Hendersonville – Realignment of public high school athletic conferences statewide that were finalized last week put West and North Henderson back into their prior conference, Hendersonville into a new league with closer foes, and bump Reynolds, Roberson and Asheville from 3A up to 4A.
The changes of the NC High School Athletic Association are for the next four academic years — 2021-22 through 2024-25 — starting with seasons in August.
North Knights, West Falcons and Tuscola Mountaineers bounce out of the area’s elite Western Mountain Athletic Conference after this spring. This reduces the WMAC from nine back to seven schools. Those three schools return to what had been the Western North Carolina Athletic Conference (WNCAC) when they were last there. The WNCAC was split 3A/2A from 2009 to 2016-17. These three schools had reportedly protested moving up to the WMAC in 2017, in the prior realignment.
What was the WNCAC is the “Mountain Six (M6).” It changes from all-2A to all-3A. Incumbent schools East Henderson, Pisgah, Franklin and Smoky Mountain all move up from 2A to 3A. Further, Haywood County arch-rivals Pisgah and Tuscola are reunited as conference foes. Odds are the M6 gets simply renamed Mountain Seven (M7), for its new number of schools. The schools’ athletic directors in a conference will vote on the conference’s name.
The reprieve is not as full as one might think. Veteran West head football coach Paul Whitaker is versed in the M6 wars, between schools generally less athletic than WMAC teams but often even more intense in the competitive effort. “Those are great programs, with tough teams,” he said. West principal Luke Manuel looks forward to West and East Henderson reuniting as conference rivals. Both schools opened in 1960. Manuel was previously principal of Hendersonville Middle School.
Manuel noted that even now, Henderson County’s four middle schools are in the same conference with M6 programs such as Pisgah. Thus players of West’s feeder middle school, Rugby, will keep facing Pisgah players as they both move up into high school.
The four Henderson County main public high schools have the following average daily membership (ADM) student populations for 2019-20 and then 2020-21, according to the school system’s public info officer, Molly McGown Gorsuch:
West Henderson 1138/1124, North Henderson 1080/1113, and East Henderson 935/922 which are all to be 3A; and 2A Hendersonville 745/742.
The Mountain conference has a net gain of one by gaining three schools and losing two that remain 2A — Hendersonville and Brevard. Those two schools and nearby Polk County — from the Western Highlands Conference that HHS was in before 2017 — help form a new seven-school, all-2A conference. Polk goes from 1A back to 2A. The conference assignments drastically reduce travel time for all three schools, by being clustered with nearby schools. This “Conference 41” mostly blends the two M6 schools with Southwestern Conference teams. It will have the three Rutherford County schools — East Rutherford, Chase, and Rutherford-Spindale (R-S) Central — and Patton which is furthest away. Brevard is the westernmost of these seven schools.
These schools are known for having many fast athletes year to year. They all draw partly on urban populations, whereas many teams in their current conferences are very rural in student and overall population.
Owen and Madison remain in the Polk-less WHC and are its only two 2A schools. This supremely increases Owen’s chance of making playoffs, by no longer having to keep up with powerhouse Mountain Heritage.
Further, Hendersonville no longer will have to go up to chilly Heritage and get ousted in the 2A playoffs. Owen and HHS both benefit by Heritage dropping down to 1A — as the only school in WNC to drop down a classification. In 1A, Heritage joins its arch-rival Mitchell, Avery, and WHC newcomers Rosman and Draughn. Rosman gets closer drives by getting out of the westernmost conference — the Smoky Mountain.
4A Teams Face Much Larger Schools
Meanwhile, the all-3A WMAC returns to split 4A/3A status. It regains its northeastern-most school, 4A McDowell. Reynolds and Roberson return to 4A in size, and longtime-3A Asheville also moves up to 4A. On paper at least, this makes a state title more elusive since 4A has the widest disparity in school populations. Asheville’s latest enrollment is 1,376, going by the standard of average daily membership (ADM) 20 school days into the academic year. Some 4A schools in metropolitan areas have nearly three times as many students. Thus, they have what many see as a very unfair and formidable advantage in their talent pools and athletic competitiveness in playoffs.
A statewide vote by schools to add a 5A classification failed since as many as 40 of the NCHSAA’s 426 schools reportedly did not bother to vote. A non-vote is counted as voting against a proposal, per NCHSAA by-laws.
The three WMAC schools remaining 3A are Enka, Erwin, and North Buncombe.
The NCHSAA changed its formula for classifying school size. In this new realignment, ADM produced not all but only half of the new equation. Further, reports are the ADM a month into the prior, pre-COVID academic year (2019-20) was used instead of from ‘20-21.
Two new factors each counted one-fourth, in a “50-25-25” formula utilizing a three-year weighted data average. “Identified student percentage” is how many of a school’s students qualify for free/discounted lunch.
The other new factor is athletic-related — a three-year average of each school’s State Cup points. That primarily involves how many rounds a school’s teams in various sports advance in state playoffs, and their conference finish.