Representing the lowest enrollment among Class 4A schools in Kansas this season, it might seem like Rock Creek’s vote on the issue of whether to split 4A would be a simple one.
Rock Creek athletic director Scott Harshbarger says that wasn’t the case.
Harshbarger said the school recognized the decision would have both positive and negative ramifications, but ultimately, he opted to vote in favor of splitting.
“In talking with our coaches, the issue definitely had two sides and we were torn on how to vote,” Harshbarger said. “One, all you can ask for is a level playing field for the kids. The disparity in numbers is the largest in any classification. So, it is nice to compete with schools closer to your own size.”
The Mustangs’ AD said there is also plenty to be learned from facing adversity in the form of larger schools with a perceived advantage.
“But two, it becomes a teachable moment for the kids,” he continued. “Line up and compete, no matter who the opponent may be. I think our softball team showed that this year when they faced McPherson in the regional final. Mac’s enrollment is 690. Our kids won that game 16-5, and quite frankly, it felt pretty good to beat a school two and a half times our size. That is not always going to happen, but when it does, it’s great.
“It can become a life lesson to teach kids that the odds may not always be with you, but just do your best.”
When the Mustangs moved up to 4A last September, Harshbarger anticipated the move to the higher classification. What he didn’t anticipate was several traditionally 5A schools making a move down and widening the enrollment gap even further.
“It was no surprise that we turned 4A, we knew that was coming, but the numbers seemed a bit overwhelming when the top of the division was Highland Park with 729, Pittsburgh with 710, and Bonner Springs with 708,” he said. “We weren’t completely deflated due to the fact that one other time our football program took a two-year jump into 4A. One of those years (2009) we made it to the quarterfinals, where we got beat by Andale.”
Harshbarger said he expects Rock Creek to remain in the lower division of 4A moving forward, assuming the Mustangs stay up this next year.
“There is a chance we could drop down to 3A next school year,” he said. “After that, we have large classes coming and I would anticipate being a 4A school from then on.”
With eight championships to be awarded by KSHSAA in several sports this coming school year, many think 4A’s split will help orchestrate a complete revamping of the classification system in Kansas. Among neighboring states, several with a higher population base, only Oklahoma equals Kansas’ eight championships.
Ideas to fix the problem are wide ranging, but with most of the new schools in the state opening as 5A or 6A, any solution would have to include the two highest classifications, which each sit at 32 schools.
Harshbarger said he thinks this split may lead to an overhaul of the system.
“Personal opinion, yes, I think this may be the first step in an overall revamp of the system,” he said. “Kansas has such diverse populations — schools from small to large — that eventually the whole system will need to be reworked.”
Potentially affecting the timetable on such a task will likely hinge on how KSHSAA addresses all of the obstacles created by an eighth classification. The organization has already announced a plan for volleyball, where each site can host two classifications. But the situation becomes tougher for other sports, most notably football and basketball. Added cost and the task of finding suitable officials for each new site is also a hurdle.
Regardless of how KSHSAA handles the responsibilities it has been given, Harshbarger and the Mustang athletes plan to suit up and play wherever they land.
“We thought long and hard about it,” he said. “Finally, we decided that we would vote for the split. We will still be one of the smallest 4A schools and face larger schools, but we will have a greater chance to compete for state titles.”