Public schools' reclassification creates an upper class in girls lacrosse

Century coach Becky Groves took one look at the new girls lacrosse playoff sections, and could hardly believe what she saw.

Her six-time state champion Knights landed in an overloaded Class 3A-2A South Section I with defending state champion Marriotts Ridge, last year's Class 2A-1A champ Winters Mill, 15-time champ Mount Hebron, two-time champ Glenelg and Centennial.

Together, those programs have won 29 state championships, 48 percent of all the titles awarded since the state tournament began in 1990. Now, only one will make it out of the section, putting potentially the best game of the playoffs three steps before the state final.

"This is the worst it's ever been as far as being so competitive," said Groves, whose team fell to Marriotts Ridge in last year's state final. "I think it's unfortunate that those teams would not meet in the state final and we'd be meeting so early in playoffs."

The super section is an unintended consequence of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association reclassifying all of the state's schools, a process completed every two years based on schools' enrollment. Reclassification is based on geography, not maintaining an even playing field.

Having regions and sections comprised of teams in close proximity cuts down on travel expenses, especially gas money. It also keeps student athletes from missing classes to make long trips and from getting home very late on school nights, said Ned Sparks, executive director of the MPSSAA.

"We never try and look at strength of teams because that all changes, and it changes from sport to sport," said Sparks, adding that there are often significant differences between which teams are better in lacrosse and which teams are better in volleyball or basketball.

Because girls lacrosse is so much more popular around Baltimore — no team outside Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford or Howard counties has ever won a state title — reclassification will have a major impact on the competitive landscape of the sport.

While other sports have four classifications, lacrosse has three because fewer schools play. Each class contains four regions. This season, for the first time, the regions are split into sections, which has compartmentalized the strongest teams even more.

Century and the other teams in Section I will play for the sectional championship against the winner of Section II. No team in Section II has ever won a state title.

Anne Arundel County's top teams — Severna Park, Broadneck, South River and Annapolis — have been in the same region, but now they are in the same section, Class 4A-3A East Section I. They've won 18 state titles among them. The teams in Section II haven't won any.

"It's going to be a shame we don't get to meet in the regional final like we always have," Severna Park coach Carin Peterson said. "We have such a high level of lacrosse and you'd like to have that high level played in the finals. The history of Anne Arundel County is just so great. You want the toughest competition at the end. That's what it's all about."

To coaches, the new alignment is highly inequitable, with teams that have won 47 of the 61 state titles ever awarded being in just two sections. It's not that there aren't other programs capable of winning a state championship, but only seven programs outside those two loaded sections have actually done so.

"I know when you look at individual sports, you say that's crazy or it's not fair," Sparks said. "But when you look at the overall picture, we think it's as fair as it can be, and we do it with a blind eye and don't try and compare who has good programs and who has bad programs, because all it takes is a good coach to come into a school that hasn't been doing very well and all the sudden they're on the map."

One of those relatively new coaches looking to elevate her program is Centennial coach Rachel Burton, but her team is in the super section.

The Eagles have been good in the past and reached the state tournament twice, but their path has often been blocked by Mount Hebron. They haven't made it to states since 2008, something Burton would like to change, but her competition got a lot stronger when reclassification moved Winters Mill up to 3A-2A and Century over from the West region, creating the massive roadblock of former state champions.

"It's disheartening for us," Burton said, "just because we see the competition that we would have to go up against [to win the section] and it's going to take years to build a program competing at that level. I want to give my girls that hope to be able to compete and play with them and beat them, and I truly believe any team can beat any team on any given day, but with powerhouses like Hebron and Marriott's Ridge and the other teams, it's daunting."

Having so many of the top teams clumped together in one section should open the door for new teams to reach the regional final and the state semifinals.

"There's two sides to every coin," Winters Mill coach Courtney Vaughn said with a laugh. "We're bummed about it, but everybody else in 3A-4A and 3A-2A is quite happy."

There certainly are other competitive regions, most notably 3A-2A North with C. Milton Wright, Hereford and North Harford. The winner could give the super section South winner a run for the state title, but it can be a struggle for teams from outside the Baltimore-area counties even if they make it to the state final. Last year, Broadneck beat Sherwood, 20-5.

Some teams from outside the Baltimore area, however, have come close to state championships.

Easton fell to Winters Mill, 8-7, in last season's 2A-1A state championship. Queen Anne's pushed Century before falling, 12-9, in the 2012 3A-2A final. Leonardtown upset Broadneck in the 2011 4A-3A East region semifinals and then fell to eventual state champ Severna Park, 13-12, in the final.

Sparks said Prince George's County might add girls lacrosse in a few years, providing enough schools for four state lacrosse titles. While that would make no difference to the strong Anne Arundel County 4A-3A Section I, because Broadneck, Severna Park, South River and Annapolis are all in Class 4A, it would break up the super section.

"Part of [the statewide imbalance] is, in sports like lacrosse, it's just starting to grow in places where it hasn't been ingrained over several generations," Sparks said. "And it's the first time out for the first generation in some areas to play. It's not like other places, where kids have come up through rec ball and it's kind of a tradition, so it'll take some time, but it will eventually work its way out."

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