Macon's GISA Big Three and the GHSA: Part II

jheeter@macon.comJanuary 24, 2013 

I left off yesterday’s post with a comment about the shrinking membership among the large schools of the GISA.

This is, without question, the biggest point of contention with longtime GISA members. Who is left to play?

The GISA has shed members throughout the years, either through defection to the GHSA or by school closure.

The current exodus began, I believe, in 2004 with the departure of Eagle’s Landing Christian. Augusta Christian left a year earlier for the South Carolina Independent Schools Association, and while ACS was a big loss, it didn’t have a great affect on metro Atlanta schools. In 2004, ELCA was little more than an average GISA football program. The Chargers went 22-48 in football in the six seasons before leaving for the GHSA. ELCA has now become a GHSA powerhouse. It has made the playoffs every year since coming to the GHSA, and the Chargers won the GHSA Class A private school state championship in December.

There was already a lack of large GISA schools in metro Atlanta, so the departure of one or a few can make a difference. Most schools don’t want to drive 80 miles one way for a region game. After ELCA left, Mt. Pisgah and Fellowship Christian bolted in 2006. Riverside Military followed in 2008. Since then, Christian Heritage, FPD, George Walton, Mt. Vernon Presbyterian, North Cobb Christian, Pinecrest and Strong Rock have all departed.

That’s not just 11 schools that have left the GISA. That’s nine that have left from the largest classification. And these weren't lightweights for the most part. George Walton and Riverside Miltary have won GISA football championships since 2005. George Walton, FPD, Mt. Pisgah, Mt. Vernon and North Cobb all won boys basketball championships between 2002 and 2011. In fact, one of those schools won 10 of the 12 boys basketball championships from 2000 to 2011.

There were 12 football-playing schools in GISA Class AAA this past season. Among those 12, Deerfield, Westfield, Southland, Stratford, Mount de Sales and Tattnall Square are the only six that have been Class AAA members every year since 2005.

Low membership numbers have forced schools to engage in some pretty creative scheduling to get games. Mount de Sales played a public school from Panama City, Fla. in 2011 – MdS won 28-7. Mount de Sales’ 2011 region included two schools that weren't competitive at all. One of those schools called Mount de Sales football coach Robert Slocum before their game and asked him to play substitutes and take it easy on his team.

In 2012, Macon’s Big Three was placed in a region with two schools from Coweta County and one from Augusta. Tattnall scheduled Arlington Christian in 2012, but the school dropped football and forfeited the game. That left Tattnall with only four home games and the athletic program short some expected money. Football coach Barney Hester estimated the school would have added a few thousand dollars with that fifth home game.

Several folks at Macon’s Big Three GISA schools believe any new, large member schools from the metro Atlanta area are using the GISA as a temporary springboard to the GHSA. Heritage and Trinity Christian-Sharpsburg – both in Coweta County – could be the next two from metro Atlanta to bolt for the GHSA.

Again, guys like Hester, Slocum, FPD football coach Greg Moore and then-Stratford football coach Mark Farriba were pretty open in discussing the diminishing number of football-playing schools all the way back in 2005. They foresaw this eight years ago. This problem hasn’t gone away, but instead has intensified.

However, some in the GISA brain trust believe the league may see an influx of members. They see the unhappiness from GHSA private schools with the Class A public/private split, and they believe some of the private schools may leave the GHSA if the split stays in place for the next reclassification cycle.

The most likely scenario for any group of small private schools leaving the GISA would be to start a new organization. The best hope for the GISA schools: any new organization would allow cross-league play. I don’t see many private schools leaving the GHSA for a new league. I can’t see a significant number of GHSA schools leaving for the GISA either. Maybe one or two, but not a large number by any means.

A source pointed out the possibility of the GHSA allowing interscholastic competition against GISA schools. Coaches at GISA schools have pined for this for years, and the GHSA never seemed interested in this prospect until recently. Charlton County athletics director Jesse Crews placed this on the GHSA executive committee agenda in the past year. I believe the GHSA tabled a vote due to a lack of interest among member schools. This could happen at some point, but many sources in the GHSA feel this cheapens membership of their league, if they allow non-members to compete against members. This would definitely ease the pain felt by the GISA schools that must travel across the state to find non-region games.

Here's a good case study: Mt. Vernon still left for the GHSA in 2012 after the ratification of the public/private split rather than bolting back to the GISA. Mt. Vernon would be the perfect candidate of a school primed to join the GISA. No private school wanted the GHSA split, and most were very vocal against it. And yet the split still didn’t upset Mt. Vernon enough to return to the GISA, which likely would have welcomed it back with open arms.

I believe any GHSA private school that would threaten to leave the GHSA would be using the threat as leverage, much like the small public schools did in 2011 and 2012 to get a public-private split. I covered the GHSA reclassification cycle very closely, and I spoke with representatives from more than 20 GHSA Class A private schools at some point in 2012. Only one would admit, publicly or privately, that leaving the GHSA was an option. GHSA private schools won’t be leaving en mass for the GISA, unless a lot of folks were lying to me over the past year, or lots of minds have changed.

Many people from the Big Three privately joked with me that FPD would come running back to the GISA after two years in the GHSA. The Vikings would miss the rivalry games. They’d struggle to compete. They’d run into safety issues in these “dangerous” communities in rural Georgia. I think it's clear now that FPD isn’t coming back to the GISA. The Vikings have won a pair of girls state soccer championships, and they've made the state playoffs in boys soccer, softball, baseball, football, girls basketball and volleyball and had success in cross county, track and field and wrestling. To my knowledge, FPD hasn’t had any security problems this season while playing in a region full of public schools and Aquinas.

No major schools have returned to the GISA after leaving for the GHSA. Riverside Military came to the GISA from the GHSA and went right back six years later.

That’s probably a rambly way to answer the question of Who is left to play, but there are just so many different pieces to this situation.

I think another big concern, which is tied to the dearth of large schools in the GISA, is travel.

I touched on that some in my story about Mount de Sales in Wednesday’s newspaper.

I compared mileage traveled by the basketball, football and volleyball teams from Macon’s largest private schools. I didn’t compare softball because it’s hard to tell whether or not the schools stay overnight on some of the tournament trips. I also left out baseball and soccer because we don’t have all of the schedules for those sports. So using Google Maps, I tracked the mileage for regular season games.

Because schedules stay the same in football over a two-year period, I could estimate mileage for the next two years.

Football

2012

FPD: 730 total miles (average of 146 miles round trip per game)

Mount de Sales: 882 total (176 average)

Stratford: 942 total (188 average)

Tattnall: 1,038 total (173 average)

2013

FPD: 784 total (157 average)

Mount de Sales: 1,082 total (214 average)

Stratford: 788 total (158 average)

Tattnall: 484 total (121 average)

Tattnall’s 2013 schedule isn’t complete. The Trojans currently only have four road games as of now.

When you consider these numbers, remember FPD’s closest region opponent is Twiggs County. The Macon private schools receive the benefit of playing in-town rivalry games, bringing down the average per trip. The schools would all benefit from playing in the same league, as they’d have even more short trips for in-town games. To that point, if you look at the average mileage per football trip in 2009 – the last year FPD competed in the GISA – you can see a big difference. Both Mount de Sales and Tattnall averaged fewer than 100 miles per trip in 2009. Stratford still averaged 155, but the Eagles played at Trinity Christian-Dublin, George Walton, Deerfield-Windsor and Pinewood Christian that year. When Stratford had all of those teams at home in 2008, the Eagles average road trip was only 67 miles. The longest road trip for any of the schools in 2008 and 2009 for a region game was to another Macon school.

Basketball

2012

FPD: 964 total miles (88 per round trip)

Mount de Sales: 1,418 total miles (118 per round trip)

Stratford: 1,168 total miles (106 per round trip)

Tattnall Square: 586 total miles (65 per round trip)

GISA schools have more options in basketball. Tattnall played Central Fellowship, Macon Area, Covenant, Mount de Sales and Stratford on the road. The Trojans only have one road game outside of Middle Georgia. Mount de Sales and Stratford each had four road games where the round trip was less than 25 miles. FPD’s shortest road trip was 54 miles to Jones County and back, and the Vikings still traveled fewer miles during this basketball season than Stratford or Mount de Sales.

Volleyball

FPD: 1,081 miles (154 per seven road games)

Mount de Sales: 1,572 miles (157 per 10 road games) – this is assuming MdS stayed overnight at tournaments at Dominion Christian and Augusta Prep.

Stratford: 1,515 miles (152 per 10 road games)

There is really no difference here. Regardless of which league you’re in, there is a lack of volleyball-playing schools. The schools would obviously have one closer game if they were in the same league. FPD may be able to cut down on its volleyball travel in the future. The Vikings played varsity volleyball for the first time this season, so they stayed away from the powerhouse teams in Houston County. In the future, scheduling those teams would ease travel costs.

I would guess the two biggest reasons the GISA schools would stay put would be to maintain longstanding rivalries, some of which are 43 years old, and because of familiarity. The Big Three knows exactly what they are getting in the GISA. The GHSA presents a mystery for them, and sometimes the safe choice is the easiest.

As I said yesterday, Mount de Sales must decide to make a safe choice or take a gamble. If Mount de Sales votes to leave, then I think others will follow and the face of the GISA changes among its largest members. If Mount de Sales votes to stay, then I think the issue dies Thursday night, and we will do this again in two years.

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