The term “level playing field” is defined as “a situation in which everyone has a fair and equal chance of succeeding.”
In basketball, football, hockey, soccer and other similar sports, teams swap sides after each period of play. This is done to neutralize any perceived advantages that one team may enjoy over the other, including environmental factors like wind, sun and playing surface.
On the management level, organizing bodies work to keep the level of play as fair as possible with rules and regulations designed to prevent teams from gaining a competitive advantage over others.
However, for a small group of high school hoops team in the state of Alaska, the playing field may be tipped in their favor.
With questions swirling in recent years from coaches about the level of competition of the Alaska prep basketball small-schools landscape, parents of students that have been left without a team to play for have been trying to get their voices heard.
Here is the situation: Over two years ago, the Alaska Schools Activities Association (ASAA) went back to the drawing board and reconfigured the school population classification cutoffs for the four divisions in basketball. There are four divisions total, beginning with Class 1A, which houses schools that hold a student population of 60 and lower. Moving up, there is Class 2A, composed of schools 61 to 150 in student population, 3A, schools of 151 to 500, and 4A, schools of 501 and above. At the 1A level, there are over 120 high school basketball teams.
However, what ASAA inadvertently did by shuffling the stack was cause a bigger discrepancy between the bigger schools in the newly formed 1A division and the smaller schools. Tiny villages on the North Slope of Alaska that were used to a state tournament consisting of schools of 30 students and less were suddenly introduced to the jaws of the larger 2A schools that now classified as 1A. Instead of teams under 60 students competing for two separate state championships, all 120 and more were shifted into one giant melting pot, while the other three larger division contained about 70 teams total.
Ninilchik girls coach Rod Van Saun said the reclassification was done mostly for the benefit of the larger divisions, namely the 3A and 4A schools that would compete for the state tournament with the addition of the Winning Percentage Index (WPI).
“Rules should apply equally to everyone in a classification,” Van Saun wrote in an email. “If it is true that some schools in a classification are too small to compete with others then rather than give them special advantages ASAA should rethink the classifications. What is next, our school is smaller than yours so we should be able to stand in the key and swat shots down with brooms?”
When ASAA were faced with such a large discrepancy in ability of all the 1A teams, they realized a change must be made. What they decided was to tweak an existing rule that allowed the smallest of schools to use eighth-graders on their team. The original rule dictated schools under 20 in student population — or 10 or less of each gender — would be eligible to fill out a roster if needed. In the revised version, ASAA boosted that cutoff number to 30 — or 15 or less of a particular gender — to help alleviate the problem. The rule also helped schools field a team that had seniors wanting to play one last year of high school ball.
Ninilchik, a school that has been teetering on the edge of 30 students in recent years, has struggled in the past few seasons with getting enough players on court for the season. But because they are just above that demarcation line, the Wolverines do not get the benefit of adding a few players to fill out a lagging roster.
A recent school district study in Maine to find out how big a student enrollment it takes to field a team came up with a number of 80. When former Ninilchik coach Dan Leman was leading the Wolverines, as recently as 2009, the hoops program had a much easier time garnering athletes from a student population of just under 60.
Now, according to Van Saun, the number is down to around 40. He added that three years ago, only five girls came out for the team.
The Seldovia Sea Otters, with a student population of about 15, were able to use the rule to their benefit. Seldovia boys coach Mark Janes said without the rule, the Otters would have been without a team for a year or two.
“The first year I coached, we had a senior, four eighth-graders and two freshmen,” Janes recalled. “We played coed.
“The best thing is it gives the opportunity for upperclassmen to compete.”
The old Russian settlement village of Nikolaevsk also ended up on the beneficial end. Ninilchik, however, was left out. The Wolverines are the only public school on the Peninsula unable to use eighth-graders, according to Van Saun.
Van Saun said it’s not the temporary use of eighth-graders to fulfill a team that has him concerned. It’s the big results down the road from those same teams that has him, parents and fellow coaches feeling a bit shortchanged.
The biggest concern with some teams utilizing younger players is the extra year of experience they receive, which may not seem like a big assist when they take the court as a scrawny, diminutive 13-year-old, but a player can grow so much in one year, “it’s an extreme advantage.”
“Seeing two girls from our conference go onto play college Basketball this year is very exciting,” Van Saun wrote, referring to the Nikolaevsk duo of Sophia Kalugin and 2014 Class 1A player of the year Nianiella Dorvall.
“Having played 5 years of high school ball surely helped them in achieving that. It would be fair for all the players to have those same opportunities to advance themselves. It just comes down to the issues of equal opportunity and everyone playing by the same rules.”
Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley said in the six years he’s been involved with the Ninilchik hoops program, he has seen a remarkable turnaround in other teams that have been able to get five years out of one or more players.
“My kids look at me and ask, ‘Coach how come they get to use it but not us?” Finley said. “Imagine if (Ninilchik sophomore) Austin (White) would’ve had an extra year of eligibility, who knows where he would’ve been?”
White is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that has become of the dominant forces on the Kenai Peninsula small-schools hoops scene.
“Three years ago I had a good post, an all-state player, Jack Wheeler. Austin would’ve gotten experience playing with him,” Finley said.
Sure enough, the result of the eighth-grade rule has finally begun to produce results. It was not but a few short weeks ago that the Seldovia boys claimed an emphatic state championship — the first in school history — at the 1A level, featuring a solid core of juniors that had four years of high school experience under their belts. Three years ago, the same group of boys were just a lean, ragtag bunch that were simply trying to keep up with the big dogs.
“That was another twenty games they got to compete and learn valuable skills,” coach Janes said.
That same year, the Nikolaevsk girls qualified for the Class 2A state tournament (the last year before the ASAA reclassification) with six bright-eyed and busy-tailed eighth graders, most of them sporting a “deer-in-the-headlights” look, as coach Bea Klaich pointed out herself at the time.
One year later, the Warriors found themselves gunning for a state championship in the Class 1A final, which they barely lost to conference rivals Cook Inlet Academy. 2013 was also the start of a current three-year streak of Peninsula Conference tournament crowns for the Warriors.
Van Saun pointed to the 2014 Peninsula Conference tournament as an example of experience and depth. In the tournament semifinal round, his Ninilchik squad faced a Nikolaevsk team that featured a starting five that held a combined 22 years of high school experience. Ninilchik’s starting five were playing with a combined 11 years of experience.
The Nikolaevsk boys team finished a strong fourth place at state this year, highlighted by several key starters that were also on their fourth year of high school basketball.
Steve Klaich, the region II representative on the ASAA Board of Directors and Nikolaevsk boys coach, said he was not aware of any recent discussions regarding a change in the rule that were being seriously entertained.
“I know it was discussed, but other regions have felt the way it’s in place now seems to be working,” Klaich said. “The simply intent of the rule is for small teams to field a team. A lot of times, it’s a situation where juniors and seniors may not have a season without that option.”
Klaich said the board meets four times a year, and while the subject has been brought up before, there have been no heavy considerations to change it. Klaich added that in years past, there had been times he felt he did not have enough students interested to field a team, but the current rule saved the team.
“I can say a lot of 1A bush schools and southeast schools are in the same boat,” he said.
The Nikolaevsk boys did not play with any younger students this past season, but there was one eighth-grader on the girls side.
Janes said the Seldovia girls were looking to add a few players from outlying areas such as Port Graham and Nanwalek, but ASAA rejected the plan because of the combined enrollment of the three schools went above the limit. While the Seldovia girls still fielded a team, those players from the outer schools did not get to play this year.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, but at the same time, it can be oppressive,” Janes said. “Especially when kids that don’t have that propensity to be athletes are forced to play.”
One of the schools that the Seldovia boys faced in this year’s state tournament was that of the Brooks Range village in Anaktuvak Pass. The Otters beat the Wolves in the Class 1A state semifinals, but were playing nearly a mirror of themselves from three years previous. Anaktuvak Pass fielded a team of seven players, three of them in eighth grade.
Another school left out in the cold this season was Wasilla Lake, a Peninsula Conference rival. The Rams were unable to field a girls team this season due to not having enough players, although there were a few girls that were interested in playing.
In Soldotna, Cook Inlet Academy has been under the threshold for using eighth-graders, but many years have seen the Eagles in no real need to do so. CIA boys coach Justin Franchino said even this year, he had eight guys on the team, which is the lowest they have had. Franchino said CIA has never really had a problem with low numbers, which he credits to the popularity of the sport at hoops-crazy CIA.
“We’ve had years with 24 students in the school, and if 20 of those kids are on the road on a given weekend for a tournament, that’s three days of school with (the staff) and only four other students in the school,” Franchino explained. “When those kids come back, they’re telling stories and sharing good memories, so that encourages others to join the team.”
Franchino said CIA is currently sitting not far above 30 in student population. The boys and girls squads featured a combined 16 players. Franchino said his idea of using eighth-graders would extend only to those teams around the state that truly need it to fill out a bare-bones roster.
“Rod has talked about it like all or nothing,” he said. “I don’t like that.”
The CIA girls squad this year did come close to needing the rule, as injuries left the Eagles with six players available at one point late in the season.
Franchino, who has been involved with the Eagles basketball program for nearly 20 years as either a player or coach, believes the use of younger players on his team would force his hand to play them, which he says would put the team at a competitive disadvantage.
“If you’re on the team, I’m looking at your attitude, skill and effort, not your grade level,” Franchino said.
So, what is the solution to getting back on equal terms? The easiest fix would be to allow all 1A teams the use of eighth-graders, regardless of school size.
Coach Finley suggested another reclassification that would not affect the upper three divisions at all. He suggested to slice the 1A division in two, with the bottom rung of teams (with a school population no more than 30) getting the opportunity to play eighth-graders, and the top rung (school population 31 to 60) utilizing only players in grades nine through 12. It would essentially create an extra division, meaning the biggest division in the state would be 5A.
“I don’t think there’s much of a chance at all,” Finley said of the rule changing. “I stay out mostly, but I know there’s been parents in communities and others that have tried to work with ASAA to get rule changes, and they really haven’t showed much interest.”
After several parents of affected students reached out to representative Paul Seaton about the issue, Seaton sent a letter to ASAA executive director Billy Strickland notifying him of the concerns, to which Strickland replied back, “ASAA does not feel larger 1A schools not being able to field a team to be due to the 8th grade participation rule.
Billy Hunt, athletic director and coach at Lumen Christi school in Anchorage, said he would like to talk more about the issue with coaches and parents before making a decision, but said his opinion at this point is if you don’t need it, you shouldn’t use it.
“I didn’t think there was a major advantage,” he conceded.
Hunt, who is also a 1989 graduate of Kenai Central, said that a perfect example of the rule working is the Nanwalek boys, a five-player team with no bench players that featured three eighth-graders in 2015.
“If that rule’s not in place, they don’t play,” Hunt said. “And I think it will benefit them next year.”
Mark Janes said he believes the system is fine the way it is now, although added there should be appeal process.
“If it’s gonna impact teams not able to have a team,” he said. “It’d be horrible to have a situation for seniors who want to compete.”
Franchino said he could see a rule change happening.
“If ASAA bumped it up a few years ago, I think they would do it again,” Franchino said.