 4A or 5A depending on where they finished in the rubric system
So now, the 4A schools in northern Nevada would have to make a choice: either remain in the 4A or all move up to the new 5A. Not surprisingly, all but two schools chose to remain in the 4A. This gave southern Nevada the only 5A league and no true 5A state championship.
So it happened that, after ten months of hard work, the new 5A plan was suddenly challenged. After being approved in January, Wilson, along with thirty other principals from the 4A, formally disputed the NIAA decision of creating a 5A. They began by claiming ignorance.
“At no time did the NIAA come to our…meetings to ask our opinions, what we want, our vision, look at what our programs are and what’s best for our kids,” Wilson told Nevada Preps in January. “Instead we come to a meeting, we see things changed without any input at all from the people responsible for our schools.”
In response, the board of control finally voted to kill the 5A.
But Valley High School had finished its realignment cycle with no less than 76 rubric points.That total was more than five other 4A schools. It was more points than Legacy 74.5, Durango 67, Canyon Springs 50, Eldorado 44 and Bonanza 21. And all of them were well above the 15 points rubric cutoff. They belonged firmly within the 4A.
Valley High School Athletic director Thomas Smith claimed, however, that his programs were declining because of the stiff 4A competition. He cited that Valley programs had 717 athletes in the 2015-16 school year. That number had dropped to only 501 this year. Thus the school needed to be dropped to the 3A where its teams could be more competitive in order to save the programs.
Unfortunately that didn’t carry much weight with the smaller 3A schools. After all Valley’s declining athletic numbers was nearly equivalent to the entire student population for MVHS, which was sitting around 520 total this year. MVHS administrators are preparing for that number to possibly decrease slightly below 500 next year.
“They keep pointing out that we are still competitive, even against these larger schools with 2500 kids; and that fact is somehow supposed to justify all of this,” Polzein told the Progress last week. “But that is just a testament to our community and our kids that we continue to be competitive. It doesn’t make it fair!”
It also doesn’t make it safe. Polzein said that data kept by the smaller schools has shown an increase in injuries as they have gone up against the schools with larger populations. That is especially true in the JV and B level sports, he said.
But the injury problem has reared its head in Varsity level sports as well. Moapa Valley, who has fared well in football, has taken its share of lumps. Two years ago, it was RJ Hubert who played half a season with a shoulder injury that made it difficult for him to raise his arm to catch a football. He injured his knee in the state championship game which took several months to heal just in time for his state championship performance in the long jump and hurdles in May. Then there was also the two linemen who broke their legs in games against Desert Pines.
Yes, the Pirates still made the state finals those years, even winning one in dramatic fashion. But they were forced to run a perilous gauntlet during the regular season. When facing Truckee or Fallon in the state finals, they fell short mainly due to injuries. Had the northern schools been required to play Chaparral, Desert Pines twice, Del Sol and Sunrise Mountain, the outcome most likely would have been different in the championship games.
Nevertheless, Valley High School administrators, coaches and students attended the April 23 meeting to plead their case before the NIAA board. One basketball player actually noted that both Desert Pines and Clark had built a strong reputation while playing in the 3A and now have been able to move up stronger into the 4A.
This was ironic for MVHS administors. “It’s funny because when 3A started nobody wanted to be part of it,” Polzein told the board in the April meeting. “Now everybody wants to be 3A. Its like, lets go pick on the rural schools! So we are feeling like we’ve bourne the brunt of that.”
But the NIAA board went ahead and approved Valley as the eleventh southern 3A team anyway.
This caused such great frustration among MVHS coaches that they actually held a meeting last month to discuss a possible appeal to drop MVHS to the 2A. The coaches even voted on the matter and unanimously approved the proposal.
MVHS officials were going to propose the change at the next NIAA board meeting, just as Valley had done in April. But after speaking to 2A league representatives, it was decided to drop the proposal.
“We decided not to make the appeal,” Polzein said. “We approached the 2A and there was zero support from any of them for us to do that. It would never have been approved. So it would have just been a gigantic waste of resources to continue.”
As far as the football schedule for next year is concerned, it is still not complete. With the addition of Valley, the entire schedule had to be redone. It was received a couple of weeks ago. Then another one was received the next day different from the previous.