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Shake up in Alaska high school basketball has private schools feeling ‘targeted’

Published: Jan. 15, 2021 at 6:12 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Basketball; the first Alaskan high school sport and the reason an activities association was formed in the early 1950s, even before the Territory became the 49th State. Over the decades, the game has expanded to all pockets of the Last Frontier and is the most participated sport by schools in the state. The basketball season, entangled with dark, cold nights throughout the winter, culminates each year with ‘March Madness Alaska’, also known as the state championships. The anticipated tournaments feature 80 teams across Alaska between boys and girls Classes 1A-4A, and is considered the most attended prep event the state has to offer.

Recent success from particular programs at the Class 3A state tournaments have prompted the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA), the regulating body for high school sports in the state, to consider reclassification for the sport.

“I think everyone agrees that the intent of classifications is to put like-schools together in competing for championships,” said ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland. “Historically, I think most models of classifications were based on the enrollment size of a school. That system is pushing 40 years old now. I think schools have changed a lot and I think the feeling is, with the advent of alternative education and more school choice, the fluidity of how athletes are attending schools have really changed what makes you competitive in certain settings. Competitiveness is what we have gone to.”

Over recent Board Meetings, ASAA formulated a classification system that would rearrange programs based on factors outside of enrollment numbers. The new policy will go into effect for the 2021-22 season. The classification system, that was approved 7-1 at a November 9 ASAA Board Meeting, is outlined as followed:

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Basketball- the ASAA Board of Directors has adopted to following classification system:

A. With the exception of schools defined by Item B, all schools will be classified by their enrollment. 1A (1-60 students), 2A (61-150 students), 3A (151-500 students), 4A (501 students & above)

B. All statewide boarding schools and all schools within 25 miles of the following municipalities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Soldotna will be moved up one classification from where they participated the previous classification cycle. For the teams involved, a two-step analysis of data will be used to determine its classification:

Step One Analysis:

1. Winning percentage in regular season games against teams at a higher classification over last five years concluding with a state tournament. Teams with greater than 40% winning record would earn an √. Teams with over 75% would earn an additional √. (Teams must have at least 15% of their games played against teams at a higher classification for this factor to be considered.)

2. Winning percentage in regular season games against teams at the same classification over the past five years concluding with a state tournament. Teams with greater than 50% winning record would earn an √. Teams with over a 75% winning record would earn two √'s.

3. State Tournament Appearances over past eight years: Teams earn a point for each appearance. Teams earning five points, receive a √.

4. Cumulative State Points Earned over the past eight years. (State Points based as follows: 1st place 8 points, 2nd place 7 points, 3rd place 6 points, 4th place and 5th place 4 points, 6th, 7th and 8th place 0 points) Teams earning over 40 points over the past 8 years earn a √.

Teams receiving less than five √'s would remain at their “previous classification”. Teams receiving five or more √'s would move to Step Two for further analysis.

Step Two Analysis:

1. Teams with players participating in “out of season” games/scrimmages/leagues during the months of August through April would earn a √. *

2. Teams having four or more transfers over a three-year period would earn two √'s.

3. Schools which allow students from outside their boundaries to attend would earn two √'s.

Teams receiving less than two √'s would return to their “previous classification”. Teams receiving two or more √'s in Step Two would remain at their new higher classification

*School will be required to report this happening. Failure to do so may result in penalties and/or loss of playoff privileges for one year.

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So Who Changes Classifications?

Following the two-step analysis by ASAA, the programs that earned the required 40 check marks to move classifications were the Monroe Catholic boys program and the Anchorage Christian Schools’ (ACS) boys and girls teams. Grace Christian, also a private school in 3A, would have moved up to 4A had there not been a mistake in ASAA’s records that indicated Grace Christian placed 3rd at the 2015 state championships rather than 5th. After the correction that took away two check marks, Grace Christian had 39, one shy of the necessary number to jump classifications. Based on recent state tournament success, the Barrow High School boys team, located north of the Arctic Circle, were qualified to moved up from 3A classification. However, the new policy only applies to schools within 25 miles of the municipalities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla and Soldotna. ASAA also said that the Nikiski girls (3A) and Nenana girls (2A) nearly had the check marks needed to move classifications.

The Controversy

As the new classification system ultimately impacts Monroe, ACS and nearly Grace Christian, all private schools in Class 3A, these institutions felt targeted.

“Coincidence? No.” said Grace Christian Schools Athletic Director Paul Salima at a January 11 public comment period during an ASAA Board Meeting. “The premise going into this arbitrary selection criteria, in my opinion, was predetermined and targeted the private schools. The idea that private schools are ‘too dominate’ in 3A, so lets figure out a way where we can make it fair.”

While ASAA acknowledges that the dominance of private schools in Class 3A was a contributing factor to the reclassification system, they say they did not isolate private schools with the two-step analysis.

“When we put that together, we didn’t just say private schools,” said Strickland. “We basically said schools located within those municipalities where we are seeing a lot of students that play outside of their zone school.”

Frank Ostanik, Monroe Catholic Athletic Director and head coach of the boys basketball program, thought otherwise.

“Regardless of what they would say, there is no way that anybody can look at what was done and how it was done and not identify that this was done specifically to impact three unique schools.”

According to Ostanik and others that testified at the Board Meeting, ASAA changed the criteria from success at the state tournament for the past five years, to the last eight years ‘last minute’.

“Why was that done? Doing so encompasses our state championships at Monroe. It is obvious.” said Ostanik.

Monroe won three straight Class 3A boys state championships from 2012-14, but have not won a state title since. Although Grace Christian narrowly avoided moving up to 4A, the institution strongly opposed the new classification system.

“Urban advantage, scholarships and access to a wide population of athletes are some of the listed perks of being a private school,” said Grace Christian boys head coach Jason Boerger. “At Grace, we only offer a select number of financial-based scholarships completely unrelated to athletics. We have disadvantages. We have high academic admission standards, high tuition costs, and Christian families that must be actively committed to their church, all forming their own restricted boundaries. If there was a widespread advantage, I don’t know why it doesn’t also apply to our girls program.”

“There is no doubt in my mind, had ASAA had the correct data, they would have maneuvered the criteria to include Grace Christian.” Ostanik added about ASAA’s mistake in their records.

Brett Slaathaug, Student Activities Coordinator for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kotzebue, touched on the advantages private schools have over public schools.

“They have the ability to go out and openly recruit,” said Slaathaug. “They can put a pamphlet out in front of a kid, they can talk to kids about coming and attending and playing at their given school, a public school cannot do so.”

Enrollment numbers and facility access were two concerns for Monroe when envisioning the move to 4A. Monroe Catholic has a high school enrollment of 101 students for the academic year of 2020-21. If Monroe were to compete at the Class 4A level, the Rams would be featured in the same state tournament with public schools in Anchorage, many of which have more than 1,500 students.

“Enrollment is generally the common denominator in classification and it has always been that way in the state of Alaska,” said Ostanik. “It is a ludicrous belief that our facilities would support a competitive school at the 4A level on a year in, year out basis. We would be the only 4A school in the state of Alaska that shares its gym with K-8 [Kindergarten through 8th grade].”

How We Got Here

It has been made clear that the success of private schools in the 3A Class was a driving force in the policy. Below is how the private programs of the Monroe boys, Grace Christian boys, and the ACS boys and girls teams have fared in the last eight years at the Class 3A state tournament. Also listed, the Barrow boys, a public program who has also had recent success. The 2020 state tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. All ASAA state basketball tournament records can be found here.

YearMonroe BoysGrace BoysBarrow BoysACS BoysACS Girls
20121stT-7th4th2nd3rd
20131st6thN/A2nd2nd
20141st2ndN/A3rd1st
20152nd5th1st3rd6th
20163rd2nd1st5thN/A
20172nd1st3rd4th1st
20185th2nd1st3rd1st
20194th3rdT-7th1st1st

Some in the Alaska basketball community believe the tipping point for reclassification can be traced back to the ACS girls program. During the 2019-20 season, three conference opponents forfeited games against ACS prior to tip-off due to their dominance. In that season, ACS defeated conference opponent Redington High School 105-18.

What’s Next?

If the new classification system goes into effect next year as indented, the Monroe boys and both of ACS’ programs will move up to 4A, joining an already existing conference based on geographic location.

“Look, we are not going into 4A saying, ‘alright, we are not going to be competitive,’” said Ostanik. “We are going to do the best we can to make our players better and we are going to compete at an extraordinary level, at least in regards to effort.”

For the policy to be reversed, one of the seven ASAA board members who voted in favor must make a motion to bring forth reconsideration. At that point, the ASAA board would need to vote at least 5-3 in favor of reversal. Region VI, who represents Monroe, was the lone region to vote against the policy.

Further changes to high school basketball classification system may be coming in the future. ASAA has formed a committee to explore adding Class 5A to the basketball landscape. The committee is currently looking at the cost, facility logistics and need for a Class 5A.

The next ASAA Board Meeting is scheduled for February 22-23.

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