Is the multiplier system fair? Do waivers make the multiplier more fair?

The answer, as it turns out according to the news about the multiplier waivers last week, is that the multiplier is not fair for everybody.  But it is fair for our track and cross country teams at Saint Ignatius.

Over the six years of the multiplier, a system has been developed in which schools that have small athletic success could petition the IHSA for a “waiver.”  As the multiplier was originally implemented in fall 2005, there was a “waiver” procedure included.  Then the waiver procedure was removed in the vote of member schools that re-instituted the multiplier for spring of 2006.  Then it returned as an administrative procedure, in which schools could make a special appeal to the IHSA.   There were waivers granted, but they were hard to come by.  If a school had success in a single sport, the school would be denied a waiver, since the waiver would be applied to its general enrollment number that, according to IHSA practices, must be used in classifications for all sports.

The news early this summer, just as the school year ended, was that non-boundary schools would automatically receive waivers in individual sports where they had not met a basic standard of success.

1)      Waivers are now sport specific.  If a track team has not had success, as measured by certain criteria, the enrollment number used for classification in the state tournament will not be multiplied.

But there was a second change, connected to this waiver rule change.

2)      The enrollment number ranges which determine the classifications for the state tournament are now sport specific.

So there are two changes, here, but there is also one big general change in administration of enrollment rules: both waivers and  IHSA classifications will now be calculated on a sport-specific basis.

Previously, the IHSA had set up a standard set of numbers to classify schools across the board in all of its different multiple class tournaments.  Football was the only eight class tournament, so football numbers were, in effect, already sport specific.  But in the four-class tournaments for basketball and volleyball, both boys and girls, as well as in baseball and softball, 4A schools were designated as schools with enrollments 1669.01 and above, 3A schools were 775.51-1669, 2A schools were 341.01-775, and 1A schools were 0-341.  In the athletic programs at all schools, basketball classification was the same as baseball classification.  For the three-class tournaments–soccer, cheerleading, cross country, track and field, wrestling, and boys golf–enrollment cut-offs were  as follows: 3A schools were 1669.01-above, 2A schools were 775.51-1669.00, and 1A schools were 0-775.50.  Soccer classifications matched the cross country classifications; cross country classifications matched classifications in track and field.  And of course classification in two-classes of girls golf matched classification in two-class scholastic bowl.

But this one-size fits all classification system created some disparities in the competitiveness of the tournaments.  Under this system, the numbers of schools competing in each class, for each sport, did not distribute equally or fairly.  In cross country, for example, so many more schools competed in the 3A tournament compared to the numbers in 1A and 2A that an adjustment had to be made after the first year of the three-class tournament.  The first year of the three-class tournament had resulted in many complaints from 3A coaches about what seemed to be a new level of selectivity for the boys cross country final.  One sectional was dubbed the “sectional of death” because eight or ten of the top teams in the state had to compete there for just five spots in the final.  Something just seemed amiss.

After the first 3A season in 2007, our girls coach at Saint Ignatius College Prep, Matt Haffner, did some careful number crunching to show that only 10 percent of 3A schools qualified for the state meet, compared to 15 percent of schools who competed in 1A and 2A.  One key thing to keep in mind:  those calculations were not based on the number of teams assigned to 1A, 2A, and 3A.  Haffner looked at how many schools actually entered the regionals with scoring teams.  The IHSA made an adjustment so that in the next two years 3A had five sectional qualifying meets, with 25 teams competing at the state meet, compared to just four for 1A and 2A.  In each case, however, approximately 15 percent of the schools that competed in the first round of the tournament qualified for the state meet final.

Perhaps that sport specific modification and that careful calculation of fairness in terms of tournament selectivity was a germ for the new IHSA change.

Under the new IHSA rules, the classifications in each sport are not determined by an arbitrary set of number classifications that are applied to all sports the same way.  Instead, the number of schools competing in each class of each sport-specific tournament have been equalized, more or less.  In boys’ cross country, for example, 187 schools are assigned to 1A, 141 schools to 2A, and 140 schools to 3A.  As a note—even though there appear to be many more schools assigned to 1A, not all of these schools will field teams.  3A schools are most likely to field a complete team; 1A are least likely.

Now the multiplier waiver enters the picture.  As a permutation to this sport-specific calculation, non-boundary schools which have not shown a record of success in a specific sport have been given automatic waivers from the multiplier specifically for that sport.  So a school like St. Rita might be multiplied in football, where it has had success, but it will not be multiplied in a sport where it has not been as successful—like track and field.

“Success” in a sport has a specific definition—sometimes special to a sport.  According to the IHSA release:  “The new policy grants an automatic waiver to any sport or activity program that, as a team, has accomplished none of the following over the last six school terms (in this case, 2005-06 to 2010-11): won a state tournament trophy, qualified for the state final tournament, won a sectional, won a regional two or more times, finished second or third in the sectional two or more times (track and field only), won a first-round playoff game (football only), or finished in the top 10 in the state sweepstakes (music only).”

Judging from the first responses to the new rules in places like ESPN Rise/Dyestat Illinois, the TrackTalk.net forum, CPSFan.com, as well as in local newspaper commentaries, many people find this every sport is different approach unsettling.  The IHSA has produced a chart showing the classification of every school in each and every sport.  Just the fact that such a chart is required suggests a new level of complication.

As people look over the chart, what seems to interest them most are the differences in classifications for individual schools in their various sports programs.  For cross country coaches, a specific problem is that when boys and girls programs have one head coach, but are split in terms of their IHSA classifications (boys in 1A, say, and girls in 2A), that coach will have to be at two different sectional sites, presumably at the same time.  That means he or she will have to choose which meet to attend—certainly a problem.  But schools that have the same coaching staff for boys and girls track have been dealing with a similar problem for a long time, particularly at crunch time when the girls state track meet lands on the same dates as the boys sectional meets.  Of course, track staffs do tend to be a little bit larger.

There are also track and cross country schools whose enrollments put them near the old cut-off points for the 3A classifications, on the border, so to speak.  Because of the slight adjustments to the numbers for each sport, hey end up as a 2A school for cross country and then as a 3A school for track and field, which is the case for one team that in 2010-11 happened to be one of the 2A cross country powerhouse teams in the state, as well as a strong 2A track team, Belvidere North (enrollment 1544).  In Mike Newman’s article on the new classification rules on ESPNRise/Dyestat last week, Belvidere North Coach Troy Yunk noted that competing in 3A for track would mean competing against much bigger schools with one of the smallest schools in the meet, and even his good 2A performers might have a hard time medaling at the 3A level.  “It will be difficult for a school of our size to compete with schools that have 1,000 to 1,500 more students,” Yunk said.   Indeed—and maybe Belvidere North might now have more sympathy for multiplied schools who have been competing this way in 3A for three years under the multiplier.

What the IHSA has really done, on principle, is put fairness ahead of simplicity.  If you think about it, Belvidere North is one of the biggest teams in 2A cross country; and yes, they are one of the smallest teams in 3A track and field.  Maybe that is really fair, in a way?

What people seem to be talking about less, really, is what the multiplier waiver means to so many schools that will now be competing in a classification which fits their actual enrollment—and also how significantly the re-classifications will affect the competitive landscape for other schools.  Saint Ignatius was host to a 3A boys sectional last May.  There were 24 schools assigned to the sectional, largest in the state, with 21 of those schools actually entering to compete.  Many of these Chicago region schools were multiplied schools.  Under the new rules, with the multiplier waiver, ten of the 24 schools assigned to the 2011 3A sectional will compete in 2A sectionals next year—Fenwick, DeLaSalle, St. Rita, St. Laurence from the Chicago Catholic League, and DuSable, Gage Park, Noble Street Charter-Chicago Bulls, Noble Street Charter-Muchin, Urban Prep, and Westinghouse from the Chicago Public League.   St. Laurence was the highest placed team at the Saint Ignatius 2011 sectional, in fourth place.  None of these teams qualified relays for the state meet.  Fenwick qualified two athletes, and St. Laurence, DeLaSalle, and St. Rita each qualified one.  From a second Chicago-metro sectional, Northside College Prep and Arlington Heights St. Viator will also move from 3A to 2A.  It seems likely that these teams will have more success at their 2A sectionals next year.  From the point of view of 2A schools in the Chicago area, there will clearly be tougher competition the Chicago area 2A sectionals.  The shift of this many schools from 3A to 2A will shuffle the deck for both 3A and 2A sectionals in the Chicago area for next year.  Based on past performances, there will certainly be athletes at these new 2A schools who will have an impact on the 2A state meet, as well.

Notably absent from this list of schools moving from 3A to 2A:  Saint Ignatius College Prep (enrollment 1365, multiplied 2268).  We have had too much success, according to the new waiver criteria.

Competing in the two-class AA sectionals at Chicago’s Hansen Stadium in 2005-6, 2006-7, and 2007-8, we did quite well, finishing third, second, and second, scoring over 100 points in each meet and challenging Lane Tech and St. Patrick for the sectional titles; this annual meeting developed into a fun rivalry.  Ignatius has never won a track and field sectional, and before the season we would have our boys look up at the banner that hangs in our school gym, noting the empty space under “sectional.”  Our second place in the 2008 sectional, with the change to a three-class system and whole-scale reorganization of the sectional assignments pending, was particularly disappointing—our last chance squandered.  But however satisfying, this was really very local success.  Even though we qualified many boys to compete at the state meets, only one of our boys ever qualified out of the preliminaries to even run on Saturday in Charleston.  In the state lists of qualifiers, our boys were often at the bottom of the lists; in fact, most of the qualifiers from our sectional were at the bottom of the lists.  It was, in a word, a “weak” sectional.

With the re-organization of teams when the three-class system began in 2008-9, our sectional became much stronger.  Oak Park-River Forest and Fenwick served as hosts at the outstanding facility that they share with Concordia University in River Forest, and our new sectional basically brought together what had been two weak AA sectionals from the Chicago-metro area.  St. Patrick and Lane Tech, our old rivals, moved with us (a rearrangement this year moved them out).  But we were all three weaker sisters in the new meet.  OPRF, from the powerful West Suburban Silver conference, has dominated the meet three years running.  The sectional has produced some state champions—300-meters hurdler Jonathan Jackson from Lane Tech in 2010 and triple jumper Jonathan Gardner from Whitney Young in 2009.  Our Saint Ignatius team success has been more modest in this meet—but in each of the last three years we have been third in this sectional, scoring more than 50 points.  We qualified fewer boys for the state meet—but we did produce finalists and even point scorers at state (300-hurdler Sal Salvato, fifth in 2009, and pole vaulter Jeremiah Sheehy, tie for ninth in 2010).

But those six years of hard-earned second and third place finishes in our sectionals have disqualified Saint Ignatius from getting a waiver from the multiplier in track.  We will not be eligible for a waiver unless we fail to place third or better in the sectional again for the next four years, assuming the rules stay the same and the waiver review process is ongoing.  In the last six years we have scored exactly 5.5 points at the state meet.  Our Chicago Catholic League rival Fenwick (enrollment 1196, multiplied 1973) did qualify for a waiver and so will move to 2A next year.  But Fenwick, it should be noted, scored 15 points in just the last two years as distance runners Martin Grady finished fourth in the 3200 in 2010 and then Steve Blazer was 6th in the 800 and Ian Barnett was 5th in the 1600 this year.  Commiserating with me by email, Fenwick Coach Marcus McKinley put it simply and captured my own feelings:  “Now, track programs get penalized because they came in second in a weak sectional a couple of times over the last six years?”

Of course, Fenwick shares our fate in terms of the cross country waiver.  As a team qualifier for the state cross country championship in 2008-09, Fenwick was the smallest team in the 3A field—just as we were the smallest in 2010.  Qualifying for this state final, as one of 25 teams, disqualifies both of us from the waiver in cross country.  Fenwick placed 14th, and we were 20th.   We would have been much more competitive as teams in the 2A meets, where other schools actually had bigger enrollments.

Of course, we won’t be alone in thinking that the new system treats us a little bit unfairly.  Looking over the list of waiver and non-waiver schools, one other particular case jumps out.  North Lawndale College Prep (enrollment 882, multiplied to 1455), a non-bounaried Chicago Public Schools charter high school, has been a 2A school, even with the multiplier, for the last three years.  They have had good success, placing high up in their 2A sectional meets at Hansen Stadium.  That success in a 2A sectional has apparently disqualified them from receiving the multiplier waiver—and with the multiplier and new classification numbers for track and field, they are now classified as a 3A school.

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