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Billy Summers/The Putnam Herald Winfield High School Principal Bruce McGrew congratulates senior Ally Funk before she signs her National Letter of Intent to attend West Virginia State University on Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Winfield.

By RYAN PRITT

HD Media

CHARLESTON - Usually rivals on the field, court and track, representatives from Putnam County adversaries Hurricane, Winfield, Buffalo and Poca have united against a common opponent - the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission's proposal for four classes in basketball starting in the 2020-21 season.

The proposal - currently in the comment period and up for final vote in July - would be a two-year trial run in both girls and boys basketball and would sort teams using a formula instead of just student enrollment.

The formula would be made up of 70% enrollment, 10 percent of how close a school is to its county seat, 10 percent of how close a school is to cities with populations of more than 10,000 people and 10 percent economics, based on free and reduced-price lunches at a school as well as the median household income of the county the school is in.

The proposal passed a vote of principals 111-26 and now rests in the hands of the West Virginia Board of Education, which will have the final say on whether four classes becomes the reality, for at least two years, for prep basketball players in the Mountain State.

But a group led by Winfield Principal Bruce McGrew; Jim Dagostine, a Putnam County coach for 48 years, most recently at Hurricane; Buffalo football coach Brian Batman; Winfield athletic director/baseball coach Will Isaacs; and Poca boys basketball coach Allen Osborne is prepared to fight until the bitter end.

"Why are we experimenting with student athletes?" McGrew asked. "Because I'm a boys basketball or girls basketball player? That's not right. We're toying around with student lives and we're in this business to promote and help students, not experiment with them. We shouldn't be putting students at risk like this. Saying to our basketball players, 'Go get 'em. Go through Martinsburg and Capital and you can win 4A.'"

Winfield would be one of the schools most affected by the current proposal. All current projections on class placement are not official, as a four-year reclassification is scheduled in October.

But if the plan were implemented now, Winfield would compete in the new Class AAAA in basketball and in Class AA in everything else, the only school with a two-class jump between sports.

Much of that is due to the formula's economic and geographic aspects, things the group contends have nothing to do with competitive balance, the ultimate goal of the new proposal. With current figures, Winfield would have the lowest enrollment of any Class AAAA school and less than two remaining Class AAA schools - Ripley and Hampshire.

Buffalo would move from Class A to Class AA in the new proposal. It would have the lowest enrollment of any public school in the new classification and less than 11 schools remaining in Class A. That move is most influenced by Buffalo's proximity to Winfield, the Putnam County seat, and by economic factors.

"I've been 10-0 at Buffalo and I've been 0-10 at Buffalo," Batman said. "Being close to Winfield doesn't do anything for me."

Since the proposal became public earlier this year, there have been claims that the proposal was made solely to move private schools - primarily St. Joseph, Wheeling Central and Charleston Catholic - out of Class A.

"Everybody knows why they did it: They wanted to move up the private schools," Dagostine said.

WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan denied that, pointing out that under the current totals, Trinity, Greater Beckley Christian and Parkersburg Catholic would remain in the state's smallest classification.

Private schools have dominated several sports in recent years, including basketball, winning 16 of the last 20 boys basketball state titles and 18 of 20 girls basketball state titles in Class A since 2000. Moving those schools up in classification is not a new idea. A 2018 proposal that would have given private schools their own SSAC classification failed to reach the public comment phase, voted down 6-1 by the state board.

Among current schools, Charleston Catholic (55) and Wheeling Central (54) have won the third- and fourth-most overall championships. Central's 44 titles in football, boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball are 14 more than any other school.

Despite Dolan's point, the group and other opponents of the proposal contend that the usual successful suspects will be on the move.

Another point of emphasis is the fact that basketball is the only sport in the pilot program.

"We're doing that for one of two reasons: Either we're doing it because it's going to work easily, add a day at the state tournament and financially it's going to be a rousing success," Dagostine said, as the WVSSAC pulls money from regional games as well as state tournament games. "Either that or they just want to give other schools in Class A a chance to win a championship.

"And why are we doing this in just one sport? If the proposal is so great, let's let it rip (across the board). Me and you can go fishing in Point Pleasant, but that doesn't tell you how rabbit hunting is in Glenville. It just doesn't make any sense."

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