Hereford football coach Steve Turnbaugh didn't mind dropping from Class 3A to 2A this fall. His Bulls get away from their toughest Baltimore County rivals, Franklin and Milford Mill, but that doesn't exactly clear their path to the state tournament.
"We jump to Class 2A North and there's Dunbar," Turnbaugh said. "Looking at their history and their talent, they just reload. If you're a legitimate state contender, you're going to see Dunbar somewhere along the way, and I've never seen Dunbar play. All I see or read is they've won seven championships in nine years. That's pretty good."
Dunbar moves up after winning the past three 1A state championships, not because of its success — but because the school's population grew. Like Turnbaugh's Bulls, the Poets have jumped around before in the Maryland Public Schools Secondary Athletic Association's biennial shuffle to compensate for changes in enrollment.
Both programs have won state titles in different classifications. The Poets have won nine — seven in 1A and one each in 2A and 3A. Turnbaugh, in his 19th and final season with the Bulls, has won three — two in 2A and one in 1A.
The idea behind reclassification is to even the playing field, especially for the smaller of the state's 198 public schools.
"If your talent pool is 2,000 students, it would stand to reason that you would be more competitive than a school that has 150 students, whether it's football or basketball or any sport," MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks said. "In an effort to promote and to maintain competitive parity, we count the students on a two-year cycle and place them in categories based on their enrollment, and this is what every other state does, too."
Based on the previous year's enrollment in ninth through 11th grade, the schools are reshuffled into four classifications — and into four regions within each classification. Other sports now have two sections in each region, but they won't be used for football.
The biggest schools are in 4A and the smallest in 1A. In the current cycle — which lasts through the spring of 2015 — Meade, in Anne Arundel County, is the Baltimore area's biggest football-playing high school with 1,740 students in grades 10 through 12. Ben Franklin, in Baltimore City, is the smallest with 265.
In addition to Dunbar and Hereford, several other prominent programs moved up or down. Westminster, a 4A state semifinalist last season, drops to 3A. Poly also goes from 4A to 3A and lands in the East region with archrival City, as well as defending state champion River Hill. Howard moves from 3A to 4A.
Edmondson, the 2006 Class 2A champion and a state semifinalist the past two seasons, drops to 1A. Eastern Tech, the 2009 Class 2A champion, moves back to 2A after playing the past two years in 3A.
Like River Hill, defending state champions Henry A. Wise (4A), from Prince George's County, and Middletown (2A), from Frederick County, stay put. Dunbar's move to 2A puts a pair of 2012 state champions in the same classification and leaves 1A with Edmondson as the only team that won a state title in the past seven years.
Some coaches don't consider moving up or down as a significant change, but Doug DuVall, who coached Wilde Lake to five state titles in three classifications and has been a commentator for the local broadcasts of the state finals for the past three years, said moving down can give a team such as Westminster a significant advantage.
"It's a huge plus for them because what happens when it changes, it's usually because of the ninth grade getting smaller," DuVall said. "Those kids that are seniors and juniors coming back, they're 4A kids. The 10th graders are 4A kids. Those classes are that size."
Westminster, however, moves into the 3A region that Hereford left, putting the Owls in competition with Franklin and Milford Mill, as well as top Harford County teams Aberdeen and North Harford, for a state semifinal berth.
"Some consider 3A tougher than 4A," Westminster coach Brad Wilson said. "I don't know if that's true. We have no control over where they put us, so we'll just do what we do and approach things the same way we always have."
While most of the attention is focused on programs such as Dunbar and Westminster and how they might fare in the state playoffs in their new classifications, River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said changes within a team's region can be more critical than moving up or down in classification. That can be true even if a team stays put, like the Hawks in the 3A East region.
"I don't necessarily think it's tougher each level you go up," said Van Deusen, who won the last two 3A titles and the 2007 and 2008 titles in 2A. "It's more about getting used to your region and getting familiar with the teams in your region. That's maybe the toughest thing when you go up and down.
"When we were in 2A, we had a mix of Prince George's and some Southern Maryland, like Patuxent and McDonough. Then when we moved up to 3A, it was more Howard County teams and some Eastern Shore teams, Stephen Decatur and J.M. Bennett. Now we have some city teams, but you've got to get through your region before you get to the state semis."
Turnbaugh and Wilson know the feeling. Both play tough nonleague schedules that could put them at a disadvantage against teams able to generate better records against weaker schedules. In football, only four teams in each region advance to the playoffs.
The Bulls open with St. Paul's, which went undefeated last season and won the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference, and then meet Milford Mill and Franklin. The Owls open with two-time defending 2A state champion Middletown and then play Linganore and Urbana.
"We've got three weeks of incredibly hard games," Turnbaugh said, "and with the city teams playing the schedule they do, even if we run the table in [Baltimore County's] 2A league, I don't know if 7-3 would get us in."
To see the complete regional alignment, click here, and scroll to the end.
To see the enrollment numbers on which the classifications are based, click here.
Varsity fall preview
Tuesday: Boys and girls cross country
Wednesday: Field hockey, volleyball
Thursday: Boys and girls soccer
Local teams switching regions
School Old region New region Annapolis 3A East 4A East City 3A North 3A East Digital Harbor 3A North 3A East Douglass 2A North 1A South Dunbar 1A South 2A North Dundalk 2A North 3A North Eastern Tech 3A North 2A North Edgewood 2A East 3A North Edmondson 2A North 1A South FAET* — 1A North Glenelg 2A South 3A East Hammond 3A East 2A South Hereford 3A North 2A North Howard 3A East 4A North Joppatowne 2A East 1A East Lake Clifton 2A North 1A South Long Reach 2A South 3A East Manchester Valley 1A North 1A West New Era* — 1A South North Carroll 1A North 1A West Northeast 3A East 3A South Northwestern 1A North 1A South Overlea 1A North 2A North Patterson 3A North 2A North Poly 4A North 3A East Reginald F. Lewis 1A North 1A South Western Tech 1A North 2A North Westminster 4A North 3A North
* Didn't have a football team last year