Area schools react to North Dakota's three-class basketball proposal
Coaches and administrators express mixed emotions as state nears decision on three-class setup.
GRAND FORKS — North Dakota high school basketball is on the brink of a major change.
The North Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors will meet Wednesday in Valley City with the potential to vote on a three-class basketball proposal. The board has set a deadline of Feb. 22 to implement three classes for the 2023-24 school year.
Coaches and administrators in the Herald coverage area anticipate a three-class system will be implemented, although opinions vary on whether the setup should begin in the 2023-24 school year or in 2024-25.
The three-class system would have a considerable impact on programs in the Herald coverage area.
Devils Lake, for example, would be placed in the middle division. The divisions are defined as Division AA, Division A and Division B. The Firebirds would have the second-largest enrollment in Division A behind only Turtle Mountain.
"When it started to be brought up as a serious topic, there were mixed reviews from the parents and the locals," said Devils Lake girls basketball coach Justin Klein, whose team advanced to the Class A state championship game as recently as 2019. "We like playing the big schools and being the underdog, but the people who have been involved with basketball here for a while knew why this would be important for Devils Lake. I think realistic basketball fans, in general, want to see more competitive games. You won't see as many blowouts."
For Devils Lake, an ease with travel will be a welcomed change.
"We went five or six games in a row on the road this year — Fargo, West Fargo, Wahpeton — that's a wearing part on everybody," said Klein, whose team is 3-11 this season. "The travel piece in our location outweighs the competition part. And we have our runs with a good group coming through for three or four years and can compete and it's fun, but there are other years where it's not a lot of fun."
The middle division will be a new challenge for the dominant programs in the current Class B Region 2. Thompson, Grafton and Hillsboro-Central Valley will face more opponents with higher enrollments in the proposed system. Thompson, which won a Class B state boys title in 2019, will have the lowest enrollment of grades 9-12 in the middle division among the public schools.
In the proposal, Grafton, Thompson and Hillsboro-Central Valley would be in a region with Devils Lake, Four Winds-Minnewaukan and Carrington.
In the proposal, both the middle division and the lower division will have state-qualifying challenge games in which teams finishing third in a region (both levels have four regions) can play the runner-up from the nearest region in order to advance to state.
"Right now, we've come to the realization that probably going to three classes isn't the worst thing," Hillsboro athletic director Dave Nelson said. "I think everyone is afraid of the unknown and how they'll be affected. Some (programs) might be good and some won't be as good. You take the bad with the good and give it a chance and have an open mind."
Nelson and Thompson athletic director Brady Schwab hope the board elects to implement the change in 2024-25 to provide more time to iron out the details and straighten out scheduling.
"There's a lot in the plan to be determined," Nelson said. "Some of that might need to be clarified before it's finalized. Also, to fill a 21-game schedule will be a challenge to figure out who we'll work with and how teams around the area will fill a schedule."
Schwab is also seeing some scheduling challenges ahead.
"If change is going to happen, starting in 2024-25 gives you a year to figure out how to schedule this and maybe put together shootouts and allow schools an opportunity to figure out how to do it," Schwab said. "To us, it seems like there's a driving force to get it done right now and then have to go back to make potentially major adjustments. Ultimately, who loses out are kids involved in activities. If I'm a junior this year and a senior next year, it's a drastic change overnight in a sport I've played my entire life. If you give everyone a year, we can kind of feather in to that, give kids an opportunity to understand the major changes coming and it would allow all the stakeholders a chance to take a look at what changes. That's an important piece when you're making a radical change. I'm not saying it's bad or Thompson is opposed to change, the speed is what we're not in favor of."
Nelson and Schwab would also like to see the middle division expand.
"We'd like to see less in the lower class and more in the middle class to have more teams to play within our class," Nelson said.
For Schwab, he'd like to see the board dig even deeper into the sports calendar to provide better spacing between seasons, as well as consider other activities that could utilize multiple divisions.
"With the changing landscape of enrollments, change is inevitable, but if we're going to make changes for the better of everyone involved, why are we not addressing the entire calendar?" Schwab said. "If we're going to look at change, let's look at change."
Grafton athletic director Jon Koehmstedt also sees quite a few questions left to be answered about the proposal, including the governing and administrative structures and scheduling for teams who'll need to travel further to find games. Koehmstedt wondered if the longer travel would prompt schools to schedule more weekend games to make sure academics aren't impacted by late-night travel.
"It's definitely going to be a break from traditions," Koehmstedt said.
Smaller schools in the area are excited to be surrounded by more like-enrollments.
"I know I'm for it and so is our administration and community," said North Border boys basketball coach Dan Moore, whose team is 10-2 this year and just outside the Top 10 rankings. "The last three years, we've only lost to Thompson, Grafton, Hillsboro and Central Cass. We're in a stretch of as good of any North Border teams as there has ever been and who knows if we get to state.
"We've beat the Big B's as well. We're competing. We're there. We're not blown out but at the end of the day Grafton was supposed to have a down year last year and they went to state. We're still at our peak and coming up short. That's the hard part. Your true small schools are cyclical ... down and up but the resources of the Big B's, they're always up."
North Star boys basketball coach Jesse Vote's team is 9-4 this season but has faced the roadblock of Four Winds-Minnewaukan in recent years out of Class B Region 4.
"We are absolutely for it," said Vote, whose program would be in the lower division. "I know teams will go through cycles but all I ever heard attending the state tournament was it is the same schools over and over again."
Vote said his program currently has 13 players, whereas a recent game against another Class B school saw the opponent have 30 on the roster.
Momentum for the three-class system has sped up this winter. The board accepted a focus group's proposal to add a third classification on Dec. 1, 2022.
From there, the board of directors, as well as board committees, met and reviewed the proposal further Jan. 17-19. Several minor changes were then approved by the board of directors on Jan. 27.
One of the latest changes to the proposal included eliminating the "multiplier" factor for enrollment, which called for open-enrollment students to be counted as two — an aim to position private schools in the Division A tier.
Many of the private schools in the state will still be in the Division A tier, although Bishop Ryan in Minot will be in Division B.
Teams can request to move up in the classifications. For example, both Fargo Shanley and Bismarck St. Mary's have indicated a desire to play in Division AA despite possessing Division A enrollments.
The latest tweak to the proposal also addressed schools seeking to move down from the enrollment classification. A reclassification committee will review those requests with the option to move down a division for a minimum of two seasons.
The proposal also states a school's boys and girls programs wouldn't necessarily need to compete in the same division.
Division AA (enrollments 650 and up): Minot 2,025, West Fargo Sheyenne 1,513, West Fargo 1,449, Bismarck Legacy 1,401.5, Bismarck Century 1,379.5, Williston 1,362, Fargo Davies 1,350, Bismarck 1,286, Mandan 1,236.5, Grand Forks Central 1,115.5, Grand Forks Red River 1,095.5, Dickinson 1,075.5, Fargo North 1,064.5, Fargo South 925, Jamestown 760, Bismarck St. Mary's 356.5 (petition up), West Fargo Horace 340 (located in AA district), Fargo Shanley 320 (petition up), Minot North (varsity in 2024-25).
Division A (enrollments 162.5 to 650): Turtle Mountain 558, Devils Lake 495.5, Watford City 472.5, Wahpeton 397.5, Valley City 366, Central Cass 302.5, Standing Rock 283.5, New Town 278.5, Grafton 275, Four Winds-Minnewaukan 262.5, Kindred 239, Hillsboro-Central Valley 219, Dunseith 218.5, Beulah 208, Stanley 202.5, Des Lacs-Burlington 200.5, Lisbon 198, Bottineau 196.5, Northern Cass 194.5, Rugby 191.5, Heart River 186.5, Killdeer 174, Hazen 172, Carrington 168.5, Nedrose 167.5, Thompson 167, Oak Grove 164, Shiloh Christian 154.5 (located in AA district), Dickinson Trinity 148 (located in AA district)
Division B (enrollments 162.5 and below): May-Port-C-G/Finley-Sharon 161, Oakes 154.5, Tri-State 151, Langdon-Edmore-Munich 150.5, Harvey-Wells County 149.5, South Prairie 149, Hatton-Northwood 148, Surrey-Sawyer 148, Sargent County 145, Bowman County 143.5, Central McLean 141, Edgeley-Kulm-Montpelier 140.5, Tioga 138, Velva 136.5, Midway-Minto 135.5, Park River-Fordville-Lankin 131, Griggs-Midkota 128.5, Linton-H-M-B 126, Hettinger-Scranton 125.5, Wyndmere-Lidgerwood 120.5, Parshall 119, North Prairie 118, St. John 116.5, New Salem-Almont 114.5, Grant County/Mott-Regent 113.5, Kenmare-Bowbells 113.5, Cavalier 111.5, Larimore 110, Divide County 110, Ray 110, LaMoure-Litchville-Marion 107.5, Garrison 105, Valley-Edinburg/Drayton 103, Medina-Pingree-Buchanan 103, South Border 103, North Border 99.5, Maple River 99, Hebron-Glen Ullin 98.5, Towner-G-U 96.5, Kidder County 95.5, Trenton 94.5, Bishop Ryan 94, Enderlin 93, Napoleon-Gackle-Streeter 93, Beach 93, Mohall-L-S 92, Powers Lake 92, Wilton-Wing 90, Richardton-Taylor 90, Ellendale 89, New Rockford-Sheyenne 87, Dakota Prairie 86, North Star 86, Washburn 85, Hankinson 77.5, Barnes County North 76.5, Flasher 76.5, Lewis & Clark 76.5, Alexander 74.5, Richland 73.5, Center-Stanton 72, New England 72, Warwick 69.5, Glenburn 69, Benson County 68, Our Redeemer's 67.5, Strasburg-Zeeland 59.5, Solen 58.5, Max 54, Westhope-Newburg 54, Williston Trinity Christian 47.5, Lakota 46.5, Drake-Anamoose 45, White Shield 45, Mandaree 44.5
Division AA East — West Fargo Sheyenne, West Fargo, Fargo Davies, Grand Forks Central, Grand Forks Red River, Fargo North, Fargo South, West Fargo Horace, Fargo Shanley
Division AA West — Minot, Bismarck Legacy, Bismarck Century, Williston, Bismarck, Mandan, Dickinson, Jamestown, Bismarck St. Mary's, Minot North
Division A Region 1 — Wahpeton, Valley City, Central Cass, Kindred, Lisbon, Northern Cass, Oak Grove, Wyndmere-Lidgerwood-Hankinson (girls only)
Division A Region 2 — Devils Lake, Grafton, Four Winds-Minnewaukan, Hillsboro-Central Valley, Carrington, Thompson
Division A Region 3 — Turtle Mountain, New Town, Dunseith, Stanley, Des Lacs-Burlington, Bottineau, Rugby, Nedrose, South Prairie (girs only)
Division A Region 4 — Watford City, Standing Rock, Beulah, Heart River, Killdeer, Hazen, Shiloh Christian, Dickinson Trinity
Division B Region 1 District 1 — Wyndmere-Lidgerwood (boys only), Maple River, Enderlin, Hankinson (boys only), Richland, Oakes, Tri-State, Barnes County North, Sargent County
Division B Region 1 District 2 — Linton-HMB, Ellendale, Kidder County, Napoleon-G-S, Strasburg-Zeeland, South Border, M-P-B, LaMoure/LM, Edgeley-K-M
Division B Region 2 District 3 — Drayton-V-E, Cavalier, North Prairie, North Border, St. John, North Star, Langdon-E-M, Park River-F-L, Midway-Minto
Division B Region 2 District 4 — New Rockford-Sheyenne, Benson County, Lakota (boys only), Warwick, Dakota Prairie (boys only), Larimore, Griggs-Midkota, May-Port-C-G, Hatton-Northwood
Division B Region 3 District 5 — Hettinger-Scranton, New England, Beach, Solen, Grant County/Mott-Regent, Richardton-Taylor, Glen Ullin-Hebron, Flasher, Bowman County
Division B Region 3 District 6 — Mandaree, New Salem-Almont, Garrison, Wilton-Wing, Center-Stanton, Washburn, Central McLean, Max (boys only), White Shield, South Prairie (boys)
Division B Region 4 District 7 — Divide County, Parshall-NSP, Trinity Christian, Trenton, Alexander, Tioga, Ray, Kenmare-Bowbells, Powers Lake, Lewis & Clark (girls)
Division B Region 4 District 8 — Glenburn, Drake-Anamoose, Velva, Our Redeemers, Mohall-L-S, Lewis & Clark-Berthold, Westhope-Newburg, Towner-G-U, Harvey-Wells County, Bishop Ryan, Surrey