The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s mandate to do away with the ages-old region-conference configuration in high school sports and replace it next school year with a division-section alignment will undoubtedly change the dynamics of smalltown Arizona sports.
The transformation will be especially true in Payson because many of the old rivalries built up over the years, especially those formed in the now defunct 3A East region, will fall by the wayside
The change to the new format went into effect for the individual sports, like wrestling, track and golf, at the onset of the 2010-2011 school year. For team sports, the change will not take place until the upcoming fall season.
Payson High School golf coach Bret Morse was one of the first to notice that the division-section alignment represented a change for PHS sports when he said during the past season that he and his players missed playing in rivalry matches that they had enjoyed in the past.
The new configuration pitted the golf team against some schools the Horns hadn’t played before and knew very little about.
The same will be true next school year for the fall team sports of football, volleyball, boys and girls soccer.
Cross-country is considered an individual sport so PHS’s boys and girls teams competed last season in the division-section format.
Football is probably the team most affected by the change because the Longhorns will no longer play the “Beasts of the East” as they had since the 1991 season except for 1998 when PHS was a member of the 3A Central region.
The only East team on the Longhorns’ football schedule for fall is Show Low.
As members of Division IV Section III, the Horns are now scheduled against Chino Valley, Camp Verde, River Valley, Fountain Hills, Miami, Sedona Red Rock, Mingus, Globe and Scottsdale Coronado.
While some coaches are not entirely embracing the realignment, PHS football coach Byron Quinlan says he is looking forward to the changes. His players will be banging heads with some refreshing new foes rather than against Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Round Valley as they have for decades.
In volleyball, Payson has been assigned to Division III Section I, as have former East schools Blue Ridge and Show Low.
Also in Section I are Northern Arizona reservation schools Monument Valley and Chinle, as well as former 4A schools, Flagstaff Coconino, Mingus, Mohave and Page.
The presence of those teams should render the section highly competitive.
Evidence of the reservation teams’ prowess in the sport surfaced in the 2010 3A state tournament when three of the four finalists were reservation schools. In the championship game, No.1-seeded Monument Valley whipped No. 3 Window Rock.
Both the boys and girls soccer teams will compete next year in Division IV, Section II.
In girls Section II, there are only four other teams, including Desert Christian, with a tiny enrollment of 202 and St. Augustine Catholic, a school with an even smaller enrollment of 136.
The looming question about those two schools is, can they field competitive teams with such small student bodies from which to draw athletes?
Winning a trip to the division or “state” tournament in that section might not be a daunting task for coach Amy Wilcox and her charges.
The eight-team boys Section III also houses several tiny schools, including Grand Canyon (85), Phoenix Country Day (239), Thunderbird Adventist Academy (131), Verde Valley (110) and Northland Prep (248).
Realignment tough on cross-country
Both cross-country teams are aligned in D-III, S-I along with high-octane reservation teams that annually dominate the sport.
Which means, the presence of Chinle, Monument Valley, Tuba City and Window Rock will make it tough for the Horn runners to qualify for the Division III or “state” tournament by finishing among the top half in the section finals.
After learning of the change to divisions and sections last year, cross-country coach Jonathan Ball said, “We are going to have to raise our game and develop our program.
“In this (new alignment), 50 percent of the teams will go to state, but we don’t want to just go to state — we want to make some noise.”
But last fall, the team’s first season in the new configuration, the teams failed to make a peep, let alone noise.
Both the boys and girls teams ended the season silently failing to qualify for state mostly because of the stiffer competition created by more teams, some of them from the 4A ranks, in the section.
In the Division III Sectional II finals, the PHS runners found themselves facing athletes from former Class 4A Division II schools and runners from the highly competitive Northern Arizona reservation high schools where the sport is a way of life.
Also, in the sectional meet, 17 teams competed. In the East Region design of the past decade, Payson athletes would be competing against only five other teams.
What resulted from the increased competition and the larger number of teams is that the boys finished 13th and the girls fell to 14th — neither of which was among the top-half team finishers which would have qualified the teams for division or “state.”
In December 2010 the AIA made public each high school’s division and section assignment and gave school officials the option of appealing their placements.
Several schools, including Payson in baseball and softball, appealed and on Jan. 19 the executive board approved all requests. For Payson High, that meant the baseball and softball teams could move to Division III, Section III from Division III, Section I where the Horns were originally assigned. In Section I, PHS would have had to play reservation teams like Tuba City, Ganado, Grey Hills, Many Farms and Monument Valley. But in Section III, the team will be aligned against mostly Valley area schools including Bourgade Catholic, Buckeye, Estrella Foothills, Scottsdale Christian and others.
AIA officials said the change was made to save the schools money by reducing travel time and cutting down the number of state tournaments.