LAHS Athletics: Santa Fe in, Taos out of 2AAAA after next year

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By Mike Cote

There could be some interesting landscapes on the horizon for the 2010-11 sports year barring unforeseen roadblocks around the state of New Mexico.

The New Mexico Activities Association, the governing body of most interscholastic high school-level sports in the state, is set to implement a new alignment and classification system, which is set to go into effect the school year after next.

Some major changes include a brand new classification for the sport of basketball and plenty of schools moving up and down the classification ranks, with several accompanying district alignment shifts.

Those districts that will be getting a facelift include District 2AAAA, in which Los Alamos High School currently resides and will continue to reside through the spring of 2014.

The same can’t be said, however, for Taos High School, which will move down to Class AAA for most sports starting in 2010-11.

To fill the void left by Taos, Santa Fe High School will round out the five-team district starting that season. Santa Fe was in the biggest school classification in the state, AAAAA, since the NMAA went to five classifications in 2000.

Santa Fe High, however, has seen its school population number dwindle for the last several years. In 2008-09, the school’s enrollment figure on day 80 of the academic year had slipped to 1,497, below the 80-day enrollment count of a pair of Class AAAA schools – Deming and Volcano Vista.

Santa Fe will now join the Hilltoppers, as well as Bernalillo, Capital and Española Valley in most sports.

Taos, for its part, was also seeing declining enrollment, something its athletic director, James Branch, said was largely due to the town being a new popular retirement spot and not attracting enough younger families in recent years.

Branch was actually very vocal that he wanted Taos to drop to Class AAA. He said he first approached the NMAA about Taos’ status after he saw the association’s initial proposal, which was released in late 2008.

On paper, the drop would seem a good one for Taos, which found itself struggling to compete with 2AAAA clubs in most sports other than girls and boys soccer.

Taos finished in or near the district basement in boys and girls basketball, the school’s marquee sports, as well as in football, baseball and softball.

Taos’ enrollment of 825 students at the 80-day mark was the lowest total among all the AAAA schools except Albuquerque Academy, which plays up for most sports — and is very competitive in most sports — even though its enrollment would place it firmly in the ranks of Class AAA.

Initially, however, Taos would’ve stayed in AAAA based on its enrollment, but at least in part because of Branch’s lobbying, the NMAA changed the population floor of Class AAAA from 801 students to 901 students.

Branch said in an interview in February that he was motivated to lobby for the change after seeing that Santa Fe and its nearly 1,500-student population was set to move into the district.

When Taos joined 2AAAA in 2000, its student population was close to 1,000.

Not everyone at Taos is thrilled by the prospect of playing in AAA, however.

Kurt Edelbrock, the head tennis coach at Taos, told the Monitor during the regular season he had no interest in leaving District 2AAAA.

“This is a very competitive district,” he said. “(The Tigers) compete well at the AAAA level and all the coaches in this district get along really well.”

Edelbrock said he might look into “playing up” — competing in a bigger classification despite being in a smaller classification — prior to the 2010-11 season.

Should Edelbrock and Taos decide to pursue remaining in AAAA past this upcoming season, however, the argument could be a tough sell. As it stands, only 14 teams would be classified in A-3A and only four teams are set to play in what would be Taos’ new district.

Bruce Cottrell, head coach of the Hilltopper girls tennis squad, said he hoped a way could be worked out for the Tigers to remain in 2AAAA.

“If anything, (the district) is slightly weakend,” Cottrell said. “Taos has been our most consistent competition in district…Santa Fe hasn’t been that strong in recent years.”

The tennis alignment is perhaps the most convoluted of any sport in the state. In District 3AAAA, for example, both Cobre and Silver, which will play Class AAA in most sports, will remain in AAAA in tennis, specifically “due to geographic location,” according to the NMAA’s final draft.

Despite it having just four classifications — football, in contrast, has seven — tennis’ five Class AAAA districts have anywhere between three and seven teams.

District 1 is the largest and geographically largest, with teams from the Belen area and the Farmington area lumped together.

Additionally, tennis boasts a small team classification, which is set apart not because student population but by number of tennis players at each school.

Los Lunas, which is currently a Class AAAAA school, and Evangel Christian, which has a student enrollment of less than 60, are both lumped in the small school district.

But the craziness of tennis’ outlay may play into Taos’ favor should it choose to push for continued inclusion in 2AAAA. Taos would be in the sticks, relatively speaking, compared to the other three teams in District 2AAA — Las Vegas Robertson, West Las Vegas and Raton.

Cottrell said Taos could make a good case that, in geographic terms, it should remain where it is instead of moving down.

But even if there is a way, Cottrell said, the question could well boil down to whether there’s a will.

“The biggest problem, I’ve heard, is getting their own school to take the initiative,” Cottrell said of the Taos tennis program. “Tennis is not a high priority at any school.”

Bernalillo’s inclusion as part of 2AAAA in the final draft might have come as a bit of a surprise considering it and not Taos, was scheduled to leave the district under the NMAA’s initial proposal and its revised proposal, which was released in late January.

Bernalillo was marked to join District 5AAAA in most sports under both proposals, something that the Spartans’ athletic director Terry Darnell said he was looking forward to because it would cut down on his school’s travel costs. Most teams in District 5 were within a 30-minute drive of the Bernalillo campus.

Geographically, the district is smaller with Taos removed, however. Los Alamos, a little more than an hour away from Bernalillo, could be the Spartans’ longest road trip if they can schedule Albuquerque-area schools for their teams’ nondistrict slates, something Darnell said he was hoping to do.

Since their inclusion into District 2AAAA following the 2004-05 season, when they replaced St. Pius X, the Spartans haven’t generally figured into the outcome of most district title races other than boys basketball and baseball. Their girls programs have hovered near the bottom of the district standings in virtually every sport in virtually every season since their inclusion.

St. Pius was a different matter entirely, excelling in most major sports in the four years it competed in 2AAAA.

Santa Fe has been a cellar-dweller in most major sports since joining District 2AAAAA and has in recent years had only spotty success against most AAAA teams — Los Alamos is a frequent nondistrict competitor in several sports, as is Santa Fe’s cross-town rival Capital. And Santa Fe has been routinely thumped in competitions of any stripe against AAA St. Michael’s.

In 2008-09, Santa Fe qualified for just two team sport postseasons, baseball and softball.

The NMAA’s final alignment document, including all sports in all classifications, can be found on its website, www.nmact.org.