Class A high schools across Montana will likely see some major changes to sports schedules starting with the 2015-16 season.
Athletic directors from Class A schools across the state met recently and decided to split Montana into two divisions — east and west — but keep the conferences as they are.
The top three football teams in Northwest Class A would go to the state playoffs, but large divisional tournaments would determine state playoff berths for sports like basketball and volleyball, explained Columbia Falls High School athletic director Troy Bowman.
The state’s Western Class A division would include Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Polson, Frenchtown, Stevensville, Corvallis, Hamilton, Dillon and Butte Central. The Eastern division would include Browning, Havre, Lewistown, Livingston, Belgrade, Laurel, Billings Central, Miles City, Glendive, Hardin and Sidney.
The changes come after three schools in recent years dropped to Class B. Ronan moved to Class B last year, and Libby and Anaconda will move to Class B in the fall 2015. Bigfork and Eureka moved to Class B several years ago.
When implemented, the change will leave just four schools in the Northwest Class A conference — Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Polson and Frenchtown.
For wrestling, a decision has already been made to hold a divisional tournament this coming school year in Corvallis, Bowman said.
The real work will be with scheduling the tournaments and games in the upcoming seasons and determining a rotation schedule for hosts, Bowman said.
Class A Landscape Shifting Toward New Divisions
Administrators propose western and eastern divisions with same four sub-conferences
The Class A landscape continues to shift and could largely resemble the structure of Class B in the near future.
Administrators representing the state’s 20 Class A schools two weeks ago decided to maintain the four conferences — Northwestern, Southwestern, Eastern and Central — but opted to create two regional divisions — Western and Eastern — that would divide the respective conferences into subgroups, similar to Class B’s districts.
The Class A activities directors and principals, each casting one vote per school, voted 13-7 to recommend the changes to the Montana High School Association at their spring meeting at Fairmont Hot Springs, June 15-17.
If approved by the MHSA in November, the change would go into effect for the 2015-16 school year.
Wrestling will be the first to test the new setup and combine conferences into two divisions next year. The top eight wrestlers in each weight class will advance to state from Western and Eastern divisional tournaments.
“I’m kind of exited about it. I’ve always been on the side of let’s get the most competitive state tournaments that we can,” Scott Wilson, Polson’s activities director, said.
“I think this suits the most schools in the best manner and it was the best way to go.”
The other option that was discussed but inevitably avoided was returning to three divisions: Western, Eastern and Central. The shift would have bundled teams like Whitefish and Columbia Falls into the same conference as Stevensville, and Dillon and Butte Central would join Browning and Havre among the central teams.
The increased cost of fuel was cited as a big reason for avoiding that scenario, Wilson said.
“Now Dillon would be traveling 400 miles to Browning and Havre for conference games,” he said. “The least amount of impact on school budgets is big.”
Details still need to be ironed out for several sports, including football, but the overall setup would look similar to Class B in many respects.
For example, the Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Polson basketball teams would stay in Northwestern A but would advance to a Western A divisional tournament with teams from Southwestern A. The east side would see a similar setup combining the Central and Eastern conferences. The top four teams from each divisional tourney would then advance to the state tournament.
This type of divisional scenario would include volleyball, track and golf, Wilson said.
Football and softball would largely stay the same, with teams playing nonconference games as well as conference, but the exact system for the postseason is yet to be determined, Wilson said.
“Those are the only team sports that take 12 teams to the playoffs,” he said. We’re not sure how to work that out yet.”
Tweaks will also need to be made for tennis, too, he added.
The administrators are scheduled to meet again in the fall before presenting a formal recommendation to the MHSA executive committee.
These changes are as a result of two schools — Libby and Anaconda — recently moving to Class B due to dipping enrollments. Libby’s departure reduced the Northwestern A conference to four teams — Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Polson and Frenchtown. Bigfork left the Northwestern A in 2009, followed by Ronan two years later. Eureka dropped from Class A to B in 2007.