Following a heartbreaking loss in sub-state action where Wayne County saw one of their own fall victim to the private Grandview Christian school, it brings up the subject of how long can the Iowa High School Athletic Association allow private and parochial schools to compete in the same Class 1A level as true small schools?
Anyone living in a southern Iowa small town knows a “dream team” only happens possibly once every decade and sometimes much longer. A team formed not by the school recruiting in one-sport players to build a program as it has rumored to be, but rather a team of kids growing up together, playing backyard ball in their youth.
Teams that by pure luck were fortunate to be blessed with a group of athletes in the same era, making them one of the best their small community school has seen in quite some time. Teams that strive for the ultimate goal to put their town name back on the map in a quest for a state appearance some maybe have never seen.
The 2018-2019 Mormon Trail Saints boy’s basketball team, fresh from their District Championship win was looking to do just that. With eyes set on the school’s first ever boys basketball state appearance, they were focused to make history for their school. To leave their names forever etched within the walls where only 66 students are enrolled in the Mormon Trail High School District freshman through senior classes.
A Mormon Trail team hailing from Humeston with a town population of roughly 500, that features senior twin brothers Parker and Kase Hitt, cousins Keaton Gwinn, senior and George Shanks, junior along with junior Luke Parmer as starters. A team that has not only grown up together as family but began playing together since their youth years.
The Saints were having an amazing year, entering post-season play with a 19-4 record, with two of those losses handed down from private school Ankeny Christian. This private school located in Ankeny, with a town population of just shy of 65,000, tore up the competition in the Bluegrass Conference for the year which holds many small town schools, going undefeated in regular season play with 23 wins.
Unfortunately for the Saints the road to state proved luck was not in their favor as they were set to play the number one ranked team in Class 1A, Grandview Christian. Hailing from Des Moines where the metropolis city boosts a population of over 215,000. The Grandview Christian Thunder would enter the sub-state match-up as back-to-back Class 1A State Champions against the Saints.
As with any sport, there is always a winner and a loser. Any loss can be hard to accept, especially in post-season tournament action when the losing team’s season comes to an abrupt end.
Now imagine that loss is handed down from a team where three of the five Grandview senior starters were not on the team roster just a short two years prior, one just joining for his senior year. A team that does not have a junior varsity program to build from. How did they develop this team and where did their newest athletic talent come from?
As I look further into the debate of athletic programs in public versus private schools, this isn’t the first time this has been an issue for a small Wayne County town in southern Iowa in recent years. The 2016-2017 Seymour Warriorettes combined young talent with experienced returners and were having one of the best seasons in years for the community that hadn’t set foot on a court in a girls state basketball tournament since the 1960 team. Coming from a town with a population of just over 700, state appearances in any sport aren’t often seen for this small community Class 1A school.
Going into post-season action the Warriorettes were 19-2 that year with their only two losses coming from private school Grandview Christian during conference action. As they entered bracket play for their bid at a chance for state, they encountered a roadblock much like Mormon Trail.
The Warriorettes were set to travel to Burlington where the town of just over 25,000 is home to Burlington Notre Dame, a private Roman Catholic school. The Warriorettes would fall short against the private school giving them their third and final loss for the year ending all hopes of reaching “the well”.
The following two years the Warriorettes volleyball program would encounter similar heartache. Veteran head coach Jennifer Miller would lead her Warriorette team, many being the same girls from the basketball program.
Their goal of reaching the state tournament for the school’s first ever volleyball appearance would end when both seasons they would meet up with another private school Holy Trinity based out of Fort Madison in quarterfinal action.
“I believe private schools should play in their own class or a class up, but until the IGHSAU acknowledges this is a broken system, we will continue to run into them in post-season play,” said Coach Miller. “It really isn’t a fair comparison.”
With these untimely losses for the two small schools it again brings up the question, where do the private and parochial schools get their top-notch athletes that are on some Division I college’s radar? Some starters that media outlets take note of such as USA Times that has featured stories showcasing the player’s talent.
And how can it seem like a fair playing field for these small town teams having their goals they have worked together to achieve for years come crashing down around them when they meet their ultimate fate of a matchup against private schools hailing from much larger cities.
While they may meet the Iowa High School Athletic Association enrollment rules to be defined as a Class 1A participant, the long heard rumors of these schools recruiting in athletic talent is hard to ignore. Getting a private school to admit what they may be offering behind the scenes to bring in talent is even harder.
Rumors spread like grass fire and while some may be nothing more than faint nothings to stir up already existing controversary in the issue, the long told idea of there is usually some truth behind a rumor for the existence to begin is again, hard to ignore.
The average cost of tuition for a high school student to attend a private school in Iowa is $8,427 per year. Are students that enroll into these private high schools being offered free tuition making it much like a sports-based scholarship kids receive in college? Many say yes.
Are parents being offered employment opportunities within the private schools to sweeten the deal for the gain of an athletic prodigy? Again, many say yes.
One factor most smaller public schools in the smallest Class 1A and Class 2A divisions will admit to is enough is enough. It is time to make a change regarding the private schools in athletics.
The State of Illinois took a big step when back in 2014, the Illinois High School Association announced changes for the classification of private, non-boundaried high schools. The change would begin at the beginning of the 2015 school year where any private schools would be required to play up one class in the athletic divisions.
The co-ed schools use a multiplier system where for every three students enrolled the IHSA would count five. Therefore a private school with 300 students would be classified together with a public school with 500 students.
This system change also dug deeper within the football program where over a four-year period the football team would move up a classification if they achieved the set in forth rules newly applied. Teams would move up one classification if they participated in two state championship games. Starting in the 2015 season, schools would be moved up two classes from their enrollment classification if over a four-year period the school participated in three championship games. And finally in the 2016 season, schools would be moved up three class sizes from their enrollment classification if, over a four year period the school participated in four championship games.
The state realized the current system was flawed and implemented these changes to even the playing field for public schools to have the ability to achieve success as well. Public schools would not see the classifications change even if they captured continued success at state level.
Further south in Georgia in 2012, private schools in the state’s smallest class of 1A, or schools with 520 students or less would compete in their own playoffs. They also allowed schools that requested to move up in class size be able to do so.
In Indiana schools are subject to a sport-by-sport reclassification every two years based on that school sports past tournament success. With this method the current reigning back-to-back Iowa Class 1A state champion team Grandview Christian would have been forced to move up to Class 2A play for this school year.
That reclassification would have possibly leveled the playing field for any team that fell this year to the 1A state champs. That is a hard pill to swallow.
Missouri uses the multiplier system as well for enrollment classification in sports while other states including Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska have sent proposals to education committees to include multipliers for the change in reclassification, however each proposal was voted down.
Ultimately something needs to change in Iowa when this year’s high school boys basketball tournament in Class 1A won’t be featuring many public schools as five of the eight teams qualified are private parochial schools. Whether a multiplier system is added to enrollment numbers or a private school only class is designed where these parochial schools only play themselves, a change is needed.
You can argue the open enrollment system is just as much flawed as student-athletes will transfer from one school to another and under current Iowa eligibility rules, they only sit out 90 days. Possibly harsher eligibility terms of sitting out one full school year from athletics would drastically reduce the number of athletes that make a change at the high school level for the betterment of a team or their own personal success.
No one would take away credit from any family that has a student-athlete with talent or that puts in the work ethic to better themselves for the future. More often than not, Division I colleges aren’t scouting talent in small town schools. It’s understandable why a high school athlete with talent would want to play on a team that not only has consistent success, but also a higher ability to help their college recruiting process for full-ride scholarship possibilities.
There is however athletic talent all across the state in Iowa high schools that simply want to play with their childhood friends on teams they have developed throughout their school years. These teams want and deserve a fair chance for a go at a state tournament appearance just the same. Their dreams shouldn’t be crushed simply because a private school had the ability to build a bigger, stronger, faster, better team that was possibly built with money as the underlying factor.
“I don’t blame any of the players in private schools or even the coaches or school itself for this issue, the problem lies within the Iowa High School Athletic Association and their rules,” said Mormon Trail Saints head basketball coach Aaron Parmer. “I’m proud of my team and unfortunately our chance to be playing in the state tournament was taken away.”
Life certainly isn’t always fair as we have all experienced in our lives at some point, but isn’t it time to give small town schools just like Mormon Trail and Seymour the chance for a level playing field in Class 1A? Allow them to work hard, accept defeat by equal level teams and grow from it, or enjoy the success of making a state tournament appearance and give their small communities something to be proud of.
It’s time Iowa steps up to the plate and gives a good hard look to how the system is failing our small town public school athletes and teams and does a better job at controlling this system. While it may be too late for past teams, it’s time to look at the future for the betterment of all Iowa high school athletes.