The road to the state championship will become shorter for many local football teams starting next school year.
The Virginia High School League’s Executive Committee on Thursday approved moving the Group 6A and 5A title games to Hampton University and the Group 4A and 3A games to William and Mary for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years.
Teams must still conquer their brackets, but if they pull off a playoff run, a de facto home game will await them in Hampton or Williamsburg.
The 2015 6A and 5A title games were held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, while the 4A and 3A games were at Liberty University in Lynchburg. The 2A and 1A games will remain at Salem Stadium, near Roanoke.
While no Peninsula District or Bay Rivers District teams made an appearance in a state final last season, coaches said the new championship sites will provide extra incentive in the postseason.
Lafayette coach Andy Linn, whose team reached the 3A state final at Liberty in 2014, said his players already are talking about the opportunity of playing for a state title five minutes away from their school.
Heritage coach George Massenburg played in a similar situation when he attended Hampton High School. Massenburg played on a Crabbers football team that won a 1995 state championship at Todd Stadium, where he saw home-field advantage at work in a game Hampton won 35-7 against E.C. Glass of Lynchburg.
By playing close to home, a team can bring its fans out in full force. Heritage, which plays in 4A, would love the chance to bring its home crowd up the street to William and Mary.
“I think having these games here is excellent,” Massenburg said. “If we have the opportunity to play in a championship game, we’d get everyone out there.”
Linn was less enthused by the change.
“Personally, I’d rather the state championship game (be) on the road,” Linn said. “I don’t want our kids sleeping in their own beds the night before because you don’t know what they’re doing.”
Poquoson coach Elliott Duty, whose Islanders won a state title in Lynchburg in 2010, does not see a downside to playing near home.
“The kids get to sleep in their own beds the night before the game and it’s great for travel,” Duty said.
The football site changes came as the VHSL re-evaluated championship sites across all sports. Other relocations include the 6A, 5A and 4A wrestling championships moving to Scope Arena in Norfolk. The locations for the next two seasons were approved in a unanimous vote.
While VHSL executive director Ken Tilley declined to give the cost of hosting the football title games at Hampton and William and Mary, he said the league’s costs will be reduced across all championship events.
Both William and Mary and Hampton athletic administrators expressed excitement over the opportunity to host the games.
“You get the opportunity to showcase your campus to hundreds if not thousands of people,” W&M senior assistant athletic director Pete Clawson said. “You get to showcase not only the community of Williamsburg, but our campus and our outstanding football facilities.”
Hampton assistant athletic director Ataveus Cash reached out to the VHSL to let the league know that the university wanted to be considered, athletic director Eugene Marshall said.
“It’s a great opportunity for us as a university to continue to reach out to the community and also show off our beautiful campus, our home by the sea,” Marshall said. “It’s a plus to have some of the best talent in the state come see Hampton University as a possible next destination.”
The VHSL also voted Thursday to implement a 30-point mercy rule for boys and girls basketball, starting in the 2016-17 season.
If a team leads by 30 points or more at any point in the fourth quarter, the game clock will run through all stoppages in play except for free throws, timeouts, injuries or technical fouls.
The rule operates similarly to football’s existing 35-point mercy rule, though that rule can come into effect at any time during the second half.
A basketball mercy rule that started after halftime was proposed several years ago but did not pass, as many coaches felt that would start the running clock too early, Tilley said.
Under the newly passed mercy rule, the coaches on both sides can agree to start the 30-point running clock at any point during the second half, but typically it would not start until the fourth quarter.
The VHSL created the rule with the goals of reducing unsportsmanlike conduct and accusations of opponents running up the score. Still, while the measure received 25-2 approval from the executive committee, not everyone is a fan.
“I don’t like the rule,” Bethel boys basketball coach Craig Brehon said. “When you play sports at the high school level or above, you place your teams on the court or field and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Bethel girls basketball coach Roy Johnson, though, said the 30-point rule will prevent athletes on both the high- and low-scoring squads from becoming disenchanted with both individual games and the sport of basketball.
“Yes, it is a competition, but at the end of the day, you want kids to just enjoy playing the game,” Johnson said.
Staff writer Marty O'Brien contributed to this report. Yanchulis can be reached by phone at 757-298-5176.