Fall brings new changes to VHSL realignment

Say goodbye to the Ironclad, PenSouth and all the other conferences that have cluttered the Virginia high school sports landscape over the last four years.

The Virginia High School League is debuting another new look this fall, a twist on the organizational system it rolled out in 2013. Despite the changes, though, the high school football schedule will look much the same.

The state's governing body for high school athletics shook up its structure in 2013 in order to more narrowly group schools by enrollment for postseason play. So, for example, tiny Bruton and its 579 students would not compete with Jamestown and its 1,350 for a state championship.

Rather than schools being sorted into three groups (AAA, AA, A), as they had been since 1970, they were sorted into six (from 6A to 1A), and then were divided further into regions and conferences.

Locally, however, conferences still played second fiddle to the long-standing districts. A rivalry game between Hampton and Phoebus, even across enrollment groups, still created more buzz than a conference matchup between Phoebus and Tabb.

For football, the Peninsula and Bay Rivers held tight to district schedules for the regular season. In fact, the Bay Rivers District kept district scheduling intact across all sports.

In a concession to this reality, VHSL eliminated the often-ignored, sometimes-reviled conferences, starting with this academic year.

The football playoff format will change slightly, if you squint.

Schools still are separated into six enrollment classifications (Class 6 to Class 1). Each classification is split into four regions rather than two, and these will form the basis of the postseason setup.

Yet most classifications already divided their 32-team football brackets into four eight-team sections.

For example, in Group 6A, Woodside competed against 11 other schools from Conferences 1 and 2 for eight playoff spots, one-quarter of the 32-team field. As part of Class 6, Region A, they will compete against the same 11 teams for the same eight spots. The VHSL will even use the same football rating system to determine seeding.

Class 6, Region A

PD school: Woodside.

Other schools: Bayside, Cox, First Colonial, Granby, Grassfield, Kellam, Landstown, Ocean Lakes, Oscar Smith, Tallwood, Western Branch.

Woodside matched its usual high-powered offense with an equally impressive defense last season. The Wolverines scored 31.2 points per game and limited opponents to 11.5.

Yet while the stalwart defense held up in Woodside's state quarterfinal matchup with Oscar Smith, the attack fizzled in a 13-0 defeat. Though Oscar Smith lost to Westfield in the state championship game (a 34-28 double-overtime classic), the Tigers have not been shut out in the last 10 years.

Even after the graduation of last year's stars, including senior quarterback Tyhier Tyler, fullback Demetri Banks and safety Kamari Jackson, the Wolverines should easily earn a playoff spot for the fifth straight season. But to advance out of their region, they will need to figure out how to tame the Tigers.

Class 5, Region A

PD schools: Bethel, Gloucester, Hampton, Kecoughtan, Menchville, Warwick.

Other schools: Green Run, Hickory, Indian River, Kempsville, Maury, Nansemond River, Norview, Princess Anne, Salem.

Like Woodside, Hampton still must contend with the team that knocked it from the postseason last year. The new playoff format offers no respite from the Norview Pilots, who beat the Crabbers 37-31 on a last-minute touchdown.

To help prepare, Hampton coach Mike Smith has scheduled Norview as his team's one out-of-district opponent. The Crabbers will face the Pilots in the last game of the regular season Nov. 2 as a playoff primer, and perhaps a preview.

Norview and Hampton enter the year in a similar place: young but confident, thanks to the depth the team retained from last season.

Smith expects his team to contend for a state semifinal berth again, despite the roster turnover.

"To say the least, it's going to be a challenge, but they've all got a little Crabber in them, so it's going to be all right," Smith said.

Gloucester has been shut out of the playoffs for 28 years, but the Dukes could be a sleeper pick in Region A behind senior quarterback Isaiah Spencer.

How much Gloucester moves up the pecking order depends on how quickly Bethel and Warwick adjust to having new signal-callers.

Kecoughtan and Menchville, meanwhile, will try to rebound from down years. The Warriors stumbled to a 2-8 record last year, placing them above only the Monarchs (1-9) in the Peninsula District.

Class 4, Region A

BRD schools: Grafton, Jamestown, Lafayette, Smithfield, Warhill.

PD schools: Denbigh, Heritage.

Other schools: Churchland, Deep Creek, Great Bridge, King's Fork, Lake Taylor, Wilson.

Lafayette did not have to face perennial state power Lake Taylor last year en route to its second state semifinal in three seasons because cross-bracketing separated the teams in the third round under the old playoff format.

With the new format, cross-bracketing is out, so the two Class 4 state powers might meet in the Region A final to settle the state semifinal berth.

Smithfield, which returns one of the region's top quarterbacks in NCAA Division I prospect Willie Drew (1,608 yards passing, 1,008 yards rushing, 31 total touchdowns in 2016), is confident it has the talent to dispel the notion a Lake Taylor-Lafayette regional final is inevitable.

Another challenger in the region is Heritage, which surprised Lake Taylor with a 35-21 win in the first week of the 2016 season but lost to the Titans 42-19 in the second round of the playoffs.

Lake Taylor remains an imposing opponent. The Titans have 40 wins over the last three years, tied with the Roanoke-area Salem Spartans for the most in the VHSL in that span.

Heritage, though, could threaten Lake Taylor, Lafayette and other regional challengers if it can stay healthy. Tripped up by a few key injuries, the Hurricanes stumbled down the stretch in 2016, losing three of their last four games.

Experienced Warhill is a newcomer to Class 4 but is plenty capable of reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

Jamestown and rebuilding Grafton will look to squeeze into one of the eight playoff berths, as will Denbigh. The Patriots have snuck in at the bottom of the eight-team bracket the last two seasons despite under-.500 records.

Class 3, Region A

BRD schools: New Kent, Tabb, York.

PD school: Phoebus.

Other schools: Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Lakeland, Norcom, Park View of South Hill, Petersburg, Southampton, Booker T. Washington.

Phoebus maintained an iron grip on the top seed in this corner of the Group 3A bracket over the last two years, and that looks unlikely to change now that it is called Class 3.

The new regional groupings did move Hopewell into Phoebus' path. The Blue Devils held a No. 1 seed in a different eight-team section of the Group 3A bracket for the last two seasons. The Phantoms, though, should have the edge.

The Bay Rivers District usually puts two teams into the playoffs in this classification, so New Kent along with Tabb or York should make the top eight.

None of the three, though, possesses the talent level of Phoebus or Hopewell, so a first-round win would be a solid accomplishment.

Class 2, Region A

BRD schools: Bruton, Poquoson.

Other schools: Amelia County, Arcadia, Bluestone, Brunswick, Goochland, Greensville County, King William, Nandua, Nottoway, Prince Edward County, Randolph-Henry, Maggie Walker.

Poquoson came within an overtime loss to Phoebus of reaching the 3A state semifinals two years ago. The Islanders should be nearly as good as they were in 2015, so expect them to thrive upon joining the smaller schools of Class 2.

Getting past perennial state power Goochland, perhaps in the region final, will be Poquoson's biggest obstacle to reaching a state semifinal for the first time since the Islanders' 2010 state championship season.

Bruton is capable of competing with most of the football programs in the region. The question is whether the Panthers, winless a year ago, are improved enough to get the three or four wins they likely will need to ensure a playoff spot.

Yanchulis can be reached by phone at 757-298-5176. O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.

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