When the Arizona Interscholastic Association completed realignment for the new two-year block that begins in a couple weeks, Division I football membership was 29 schools — down from 40 last year. Much of the loss in schools can be traced to the growing imbalance of compeititon, particularly in D-I.
Tucson and Yuma schools were more than happy to make a complete exit from the big-school ranks as were a handful of metro Phoenix schools plus Mesquite and Westwood — more should have headed to Division II or lower. They've seen the writing on the wall with the dominance of essentially five or six schools the past decade and those regions (Tucson and Yuma) have travel issues.
With open enrollment firmly entrenched and still nearly carte blanche transfers allowed after one's freshman year, the outlook is much the same. It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to come up with a preseason top 5 in the division. Just mix the same five or six teams up a little each year and you'll never be grossly off course. The only intrigue each year is can someone upset Hamilton in the title game or the rarity last year — can Hamilton prevail as the underdog.
A peek at the last 10 years results in D-I (5A) tells a story. Three schools have won a state title — Hamilton, Brophy and Desert Vista. It looks a little better if you go back to the turn of the millennium (2000) when one adds titles for Red Mountain and Mountain View to boost the champ total.
In the decades of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in the big school class, there was more parity. Seven schools won big-school titles in the 60s; eight prevailed in the 70s; seven were victorious in the 80s and five in the 90s. This is where open enrollment ha sreared its ugly head. To the detriment of football, and, well, every sport.
No doubt growth and shifting population has contributed to the dominance. Chandler, Ahwatukee the San Tan Valley are pretty well off last I checked. Great places to live. The bigger schools In the late 80s through early 2000 were the Mesa schools. Mesa schools had the upper hand in population and D-I. Not just one school, but several. Five Mesa schools won a big school football championship between 1987 and 2000 (Dobson, Westwood, Mesa, Mountain View and Red Mountain, but never more than two in a row by one school.
While the growing, thriving areas mentioned above are part of the reason for the healthy success of the top tier locales, it's also true transfers tend to relocate among that same top tier keeping them well-stocked. No trickle-down effect here. Really good athletes leaving a Chandler or Desert Vista or Desert Ridge for greener pastures aren't likely to hit the registrar's office at Perry, South Mountain or Skyline. There have been many such moves in football (other sports as well) of high-profile athletes from one to contender to another.
Division I football as we head to its full-fledged start on Aug. 30 is comprised of about 60 percent East Valley membership. The elite schools can get by with any combination of opponents on their schedule. Programs at Gilbert High, Mesa High, Dobson and Skyline are struggling of late if not for a long time. Those in D-I in west and northwest Phoenix will find the going tough as usual outside their geography.
Filling up the freedom-game portion of a schedule with middle of the road opponents is those schools only option to somehow grind out six or seven wins. That might sneak them in to the playoffs only to be carved up in the opening round. At least with freedom games, they stand a chance of sniffing .500.
Take Gilbert High's slate. The Tigers play freedom games against Desert Ridge, Mesquite, Campo Verde, Dobson and Skyline. Its section foes are quite high-powered – Chandler, Hamilton, Highland, Basha and Perry. All made the playoffs last year. Dobson's schedule is similar with six freedom games vs. Mesa, Poston Butte, Raymond Kellis, Gilbert, Maryvale and Apollo. Its four section games are hope and pray to get out alive — Desert Vista, Mountain Pointe, Brophy and Corona del Sol.
What's likely to happen again this season is Hamilton, Mountain Pointe, Desert Vista, Brophy, Desert Ridge and maybe one more school will be a cut above the rest. There will be a middle tier of four to five teams who win six or seven games and manage to pull off one shocker. Then there will be the rest — more than half the 29 teams in D-I. Those that finish with four or five wins and less. Those programs will be branded as bad. Their coaches not worthy of rehire.
That's the way it works these days. It's a shame. Don't get me wrong, the elite programs are well coached. But most of the others are as well. Even those with records that may not show success in terms of wins. As long this unusually tiered landscape exists — powered by open enrollment and blind-eyed treatment of transfers — the more competitive battles for a D-I football title among a host of schools are a thing of the past.
The above is commentary and does not reflect the position of the Arizona Interscholastic Association or its executive board.