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Administrators, coaches criticize VHSL plan to link Fauquier, Lynchburg schools

Wednesday, Aug. 6 | By Peter Brewington and Fred Hodge
Universal disapproval was the reaction of Fauquier County's three high schools at their proposed placement in a new Class 4A conference with three Lynchburg area schools for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.

Under the Virginia High School League plan approved in late June, Fauquier, Liberty and Kettle Run will join Conference 23, along with Jefferson Forest (Forest), E.C. Glass (Lynchburg), Amherst County and Eastern View.

The average distance between Warrenton and the three Lynchburg-area schools is roughly 136 miles, creating lengthy road trips of some two-and-half hours or more each way.

"That's crazy," Kettle Run principal Major Warner said.

"We were very surprised," Warner continued, noting he did not see it coming. "We are at the 3A level, so we have not been in that 4A information loop. Yes, we felt blindsided."

The Lynchburg schools are also critical of the realignment plan, calling it expensive, time-consuming and inconvenient.

"I got phone calls from my coaches saying, 'What are they thinking?" said E.C. Glass athletic director Chip Berry.

"The current proposal, without the appeal that is being sent up, creates a great amount of travel. And travel costs money," said Jefferson Forest athletic director John Othey, whose school is located near Appomattox.

The wheels are in motion to make changes as Fauquier, Kettle Run and Liberty — along with the entire 29-school 4A West Region — will appeal the decision on Monday, Aug. 11 to the VHSL Alignment Committee.

Under a new proposal, Fauquier, Liberty, Kettle Run would combine with Loudoun County schools John Champe (Aldie) and Freedom (South Riding) for a five-team league. Eastern View would move to the 4A East Region, swapping with Charlottesville High.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Forest, E.C. Glass and Amherst County would join Charlottesville and George Washington-Danville in another five-team conference.

That plan will likely pass said Dr. David Jeck, who is Fauquier County Schools superintendent and also serves as chairman of the VHSL Alignment Committee.

"I can tell you if the region is unanimously in favor of it, I speculate the board will warm to the idea," said Jeck.

While that is encouraging news, the Fauquier and Lynchburg schools are still in limbo for the time being, dealing with a conference alignment that is geographically challenging and creates potentially expensive travel costs.

Jeck explained that the annual two-year realignment process has become more complicated since the VHSL's change to a six-classification system. Shifting enrollments have caused 13 schools to move up to a larger classification, with 17 dropping to smaller levels. "In a state our size, getting the divisions to play each other based on enrollment means someone has to travel," Jeck said.

However he said the situation now facing the Fauquier and Lynchburg schools is not conducive, and may be the most awkward conference realignment grouping in the state. "Based on what I read it appears to be the most challenging situation in terms of travel," Jeck said. "Having to travel 145 miles. There has to be a better way."

Jeck said he was the lone vote against the setup when it passed, 12-1 in late June.

Locally, everyone expected some tweaking of the district, conference and regions when the VHSL embarked on its biannual assessment of the 316 member schools' enrollments to determine specific classifications, district, conference and regional slots.

Kettle Run's enrollment has grown sufficiently to move the Cougars' athletic program from Group 3A into the larger 4A.

But no one predicted the shocking draft sent out by the Alignment Committee linking Fauquier's core group of three with faraway Amherst County, E.C. Glass of Lynchburg and Jefferson Forest along with Eastern View.

As it stands now, the 4A West realignment has four conferences of seven schools. Conference 21 consists of Loudoun County schools John Champe, Dominion, Freedom, Heritage, Park View, Loudoun County and newcomer Rock Ridge.

Conference 22 includes Winchester schools Handley, Millbrook, Sherando, James Wood, along with Woodrgove, Harrisonburg and Loudoun Valley.

Conference 24 has the Roanoke Valley schools in a cluster made up of Bassett, William Byrd, Carroll County, William Fleming, Pulaski, Salem and G.W.-Danville.

That left the Fauquier and Lynchburg schools and Eastern View in the final pairing.

"To me, the VHSL took whoever was left over and put them into a conference," said FHS softball coach Mark Ott.

A one-way journey to Amherst County is 120 miles, Glass is 136 miles down the road and Jefferson Forest lies 146 miles from Fauquier.

"The VHSL was more concerned with school size than with time and travel," Ott opined.

The shock was made greater because three options had been distributed less than two weeks earlier, none of which included the Lynchburg group. One option called for Kettle Run to join the existing conference of Liberty, Fauquier, Eastern View, Courtland, King George and Chancellor.

The next would have taken the three Fauquier schools and Eastern View northward to join Handley, James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando, adding Woodgrove from Purcellville.

With the entire region motivated to make changes after the bombshell conference pairings, a meeting was convened in Charlottesville on July 17 to discuss possible amendments. Following hours of discussion, the schools came up with an alternative that, while likely to pass, is different.

Instead of four conferences, the new 4A West Region proposes five for a total of 28 schools, which will create a 10-team postseason playoff, which could lead to an unwieldy regional playoff picture that would require an extra round.

"A 10-team regional tournament doesn’t sit very well with me, but that’s a whole lot better than having to go to Lynchburg for a conference game,” said Kettle Run activities director Paul Frye.

Football will continue to use a power point system to determine regional qualification and seeding. Field hockey and lacrosse will continue to utilize hybrid conference due the scattered nature of participation around Virginia.

Should it pass, FHS, LHS and KRHS will happily join John Champe and Freedom in the South Riding neighborhood of Loudoun County for a five-team league. Eastern View would move to the 4A East Region, swapping with Charlottesville.

“Our trips would not be much longer than an hour,” Warner said. “There would not be a need for much missed class time.”

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