With news this week that uber-popular football coach Dave Logan will have a new job at Cherry Creek High School, it’ll be easy to forget a much bigger story that could have a significant impact on the athletic programs at Colorado’s 300-plus high schools.
Last week, Valor Christian High School was rejected from a proposed athletic conference that will include teams from both south metro Denver and Colorado Springs. The reason—or least part of it: The private, $14,000-a-year Highlands Ranch school is too good. Case in point, 4-year-old Valor already has three football state championships and the program is considered among the nation’s best. (The team’s undefeated 2011 season and its 66-10 beatdown of Pine Creek High School in last year’s 4A championship only enhanced its reputation.)
The decision last week by members of the proposed Pioneer League—which puts all but two of Valor’s sports under an “independent,” non-league status, but allows the school to compete for state titles—raises several thorny issues. Perhaps of biggest concern is whether a high school like Valor, which has a $23 million athletic complex and a slew of coaches who would make a small-college athletic department proud, has pushed the boundaries of school sports too far. Chief among the accusations against Valor is that the school aggressively recruits players—sometimes against state rules—and doesn’t care if it gets caught. Valor’s goal is to “be the best football team in the nation,” Regis Jesuit Hish School coach Mark Nolan told the Denver Post last year. “Everything else is kind of built around the fact that that’s what they want to do.”
Paul Angelico, the president of the Colorado High School Activities Association, supported Valor’s admission into the Pioneer League, though he admits that high school sports across the state might need a fairly dramatic overhaul to ensure “equality of programs” in the coming years. As the head of the organization that monitors high school sports, Angelico has heard from school athletic directors who worry that their students can’t compete at the level of a school like Valor. “And that really worries me,” Angelico told me.
Angelico says that there once was a general equality of athletic programs in Colorado—often based on school size—that kept leagues and state classifications competitive. But now, he says, “We have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.'” According to the Denver Post, the 780-student Valor High budgeted $1.2 million for its athletic programs during the 2011-2012 season. In comparison, nearby ThunderRidge—a public high school with 1,800 students—budgeted only $447,000.
The advantage doesn’t end there. “There are students who can afford to train year-round, and who play for club teams outside school, and that wasn’t always there,” Angelico says. “High school athletics, and even the quality of the athletes, have changed dramatically.” Left behind, he worries, are less-affluent urban high schools and rural schools. “That’s where we’re seeing a big part of the push [for changes], because these schools aren’t competitive,” Angelico says. “It’s gone from them wanting to win to just not wanting to get beaten into the ground. It’s no fun for them anymore.” And that, in theory, goes right to the heart of the issue: If high school sports aren’t fun, then why play—or, at least, why try your hardest?
As a first step to help level the field, a special CHSAA board will meet next month to figure out ways to change Colorado’s high school classification system. Previously, athletic classifications were determined every two years by school size, using Colorado Department of Education enrollment figures. In only the most egregious cases—where teams lost at least 75 percent of their games over four seasons—did CHSAA allow a school to temporarily drop a sport into a smaller-school league.
Among the biggest possible change, Angelico says, is that each high schools’ individual sports might be subject to what could be considered a “record audit.” Classifications would no longer be made based on school size, but rather on how well—or how poorly—each high schools’ teams perform when it comes to wins and losses. In other words, a 1,000-student school with a good wrestling program might play in the largest classification, but its middle-of-the-road basketball team might play with smaller, less-competitive schools.
In Valor’s case, that means the school’s football team could find itself competing against Logan’s Cherry Creek program—which draws from a school with more than four-times Valor’s students. Most importantly, though, it means 4A teams that would have eventually run into Valor’s football buzzsaw might actually have a chance to win a championship. Of course, that’s not something that would happen overnight, and Angelico says the earliest classification changes wouldn’t happen until next year. “There’s no magic formula to sorting this out,” he says. “This is not a revolution; it’s an evolution.”
—Image courtesy of the Colorado High School Activities Association