LINCOLN — High school sports powerhouses would be moved up to face stiffer competition under a new legislative proposal.
Legislative Bill 1081 would classify high school varsity teams based in part on their success, not just their enrollment. Those with winning teams year after year would be put into the next higher class.
State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber said he introduced the measure primarily out of concern about the disproportionate share of state championships won by parochial schools.
“I don't think it's a level playing field, literally,” Karpisek said.
He argued that private and parochial schools are able to recruit players and, more important, to control their student numbers. The Nebraska School Activities Association, which sets the rules for high school athletic competition, classifies schools by their enrollment.
Rhonda Blanford-Green, the association's executive director, did not return messages seeking comment Thursday.
But Gary Puetz, activities director at Columbus Scotus High School, panned the reclassification idea.
“I don't like it very well at all,” he said. “It kind of punishes you for being successful.”
The proposal could potentially end Scotus' 28-year volleyball dynasty. The school has won 15 state volleyball championships, including two in Class B and 13 in Class C-1, during that period and has been runner-up seven times.
At Lincoln Pius X High School, athletic director and football coach Tim Aylward was skeptical about the bill but acknowledged that there are concerns about schools dominating some varsity sports.
“It is a problem, and I don't know if there's a good solution to it,” he said.
Pius is a regular contender for state championships in volleyball and girls and boys soccer, and it has made frequent trips to the state football tournament. The school has bounced between Class B and Class A, depending on the year and the sport.
LB 1081 would give schools one point each for winning a district title, a state tournament game, a semifinal game and a state championship.
Schools that accumulate 12 or more points over a four-year period would be reclassified into the next largest class.
Classification would be done on a sport-by-sport basis.
Although the bill does not make it clear, Karpisek said his intent is to use the system for team sports, not wrestling, track or others in which students can qualify for state tournaments on an individual basis.
The proposal is modeled after an Indiana rule.
The Indiana rule grew out of an idea proposed by the state football coaches group, said Jason Wille, sports information director for the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
He said Indiana officials had been looking for ways to address the same issue Karpisek wants to target.
“In some sports, mainly in football, we had the same schools appearing year after year,” Wille said, adding that a disproportionate share of those schools were private or parochial.
The Indiana association adopted the new rule in 2012, and schools in the state were reclassified under the rule last year.
Five schools were bumped up a class in football and three in volleyball. Reaction to the change has been mixed, Wille said. One football school, Indianapolis Cathedral High School, went on to claim the state title in its new class.
“Some of them look at it as a penalty. Some of them look at it as a challenge,” he said.
Other states have addressed concerns about private and parochial schools in different ways, such as creating a private and parochial division for sports or weighting each private or parochial school student higher than a public school student when calculating enrollment.
Karpisek decided against those approaches.
Creating a separate division would be difficult in a state with a smaller population like Nebraska, and counting all private and parochial enrollment in a manner different from public school enrollment would unfairly penalize schools without powerhouse teams. LB 1081 instead would apply to both public and private schools.
Mike Zeplin, activities director at Elkhorn High School, a public school with several winning years in football, said he has not studied the bill but has concerns.
Elkhorn did pretty well during the years that enrollment pushed it into Class A, he said. The school is now back in Class B.
However, he questioned the idea of putting a small Class B school into competition with a large Class A school, which could have several times the number of students.
“I don't know if you can ever level the playing field. Somebody is going to always have an advantage or disadvantage,” Zeplin said. “It's probably worth a healthy debate.”
Karpisek said he would be happy to get the attention of the NSAA and get the debate going.
“I hope that all this will get the NSAA talking,” he said. “I think it shines a light on what's going on.”