Jared Lankford: Finding the one true champion

Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Jared Lankford

We are accustomed to the Missouri State High School Activities Association's classifications for its various sports offerings.

MSHSAA, for all intents and purposes, does a good job of pairing schools of similar size together to build a fair and balanced playoff system.

With this type of enrollment parity, one can assume that schools of similar size can compete on a semi-level playing field.

On Saturday, Big 8 Conference member Mt. Vernon won its first state softball championship in only its fourth year of existence. The trip to the Final Four was the second in the last three years for Mt. Vernon.

Over the last three years, I have covered or broadcast three Final Four softball teams -- Monett, Marionville and Mt. Vernon.

The difference is, with the Lady Comets and Lady Cubs, my trip to the state championships in Springfield was in the fall, not the spring.

In 2013, athletic directors approved a ballot proposal allowing MSHSAA to split softball into two championship seasons -- fall and spring.

The initial thought driving the division was to allow smaller schools to field volleyball teams in the fall, allowing those athletes to play softball in the spring and not have to share players between two programs.

However, the final ballot measure, upon approval,

allowed for any team to move from the fall to spring, regardless of enrollment. All that was necessary for a school to make the switch was to declare its intention to play in the spring.

The Lady Mountaineers dispatched Strafford, Purdy, Stockton, Maldon and Crest Ridge en route to the title, all schools over whom Mt. Vernon had a significant size advantage.

There is just one classification in the spring, with schools of all sizes folding into one pot. In the fall, schools are divided into four classifications.

The problem is, with schools allowed to pick their season, softball has become a special case in Missouri. The championships have almost become tainted. This would be the equivalent to MSHSAA splitting football into two seasons and Monett winning a spring state title with playoff victories over schools the size of Diamond, Pierce City, Marionville and Sarcoxie.

My intention is not to take away from the glory of teams that have won softball titles over the last three years. After all, there is still a playoff system and the teams still had to win those games to be crowned.

However, a case can also be made for the fact that we have not settled the question of who has the superior team -- especially with schools able to switch seasons to dodge a potentially difficult path for what some may perceive as an easier route. One does have to wonder if the depth of a school's enrollment played a factor in the Lady Mountaineers' title quest.

Mt. Vernon has ruffled the feathers of some Big 8 Conference schools for its refusal to move to the fall and join the remainder of the conference.

Purdy, on the other hand, moved to the spring in order to keep the Ozark 7 Conference intact and fill its schedule with similarly-sized schools.

No other prep sport in Missouri has a spilt-season championship. With the exception of swimming, no other prep sport commingles all classifications of schools like spring softball. There is even a movement now in swimming to move to a two-classification system.

I believe the solution for MSHSAA is simple -- move the entirety of the softball season to either spring or fall.

Or, create a large-school fall division and a small-school spring division. Either way, let's put apples against apples to determine champions.

Jared Lankford is the sports editor of the Cassville Democrat. He can be reached at sports@cassville-democrat.com, or 417-235-3135.

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