A fog hangs over the upcoming Arizona high school football season.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it unclear what’s ahead later this summer and fall.
And a legal matter adds another layer of cloudiness to the picture as three schools filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Schedules expected to be finalized in April are on hold as we await the outcome of the suit by Round Valley, Phoenix Northwest Christian and Queen Creek Benjamin Franklin. The case begins on May 7.
Those schools are fighting to remain in the conferences they played in for at least the past two years. The AIA moved them all up to the next larger conference.
Player safety the issue
The schools argue that moving their football teams up to face schools with larger student bodies threatens the safety of their players.
Conferences are realigned every two years in all sports based mainly on school enrollment.
New realignment formula for football
But schools voted to change the criteria for football realignment starting this fall, using a system that throws out enrollment and instead uses a team’s success in the previous three seasons, with the most recent season carrying the most weight.
Based on that system, schools can be moved up or down one conference The new format will be used every year, covering just one season.
The three schools were among 18 high schools that appealed their initial football conference placements. Only one school won its appeal.
2A champ Round Valley to 3A East
The AIA moved Round Valley from 2A to 3A. If the AIA wins in court, the Elks will replace Holbrook (moved to 2A) in the 3A East and compete with Payson (703 enrollment at last count), Blue Ridge (707), Show Low (894), Snowflake (846) and Winslow (661). Round Valley’s enrollment this past October was 400.
Enrollments for schools competing in 3A in most sports range from 367-998, not including Gilbert Christian (314), which won its appeal to move up from 2A to 3A in most sports.
Dysart with an enrollment of 1,627 is the largest school in 3A for football after the AIA dropped it from 4A because it wasn’t competitive. Phoenix Christian (188) is the smallest. That school lost to Round Valley in the 2A final this past season and was pushed up to 3A in football.
Round Valley reached the 2A semifinals in 2017 and advanced to the 2A championship game the past two years, winning it all last season.
Northwest Christian and Ben Franklin
The AIA’s Football Reclassification Committee moved both NWC (449 enrollment) and Ben Franklin (696) up to 4A, where enrollments range from 1,000-1,767, except for a few schools under 1,000 that appealed up to 4A in most sports. NWC excelled in football in 2A before the AIA pushed the Crusaders up to 3A a few years ago and they remained very competitive with the top teams. They won the 3A title in 2018.
Ben Franklin finished second to Queen Creek American Leadership Academy in last year’s 3A state final. Ben Franklin’s enrollment places them in the 3A Metro in most sports except football.
If the schools win in the courts, it could signal the end of the new system by 2021, if not immediately.
But we don’t really know if any high school sports will take place this fall. If COVID-19 leads to the cancellation of the season, the AIA would have more time to figure out how to move forward in 2021.
AIA could bill schools for legal costs
On April 20, the AIA’s executive board met for the first time since schools closed via Zoom.
Among the topics discussed was the formation of an AIA crisis management team comprised of AIA conference chairs and how to pay for the expected high legal fees.
According to a story by Jose Garcia posted on azpreps365.com, the board discussed a potential emergency action in which member schools would split the cost (about $270 per school among the 270-plus members). Additional discussion included future legal costs if an AIA member school takes the association to court, according to the story.
Contact the reporter at