Jeff Wilson can hear the whispers from behind.
The Northridge baseball coach is doing his best to shield his players from the eyes on their backs. One of the most-anticipated seasons in program history also has been one of the most closely watched.
In four years, Wilson has turned Viking baseball from a program that few wanted to play for into one many want to. Northridge, a 2013 regional finalist, added five players from Johnstown during the offseason as it loaded up for a possible state tournament trip.
“I know for a fact we are being heavily scrutinized by people not only within the Johnstown community but also within the Northridge community as well,” Wilson said. “There are people that feel they are being pushed aside, and they have been members of this athletic program for their whole lives. As a coach, trying to balance the newcomers along with the people that have been here their whole lives, it is very challenging to make everybody happy.”
If the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s member schools pass the latest competitive balance referendum, the way schools such as Northridge are classified could change for the first time in decades. Because the Vikings have several players who used open enrollment to switch schools, they in the future could be subject to a move up to Division II.
This year’s proposal would penalize public and private schools that add players to their program after seventh grade. The sports affected would be the major “team” sports — football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer. A similar proposal just barely failed in the 2012-13 school year.
“I certainly wouldn’t argue if they put us in Division II. But to be truthful, that is not a real topic of conversation,” said Licking Heights athletic director Zach Olson, whose school does not have open enrollment.
The Hornets, however, recently moved up to Division I in all sports but football, and they could slide back down if others moved up under the proposal.
“We try to focus on what we can control and let the rest take care of itself,” Olson said. “We have been Division I now, so we know what to expect. We are trying to be the best Division I school we can be because that is where we are at.”
Local teams near enrollment cutoffs
Northridge has 29 players in its high school baseball program thanks to the five transfers. Johnstown fired former coach Tony Cleveland in May 2013 weeks after an incident allegedly involving a player and a parent in the dugout. Of the five transfers, four had to sit out the first half of the season because of unrelated OHSAA transfer rule that went into effect this school year.
Had the current competitive proposal already been in effect, Northridge could have moved into Division II — which includes five other Licking County League schools — either this season or next.
Every two years, private schools will designate a home attendance zone. For Newark Catholic, it likely will be the city of Newark. Any child who attends NC from the Newark school district would not have a penalty attached.
In a change from 2012-13, NC students who come from outside of Newark but have attended Catholic schools since before seventh grade would carry a reduced penalty. Students who came to NC after seventh grade would carry the full penalty.
NC had 19 players in its girls basketball program at the high school level during the winter. With three players having moved into the program since seventh grade, NC — which reached the regional finals the past two years –would have barely stayed in Division IV.
“It is very difficult if they bump us up if you go by enrollment and the cap of what we have compared to what other schools have because there is a reason we are Division IV,” Green Wave coach Rob Smith said. “It is going to be tough for a Catholic school to survive.”
The Johnstown girls reached a Division III regional final in 2013, but they fell right onto the cutoff for Division II this past season. They lost in a district final to Eastmoor Academy, one of the biggest Division II schools in the Central District
Coach Carl Dufford, however, is not pointing fingers or cursing his luck. Rather than changing the classification system, he would like to see a fifth division added to girls and boys basketball. A seventh division was added for football in the fall, and OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross previously has called it a success.
“I think it is has been a very big plus for the high school football teams, which is good because it gives the chance for more kids to have success,” Dufford said. “It has really sparked the sport. I feel we could have the same thing happen in basketball.”
Proposal could have unintended consequences
A previous competitive balance proposal — which was voted down in 2011 — not only included open enrollment as a factor, but it also included a school district’s number of free and reduced lunch participants and a tradition factor.
The tradition factor was in particular scrapped because it was seen as penalizing success. The aspect of free and reduced lunches also was scrapped, but area administrators are not particularly comfortable with the use of open enrollment either.
In 2012-13, Heath’s board of education voted to receive open enrollment students, leaving Granville, Watkins Memorial and Heights as the county’s high schools without it. Heath superintendent Trevor Thomas said it has created some misconceptions as the school coincidentally moved from Division III to Division II this season in several sports entirely because of outside factors.
“The reason we have open enrollment is 90 percent of it is budgetary,” Thomas said.
Of Heath’s 35 open enrollment applications for the 2014-15 school year, 25 of them are for kindergarten.
“We need to be able to cancel out those kids that go to community schools in other districts through open enrollment, or we lose money,” he said. “In thinking about athletics, that weighs very lightly into our calculation of whether we have open enrollment.”
If the proposal is passed, it will not go into effect until the 2016-17 school year. Ross recently said the competitive balance committee will continue to meet to discuss troubleshooting and possible future tweaks.
When Wilson began coaching at Northridge, pay-to-participate was $250 and quickly ballooned to $400. Teams also were tasked with raising their own funds. The soccer program was disbanded for a season because of it.
The fee has since dropped to $200, and Wilson credits new superintendent Chris Briggs with making the district desirable to parents across the area. The Vikings’ play on the field has Wilson’s program desirable, too.
“(Briggs) really understands the importance of athletics and how it helps to make a well-rounded student,” Wilson said. “He has been integral in helping us reduce our pay-to-play so that more kids can come out and participate in sports.”