Class in Session: A History in Classification

July 24, 2017

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

This is the first part in a series on MHSAA tournament classification, past and present, that will be published over the next two weeks. This series originally ran in this spring's edition of MHSAA benchmarks.

Conversation and discussion at the March 2017 MHSAA Representative Council Meeting leaned heavily toward the subject of 8-Player Football and how to properly balance its tournament with the growing number of schools sponsoring the sport.

While the proposal to split the tournament into two divisions beginning with the 2017 school year was adopted, the MHSAA then faced questions such as when to set the divisions, how to determine qualifiers and where to host the championship games.

The topic continues to create a buzz in Class D schools across both peninsulas, and likely will do into the start of school this fall.

Likewise, the lone holdouts still conducting tournaments by class – MHSAA Boys and Girls Basketball and Girls Volleyball – took center stage at the May Council discussion, and following the 2017-18 school year, class is out for good. Both genders of basketball, and girls volleyball, will move to divisional formats thereafter.

There is much to be decided to be sure; but as those in education are well aware, history is the best teacher.

Fortunately for the sports in flux and for all sports under the governance of the MHSAA, the Association more or less wrote the book on the subject of sport classification. Following is a history lesson, with a little advanced division thrown in.

Class structure

Credited with being the first state with multiple tournament classifications, Michigan’s attention to trends and shifts in philosophy aimed at fair play and equal tournament opportunity can be traced from 80 years ago to the present.

In the earliest years of the MHSAA, there were four classifications for elections and tournaments –  Classes A, B, C and D. Classes C and D had far more schools than Classes A and B. For example, 80 years ago (1937), there were only 58 schools in Class A, 94 schools in Class B, 297 schools in Class C and 253 schools in Class D.

Gradually through the years, as Michigan’s major cities spawned suburbs, there was a shift in the other direction to the point 30 years ago (1987) when school size became more balanced: 173 Class A schools, 178 Class B schools, 179 Class C schools and 182 Class D schools.

Up until 1987, the MHSAA published the dividing line between each classification, after which schools submitted their enrollments. Then, for 1988 and thereafter, the MHSAA adopted the plan of gathering all enrollments first and then placing 25 percent of the schools in each of four classes. This completed the equalization of the number of schools in each class for elections.

However, the change for 1988 did nothing to equalize the number of teams actually entered by each class in each sport. And unlike the early years of the Association when there were many more Class C and D teams than A and B teams, there were more Class A and B teams than C and D teams entering MHSAA tournaments decades later.

Moreover, the difference in number of teams entered in the different classifications for a sport continued to increase as many small schools, the fastest growing portion of the MHSAA's membership, sponsor only a few sports, or they sponsor no sports at all but enter into cooperative programs with other schools.

Because of these differences, Class A or B schools sometimes had to win twice as many games as Class C or D schools to reach the MHSAA Finals in a sport. At times, the larger classifications had District Tournaments, even rat-tail games, and/or a Quarterfinal game, and the smaller classifications did not. Most Class D Districts have had four teams (some only three), while Class A Districts often had seven or eight teams. In Regional levels of individual sports, the number of entries in the larger classification once greatly outnumbered those in the smaller classifications of the tournament for the same sport.

Over the years, these dividing lines between classes escalated gradually, as did the differences in enrollments of largest and small schools in each class. In 1937 the dividing lines were 700, 300 and 100 between Class A and B, B and C, and C and D, respectively. By 1987, the dividing lines were 1,129, 571 and 298, respectively, leading to the current method of collecting enrollments and then setting the classification.

With the pendulum swinging well past center by the late 1980s, coaches associations, MHSAA sport committees, tournament managers and school administrators began discussion and offered proposals to correct what many believed had become a flawed system of MHSAA tournament classification.

At the 1996 MHSAA Update Meetings, ¾ of 858 respondents to that year’s annual survey indicated they favored a system that would divide schools which actually sponsor each sport into two, three or four nearly equal divisions.

Problem solving

At its meeting May 4-6, 1997, the Representative Council defeated a motion that would have adopted in one action a coordinated plan of reclassification for all sports to equalize the number of schools in each tournament for each respective sport. Instead, the Council discussed and voted on each proposal that had been presented from sport committees.

This resulted in the Representative Council adopting four equal divisions for baseball and softball, four equal divisions for boys and girls tennis, four equal divisions for boys soccer and three equal divisions for girls soccer, effective with the 1997-98 school year. Helping in the decision was the success of the 1995-96 MHSAA Wrestling season, which saw the sport move to four divisions for its tournament structure

The Council delayed action on similar proposals for football and boys golf at that time to glean additional input. The same decision was made with respect to a proposal from the Ice Hockey Committee that would have split the Class A schools in two divisions and left the Class B/C/D Tournament unchanged.

“The gist of the move from classes to divisions was to equalize the path to championships for students of all schools, regardless of the size of those schools,” said MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts.

While the restructuring accomplished that goal for the majority of competitors, opposition exists now as it did then. The primary argument in opposition to the changes is that, in some sports, it increases the range between largest and smallest schools in the division for smallest schools, even as the range is usually reduced for other divisions.

Larger schools offered a counterpoint.

“The larger schools suggested that while they may have more students, they also attempt to sponsor more sports than the smaller schools, in some cases spreading the enrollment as thin as a much smaller school with fewer sports,” Roberts said.

“Even today, the idea of four equal divisions can be unpopular among some Class D schools which feel especially burdened by the equal division concept,” Roberts said. “There was enough opposition in 1997 that equal divisions were rejected for boys and girls basketball and girls volleyball, and some of that opposition remains.”

The numbers of schools sponsoring each MHSAA tournament are still close to the totals today, with the exception of soccer in both genders, which has enjoyed substantial increases. This spring, 466 girls teams were scheduled to compete in the MHSAA Soccer Tournament, while 473 boys teams will suit up this fall.

Since the beginning of MHSAA divisions in 1996 with wrestling, 147 additional team champions have been crowned and countless individuals have known the thrill of victory due to an extra level of Finals in various sports. Girls soccer has seen the most growth in opportunity, moving from two classes in 1987 to three divisions the following year, and then four divisions in 2000. Boys soccer had enjoyed four classes for two years prior to the new four-division format, and it was the sport of soccer that helped to create a caveat in the nearly equal division movement.

Lower Peninsula boys and girls swimming & diving expanded from two to three divisions in 2008, while boys and girls bowling are the most recent sports to enjoy increased tournament opportunity, adding a fourth division in 2010.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder. While having the same number of schools in each division is one kind of fairness, holding in check the enrollment range between the largest and smallest schools in Division 4 is another kind of fairness that is dear to a great number of people,” Roberts said. “Because more schools sponsor basketball and volleyball than other sports, Class D schools would have been least affected by the equal divisions concept in those sports; but that, and ‘tradition,’ did not dissuade the opponents in the 1990s.”

The shift to divisions not only paved the way for student-athletes, but also assisted administrators and schools hosting tournaments. MHSAA tournament mangers looked to equal divisions to more closely equalize the number of schools in District or Regional Tournaments and to better equalize the length of day required for these rounds of tournaments, both for management and participating teams and individuals.

Pinning down an answer

Wrestling became the first MHSAA Tournament to be conducted in nearly equal divisions when team and individual champions were crowned in Divisions 1, 2, 3 and 4 rather than Classes A, B, C/D for the 1996 winter championships. 

The movement was well received, as schools saw more opportunity for success: four champions where there once were three at the District, Regional and Final levels, and a smaller range of enrollment between the smallest and largest school in all four tournaments, leading to the impetus for the Fall 1996 Update Meeting Survey of schools regarding similar movement in other sports.

Team champions that year were Holt (D1), Petoskey (D2), Middleville Thornapple Kellogg (D3) and Dundee (D4).

Getting their kicks

When the "equal divisions" concept was approved by the Representative Council for most MHSAA Tournaments for the 1997-98 school year, there was opposition from the smallest schools which, under the equal divisions, are forced to play against larger schools than reside in Class D. Compelling arguments were made – and still are – that an enrollment difference between schools with smaller enrollments (e.g., Class D) is more difficult to overcome in athletic competition than an even larger enrollment difference between schools with larger enrollments (e.g., Class A).

The opposition was most intense in soccer because of the number of students needed to field a team and the physical nature of the sport. As a result, from 2000-01 through 2010-11, soccer operated with a “20-percent modification.” This placed 20 percent of all schools that actually sponsored soccer in Division 4, and the remaining 80 percent were placed equally in Divisions 1, 2 and 3.

At the time the 20 percent modification was adopted, it was also established that soccer would return to four equal divisions when the largest Division 4 soccer school had an enrollment equal to or smaller than the mid­ point for Class C schools. That occurred in 2010.

Last class on the schedule

In the same volume of “history being the best teacher,” one can also find the adage, “times change.” While the division format was a welcome change in some sports, others were left to hold class without change.

In the sports of boys and girls basketball, and girls volleyball, the number of schools sponsoring the sports were so close to the overall membership of the MHSAA that divisions were not necessary; the enrollment breakdowns themselves were enough to delineate equal opportunity for tournament success.

That is no longer the case, according to MHSAA membership. The last move from classes to divisions occurred for the 2006-07 school year following Council action. Before this May, that is. Action at the most recent Representative Council meeting, May 2017, called for the shift to divisions for MHSAA Boys and Girls Basketball, and Girls Volleyball, beginning with the 2018-19 season.

“Because the MHSAA Volleyball Committee had requested this change several times a number of years ago, and because the Council felt the change inevitable, there should not be further delay,” Roberts said. “It is an important detail that the Class D maximum has dropped 50 students over the past decade so the objection that much larger schools would be competing in Division 4 isn’t very strong now.”

Using the 2017-18 enrollment figures, just eight Class C schools would be competing in Division 4 for boys basketball, 11 for girls basketball and 14 for girls volleyball.

Good things came of the previous most-recent switches in 2006-07. Competitive Cheer was re-classified from Class A, B and C-D into four equal divisions assisting in the rapid growth of sponsoring schools (approximately 80 schools per division). Alpine skiing was changed from Class A and B-C­ D to two equal divisions.

At that time, the MHSAA Basketball Committee had recommended to the Council the study of increased classifications, but status quo remained.

Back on the grid

As such, MHSAA Basketball and Volleyball remained the only holdovers of the MHSAA class structure. Discussion resurfaced periodically during the last two decades to bring those tournaments in line with the other MHSAA sports.

Regular-season football-playing schools are separated by class, then are reshuffled by divisions for the playoffs. Football, as we know, underwent a significant postseason facelift in the late 1990s.

While MHSAA Football also remained a class sport through 1998, it had expanded from four to eight classes from 1990-98, becoming the first MHSAA sport to crown more than four team champions. Member schools were asked to consider a pair of options in November of 1997. One called for eight equal divisions, and the second would leave Class D by itself as division 8, and split Class A, B and C schools into seven nearly equal divisions.

After much discussion, retooling, and crunching of formulas, the MHSAA unveiled its revised Football Playoff model that continues to roll today, nearly 20 years later. It was determined that 256 teams would qualify for the tournament based first on a minimum of six wins, then by Playoff Points determined by formula. From there, the field would be divided into eight divisions, with the field being filled out by a nearly equal number of five-win teams in each division as needed to reach 256.

Eight championships would indeed be enough, until football sponsorship among the MHSAA’s smallest schools – some with rich football traditions – began to trend downward. The MHSAA again went to the drawing board, examining the viability of 8-player football. After an experimental year in 2010 without a tournament, the 8-player game was playoff-ready for 2011, with a field of 16 qualifiers embarking on a four-week tournament.

Not only did the 8-player option restore recently canceled programs, but it also created teams in schools which previously had none, and convinced some 11-player schools that this new division was the best path to take.

What did this do for the Class D holdovers staying in the traditional 11-player game? Well, a couple of things, positive and negative. As two and three dozen Class D schools opted for the 8-player game, the remaining 11-player Class D schools at times found themselves in disrupted leagues and had to travel further to complete schedules. They also competed against larger teams in Division 8 of the 11-player MHSAA Football Playoffs.

However, the growth of the 8-player game among the smallest schools also resulted in more Class D schools qualifying for the MHSAA Football Playoffs than ever before. In 2012, an all-time high 44 percent of Class D schools sponsoring football qualified for either the 8-player tournament or Division 8 of the 11-player tournament. That compared to 42.2 percent of Class C schools, 44.9 percent of Class B schools and 41.6 percent of Class A schools which qualified for the 2012 playoffs.

Much is to be determined in the most recent chapter of MHSAA Tournament expansion as the 8-Player Football Playoffs welcome a second division. As the past illustrates, there will be pluses and minuses. History also shows that the MHSAA has received maximum input from its constituents, researched all possibilities, and will find solutions to questions still in the balance before an additional group of athletes hoists a new trophy in November.

Through the Years

A chronology of when which sports moved from Class to Division in the MHSAA. 

1995-96: LP Wrestling

1997-98: Baseball, Boys Soccer, Girls Soccer, Softball, LP Girls Tennis, LP Boys Tennis

1998-99: LP Boys Golf, LP Girls Golf

1999-2000: Ice Hockey, LP Boys Track & Field, LP Girls Track & Field

2000-01: LP Boys Cross Country, LP Girls Cross Country, UP Boys Cross Country, UP Girls Cross Country, UP Boys Golf, UP Girls Golf, UP Boys Tennis, UP Girls Tennis, UP Boys Track & Field, UP Girls Track & Field

2002-03: LP Girls Swimming & Diving, LP Boys Swimming & Diving

2005-06: Boys Bowling, Girls Bowling

2006-07: Girls Competitive Cheer, Boys Skiing, Girls Skiing

2018-19: Boys Basketball, Girls Basketball, Girls Volleyball

Note: Boys and Girls Lacrosse has been a divisional sport since it began in during the 2004-05 school year.

Lowell Enters Another Elite Group of Champs with 11th-Straight Finals Win

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

February 24, 2024

KALAMAZOO – There’s nothing quite like the roar of a crowd after your team has clinched an MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals title.

That’s true whether it’s for title No. 1, or, in the case of Casey Engle and his Lowell teammates Saturday, for their program’s 11th-straight Division 2 championship.

“It’s unreal,” Engle said. “It’s something I look forward to every year.”

Lowell extended its record run of wrestling team titles by defeating Freeland 49-21 in the Division 2 Final at Wings Events Center.

The Red Arrows joined the Grosse Pointe South (1976-86) and Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett (1980-90) girls tennis programs in winning 11 straight Finals titles. Only East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving, winning 15 straight from 1948-62, and Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice boys lacrosse – with 13 straight from 2005-17 – have longer Finals championship streaks in Lower Peninsula or statewide competition.

“I mean, it’s possible (to reach 15),” said sophomore Jarrett Smith, whose pin at 106 pounds clinched the title. “It’s hard to predict that far, four years into the future. We’re losing some key guys, but we graduated 14 last year, five this year, so we’re returning some firepower.”

Lowell is always returning firepower, and it’s consistently adding it, too, giving new waves of Red Arrows the chance to raise a wooden mitten. 

That’s why for coach RJ Boudro, each title remains just as sweet as the last.

“Why would it get old?” said Boudro, who has been in charge for 10 of those titles. “Look at the crowd. When I first walked in here, I looked up, and you see that we have more fans here than anybody else, and that’s what it’s about. Next year will be fun, too. When you can still bring crowds in and you can do it 11 years in a row, there’s more to that than just winning. If it was just about winning, why else would they come? They would probably think it was a foregone conclusion. They love the kids; they love the community.”

One could forgive an outsider for believing it’s a foregone conclusion when Lowell takes the mat for the Division 2 postseason, as it’s won the Final by more than 20 points in each of the past five seasons and in seven of its 11 straight championship victories.

The Falcons’ Elijah Murphy, left, locks up Lowell’s Ari McFarland at 215. So to avoid that feeling creeping into his wrestling room, Boudro makes it clear the Red Arrows’ responsibility isn’t just to win on the mat, but to strive for something bigger.

“We’re not doing it to just win state championships,” Boudro said. “We’re trying to find out who we are, we’re trying to be better men, better women, better coaches. So, it’s not just about winning, it’s about being a better person. Whether I’m a coach or a kid, just trying to find a way to be better. When you’re doing that all the time, you get better, but you feel like you have a purpose. Every single guy on the team feels like they have a purpose, and that’s really important.”

Just 14 wrestlers can step onto the mat in a single dual, and the same number is the max a team can enter into the individual postseason, so accomplishing that can sometimes be as tough as anything else for Lowell wrestlers, and certainly helps motivate them throughout the season – foregone conclusions or not.

“One of our signs up there I saw, it says, ‘Tradition never graduates,’ and it’s true,” Smith said. “We just keep the kids coming. Even our B Team, C Team are competing at the highest level. At the beginning of Districts, we had 17 ranked guys, and you can only send 14. So we have just great partners all around.”

Freeland, meanwhile, was making its first appearance in a Final, after getting to the Quarterfinals for the third time in program history. 

“Outstanding. Outstanding. They’ve been giving their all every match,” Freeland coach Scott VanLuven said. “They’ve been doing it all year. We beat Brighton, we weren’t supposed to. We beat (Bay City) John Glenn in our conference, then we had to beat them again in our District Final when we weren’t supposed to. No one gave us really a chance down here, I think. But they believed, and they did well.”

The Falcons (25-3) still had a shot with three matches to go, trailing 31-21. But Smith put a quick end to that with his pin at 106, and that was followed by a pair of pins from Cole and Carter Cichocki at 113 and 120, respectively.

Of the Arrows’ nine wins in the dual, eight came by either pin or technical fall, as Jackson Blum (138), Jared Boone (165) and Engle (190) also won by pinfall. Logan Dawson (132) and Owen Segorski (144) each won by tech. Cody Foss (126) opened the dual with a win by decision for Lowell (22-3).

Fabian Facundo (150) and Bringham Smith (285) each won by pin for Freeland, while Noah Graham (157), Gibson Shepard (175) and Elijah Murphy (215) all won by decision.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Lowell’s Cole Cichocki, left, lines up against Freeland’s Michael Wilson at 113 pounds Saturday. (Middle) The Falcons’ Elijah Murphy, left, locks up Lowell’s Ari McFarland at 215. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)