By Mike Dougherty
There’s a new rule in play that raised a few eyebrows and scrambled the standings in Section 1 long before the first puck of the season was dropped.
It remains to be seen whether the legislation will influence the balance of competition.
When the NYSPHSAA executive committee narrowly approved new guidelines for sports mergers, Section 1 was left slightly lopsided. There will be 10 teams competing in Division I, 18 teams in Division II.
A year ago, there were 16 large schools and 13 small schools.
The shake-up affects merged teams. In order to make a full spectrum of sports available to schools with shrinking enrollments, state officials decided that only a percentage of the smaller combining school’s enrollment would be added to the total enrollment number used for classification purposes.
Football no doubt drove the conversation.
Last season, RyeTown/Harrison was a pretty good Division I team. Under the new formula, Harrison has to add only 30 percent of Blind Brook’s and Rye Neck’s enrollment numbers. The new math instantly made the Titans a very good Division II team.
Each section has the right to reject any merger that results in an unfair competitive advantage.
“There are very few merged teams outside Section 1, so it impacts us more,” said Ed Witz, the longtime head coach at Pelham, which is a perennial DivisioNo combined team has won a Section 1 title. Suffern and Mamaroneck have owned Division I in recent years, and Rye and Pelham have dominated in Division II. Those schools are relatively small when compared to others in their classification.
This isn’t a numbers game because hockey draws from a specialized population of student/athletes.
“Quality is probably a lot more important than quantity right now in hockey,” Suffern coach Rob Schelling said.
Having a rink in the neighborhood also helps.
“It starts with cultivating the numbers at the youth levels,” said John Jay coach Alex Smith, whose team lost in the Division II state final last February to Christian Brothers Academy/Jamesville-Dewitt, a combined team. “And then you have to keep those kids interested when they start making decisions about playing in high school. They will consider things like tradition and reputation.”
A team such as Mount Pleasant usually struggles to grab the attention of the next generation, which is currently spread across four districts — Briarcliff, Pleasantville, Westlake and Valhalla. The fledgling program is not scaring the powers that be.
“Enrollment really doesn’t have a big impact,” said Schelling, whose team won a state title in 2013. “It usually comes down to being from an area where the kids can afford to play and having an accessible rink.”
Mamaroneck and Pelham have the right demographics, which explains why both programs have varsity, junior varsity and modified teams.
So maybe there’s no reason to worry about the new classification rule. But what happens if a standout junior player shows up for classes at Croton-Harmon or Edgemont? Will there be schools lining up with merger proposals?
“It could happen,” Witz said. “I think years ago we had some mergers that came together for just that reason. How about this? Rye and Pelham could merge and be a Division II team. Now that’s crazy.”n II contender. “If you ask whether I have any issues with the rule, I don’t. If you ask whether I have a suggestion, I do. Maybe they need to look at dropping the cutoff number.”
Right now, the line between Division I and Division II is 1,100 students.
There are nine combined programs in the section, and only Clarkstown, Lakeland/Panas and Nyack/Tappan Zee will compete with the large schools if they make the playoffs. Mamaroneck successfully petitioned to play up again this season, or the ranks in Section 1 would be even more askew.
“If our enrollment was going to keep us down in Division II for a number of years, I would stay down,” Tigers coach Mike Chiapparelli said. “To go back and forth doesn’t really make any sense to me. We’re only 12 or 13 kids under the cutoff, so it’s not a big deal.”