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HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS: Will UIL give West Texas schools what they want?

The largest high schools in West Texas have made it clear what they want.

Whether their wish is granted by the University Interscholastic League is a notion still swirling in the wind.

The UIL, which governs public-school athletic competition in Texas, will release its biennial realignment on the morning of Feb. 3. That’s when the 11 West Texas schools that are set to be included in Class 6A for the next two years — including Odessa High, Permian, Midland High and Midland Lee — will find out whether they’re part of two different athletic districts or one large one.

In related and unprecedented moves, the UIL sought the opinions of those schools and released its classification cutoff numbers Dec. 2. It held four meetings with West Texas superintendents and athletic directors — one apiece in Amarillo, Lubbock, Odessa and San Angelo — and UIL deputy director Jamey Harrison said this week that there was a “strong consensus” to break the region into two districts consisting of five or six teams each.

“I think their input has been very, very valuable,” said Harrison, who attended each meeting with the West Texas schools. “Was that us simply doing a little dance show for public relations purposes, or are we going to put our money where our mouth is and use that input? I think on Feb. 3 we’ll all have that answer.”

The present alignment, which runs through the end of this school year, has schools from Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa and San Angelo competing in the nine-team District 2-5A. The state’s largest classification will be renamed 6A in the upcoming realignment, and that classification will include the four Odessa and Midland schools, Abilene High, Amarillo High, Amarillo Tascosa, Lubbock Coronado, Lubbock Monterey, San Angelo Central and Wolfforth Frenship.

Abilene ISD athletics director Jerry Gayden said current 2-5A member Abilene Cooper, which has an enrollment figure below the new cutoff line between 6A and 5A, will not appeal to remain in the highest classification.

The UIL could once again group those schools together in a district of nine, 10 or 11 teams — Abilene High and/or Central could feasibly be grouped with schools from other parts of the state — or split them up. The two Amarillo schools and three Lubbock-area schools could form a five-team district, with the remaining five or six schools to the south forming another district.

“We are planning for both scenarios — a six-team district, a five-team district, a nine-team district, a 10-team district and an 11-team district,” ECISD athletics director Todd Vesely said. “We think those are the possibilities.”

The Abilene schools were grouped with Fort Worth-area schools during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, and letting the Eagles fly east is once again a possibility. Abilene is essentially equidistant from Arlington and Odessa.

“Abilene’s kind of a bit of the X-factor,” Harrison said. “Do they stay west and north, or do they go east? That gives us a few more options.”

Vesely and Brad Davis, the head football coach and athletic director at Frenship, said they’d prefer an option that puts their schools in smaller districts. Vesely said the far-reaching nine-team district has resulted in too much travel on school days and therefore too much time out of the classroom, and he said it’s also more costly to have mandatory road trips to places such as Amarillo.

Davis echoed those sentiments and said smaller districts wouldn’t make scheduling any more difficult. If the West Texas schools are split up, they could still schedule each other for nondistrict games.

“It’s not just football,” Davis said. “It’s all the other sports you play on Tuesday and Friday — basketball, baseball, softball, soccer. It’s too much. It doesn’t do right by the kids, I don’t think, to have to get in that early in the morning and be expected to get up and go to school.

“I truly believe the UIL always tries to do best for kids, and West Texas is such a different place as far as how spread out we are and travel issues. … I think finally the UIL is going to really take into consideration that we are different than the rest of the state.”

Harrison said the concerns of the West Texas schools — some of last month’s meetings included the region’s smaller schools as well — have “weighed heavily” on the UIL’s decision-making process. He also said nothing has been finalized and likely won’t be until shortly before the realignment date.

Harrison said the idea is to give schools what they want while making sure to maintain competitive balance on a statewide level. The UIL will form 32 Class 6A districts across Texas — eight in each of the four regions — and those in large cities such as Houston and Dallas might consider it unfair if West Texas schools compete in five-team districts in which four of those teams qualify for postseason play.

But Harrison said the UIL generally works through the “extremes” of the state before sorting out the heavily populated areas, which could be encouraging for West Texas. And however things shake out, Davis, Gayden and Vesely all said they appreciated the UIL for reaching out to them and hearing their side of the realignment story.

“They weren’t just there to put on a dog and pony show and say, ‘We’re here.’ They were truly listening,” Gayden said. “They were ideas, really good thoughts, and they were really good meetings.

“I don’t know if (the realignment) will be the quote, unquote ‘best option,’ because not everyone’s always happy with the outcomes. But I think they’ve tried as hard as they’ve every tried to listen and get people’s ideas and input.”

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