Travel costs jump in first year of VHSL realignment for Peninsula, Bay Rivers schools

When she saw the swollen numbers, Beth Mair was actually relieved. With Virginia High School League reclassification creating more travel, both in the regular season and playoffs, she knew expenses for Hampton's four high schools would rise.

But at least they didn't go above expectations.

"I was very, very pleased they weren't more than what they were," said Mair, coordinator of athletics and driver's education with Hampton City Schools. "It's always tough to estimate that sort of thing because you never know what's going to happen in the postseason.

"We knew it would be more money, and we had to dip into other accounts. But we were able to cover it without hurting the school system. We took measures to be more cautious when we were traveling, and we'll have those same measures in place this year in the conferences and region."

The VHSL reclassified its 317 schools into six groups, based strictly on enrollment, starting the 2013-14 school year. The design was to create a level playing field for all. But the byproduct was increased travel.

With Peninsula District's 10 teams now split into three conferences with teams from across the water — HCS reported spending 67 percent more on athletic travel. On the average, a Hampton school went from paying $16,919.06 during the 2012-13 school year to $28,315.33 in 2013-14.

Newport News Public Schools also reported an increase, but of only 3 percent — from $51,341.80 to $53,099.90 on the average. NNPS's per-school figures for both school years are higher than HCS', at least in part, because it offers athletes bus service home from practice five days a week.

Why was Hampton's increase from 2012-13 so significant while Newport News' was so minimal?

"I think the thing that helped us is that we did not play JVs (in PenSouth Conference 10 games), so that cut down on costs sending them to Hickory, Great Bridge and Indian River," Menchville athletic director Greg Henderson said. "And when we went to those particular schools, we put all of our (varsity) teams on one bus."

C-10 was the only conference with PD teams that didn't send its JV teams to the Southside. Conferences 2 and 18 — which include Bethel, Kecoughtan and Phoebus — did.

Heritage AD Dwayne Peters pointed out how geography helped his school. The Hurricanes' three Suffolk opponents in Ironclad Conference 18 — Nansemond River, Lakeland and King's Fork — are all shorter drives than Gloucester.

Hampton schools had plenty of long trips. Bethel's boys and girls basketball teams, for example, made combined seven separate trips to Chesapeake in a four-week span, which totaled approximately 425 miles. The Bruins' girls also traveled to Richmond and Fairfax — the latter on a charter bus — in the postseason.

Also, Mair said Hampton's numbers would have risen this year even without reclassification because the transportation division increased the cost of bus trips from 2012-13.

In the Bay Rivers District, expenses were a mixed bag. Smithfield actually spent nearly $3,000 less in 2013-14 than in 2012-13. That was in part, recently retired athletic director Miles Blount said, because successful Packers sports teams had more postseason home games.

The increase in travel costs in Williamsburg-James City County was less than $20,000, or a little more than $6,000 per high school. York County's four high schools exceeded athletic/academic travel budgets by nearly $20,000 after going over by about $17,000 the previous school year.

"I'd guess that more than half of the increase was due to our school's travel expenses," Bruton athletic director Richard Onesty said, noting that an unprecedented 11 of 13 teams reached 2A East Region play in the fall and winter seasons. "It's a win for the kids in cross country, wrestling, swimming, girls soccer and indoor track to advance, but that's a lot of the cost."

Poquoson was hit hardest among Bay Rivers District teams in 2013-14, going $12,000 over its travel expense allotment. School athletic director Ken Bennett said that did not put the athletic department in the red but means it will start with less money this school year than most others.

"About $9,500 of the $12,000 was conference and regional travel related," Bennett said. "Starting the school year with less money is one worry and how many people will walk through the gates this year (to watch regular season games) is another worry."

In Gloucester, which already had travel issues coming to the Peninsula, expenses rose 31 percent (from $23,194.65 to $30,385.39). The Dukes also saved money by not sending their JV teams across the water and having boys and girls varsity teams share buses.

"It was actually less than I expected," Hunter said of the rise. "I was expected in the $10,000 range."

As expected, the postseason presented some major issues, especially in the Bay Rivers. After winning first-round football playoff games in November, Poquoson and Bruton took longer bus trips than any they ever made in Region I.

On a school bus, Bruton rode 3 1/2 hours on a Friday night to Riverheads High in Staunton. Poquoson — which requires its teams to rent a charter bus for travel beyond the Richmond area — traveled more than four hours on Saturday morning to Central of Woodstock for an afternoon game.

Onesty anticipates continued increases in travel with Bruton experiencing more success playing schools its own (state 2A) size in the postseason. He said the school is taking steps to ensure the expenses can be met to transport athletes in the non-revenue generating sports.

"We're encouraging those teams to become more self-sufficient," he said. "Cross country might want to run at an invitational every weekend. The coach can come to me and say, `I have the money in the account and all I need is a bus,' and I'll say, 'Let's do it.' "

Schools also are seeing ticket sales drop. Hampton and Kecoughtan became a nice Peninsula District basketball rivalry — their playoff game in 2013 nearly packed Woodside's bleachers. But who cares about, for example, Hampton-Indian River or Kecoughtan-Grassfield?

"It hurt us tremendously at the gate," Bethel athletic director Ray Smith said. "I remember one night we played Oscar Smith (at home) and I don't think we brought in 200 people."

Tabb athletic director Susan Wiker said the new alignment confuses fans.

"I don't think they understand what these games mean anymore," she said. "It takes about five or six years for people to figure out, 'Oh, this is how it works,' and now they're going to change (alignment) again next year."

Johnson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4649. O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.