Deerfield-Windsor School eighth graders participate in a game of dodgeball during P.E. class Friday at the upper campus. DWS Headmaster Dave Davies is considering whether to join the Georgia High School Association or remain a member of the GISA.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Deerfield-Windsor Athletic Director Gordy Gruhl knows exactly where the school stands on its decision whether to leave the Georgia Independent School Association for the Georgia High School Association or not.
He knows that nobody knows right now.
“It’s like walking into a room with someone behind you with his hands over your eyes,’’ Gruhl said of the possible move to the GHSA. “You don’t know what’s in front of you and you don’t know what’s behind you. There’s just too much that is unknown.”
School officials at Deerfield simply aren’t sure whether the athletic program should leave the all-private school league and join the GHSA. They are certain that the clock is ticking. They must apply to the GHSA by April 1.
They will decide on Thursday night.
That’s when Deerfield’s Board of Trustees — a 29-member board which includes parents, grandparents, alumni, past parents and community leaders — will vote on either to stay or go.
DWS started thinking about leaving the GISA when three of its biggest rivals — Tattnall Square, Mount de Sales and Stratford — decided to move to the GHSA.
Deerfield formed a committee last month to look into the possibility of leaving after Mount de Sales announced it was bolting to the GHSA, and the discussion of whether to stay or leave has heated up after Tattnall and Stratford also announced March 4 that they would be leaving to join the GHSA.
“We had talked beforehand and had a couple of meetings and put together a committee to look at all the possibilities,’’ Gruhl said. “We knew we were on a short leash (with an April 1 deadline).’’
The 12-person committee consists of parents, coaches, alumni and administrators, and their job is to submit a report to the DWS Board of Trustees. If there is a decision to make the move, Deerfield wouldn’t join the GHSA until the 2014-15 school year.
The problem is no one will know the answers to the most vital questions by Thursday. That’s Deerfield’s unique dilemma.
DWS Headmaster David Davies knows what the problems are but he also knows that no one has a clear answer.
“One of the biggest challenges to this whole thing is we are not sure what region or area we would be in if we do make the move to the GHSA, and the GHSA can’t tell us because they won’t know until they have their reclassification meetings this summer,’’ Davies said.
Davies does know what the looming problem is if DWS stays in the GISA, which has been depleted of schools and competition over the years.
The exodus by the three Macon schools diminished not only the number of Class AAA programs in the GISA, but it also pushed the level of competition to an all-time low in the GISA.
“I don’t know what will happen if we stay,’’ said Gruhl, who coaches the boys basketball team and golf team. “Macon has been wiped out. Westfield is the only GISA AAA school left there. The competition has gone down. Losing those schools hurt. There’s no question about that. There are not many schools our size left in the GISA. I’m already having trouble getting a basketball schedule for next year.’’
The numbers in GISA’s biggest classification (AAA) right now are alarming. There were only 12 teams competing in Class AAA football this season, and with the three Macon schools leaving there would be just nine. There were 21 AAA teams in boys basketball before the Macon exit, and there are only 18 AAA teams left now that the three schools Macon schools have bolted. There will be only 16 baseball teams left in AAA after state champ Tattnall Square and the other Macon schools leave.
Gruhl said the GISA would probably make an adjustment with the three classes and move some of the bigger Class AA programs into Class AAA to provide more teams in AAA, but he is concerned about the level of competition.
With a shrinking GISA, a move to the GHSA makes sense to some, but the lingering problem is no one is sure what would happen if Deerfield made the move.
DWS wouldn’t compete in the GHSA until 2014, and no one knows where the DWS teams would land. Most speculate that if Deerfield does move to the GHSA that it will compete in Region 1-A, which now consists of schools from Mitchell County, Terrell County, Randolph-Clay, Miller County, Seminole County, Calhoun County, Webster County, Stewart County, Baker County and Baconton Charter.
TOO MANY QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS
Even if Deerfield does end up playing in Region 1-A, there are a long list of questions that exist because those schools don’t field teams in sports such as soccer, swimming, wrestling and tennis. In those sports, the GHSA uses a wider geographic format known as area competition.
“We have 17 sports and the literary competition,’’ Davies said. “And you have to look at each of them separately. They are all different. Some would be in a region and some would be in an area. The closest area would be Columbus, Macon or possibly Savannah.’’
That prospect would be far more costly because of the extended travel in those sports. DWS would compete in a region — possibly Region 1-A — in the more traditional team sports such as football, basketball, baseball and softball. But even in those traditional sports there are looming problems if Deerfield joins the GHSA.
The GHSA went to a new format for Class A teams this year, separating public schools and private schools into individual state tournaments and using a power ranking formula to rank all the teams. The region winners and Top 16 ranked teams qualified for the state playoffs.
DWS would play a regular season schedule against the public schools in the region, but to qualify for the state playoffs in those team sports, Deerfield would be forced to either win the region or be ranked in the Top 16 private school teams in the state.
“We could go 8-2 in football and not make the playoffs,’’ Davies said. “We don’t know what will happen with the power rankings. Some of the public schools aren’t happy with the power rankings.’’
“I don’t think anyone (in GHSA) is real happy with the power rating formula, and they will probably tweak that,’’ said Gruhl.
There is also the possibility the GHSA may change the format and go back to one state tournament for the Class A schools.
“There is a strong feeling that the public/private split will go away,’’ Davies said. “Nothing has come out of the GHSA, but I’ve talked to several headmasters and they are saying people aren’t happy with it. Nobody knows. They could change the rules at any time.’’
The GHSA will meet this summer and decide what to do about the current classification format, and one thing that concerns Deerfield is the discussion of using a multiplier system for private schools. Many public schools believe it’s not right to judge private schools strictly on enrollment because private schools are not limited to a district to draw students. The idea is to take a private school’s enrollment and multiply it by 1.5.
“If they go to the multiplier, then we would be a Class AA school,’’ said Davies, whose enrollment in the high school is only 270 students. That enrollment would clearly make Deerfield a Class A school in the GHSA — unless the GHSA uses the multiplier.
If Deerfield ended up having to play in Class AA, Deerfield would not only have to compete against schools with larger enrollments but would likely end up in Region 1-AA along with Fitzgerald, Cook, Brooks County, Thomasville, Early County, Pelham and Berrien, which is arguably the most competitive Class AA football region in all of Georgia. During the season last fall, four of the top six teams in the state poll were from Region 1-AA.
Davies is also concerned with the way the GHSA categorizes its state swimming meet. Instead of having six separate classes — which is the way football, basketball and other sports are classified — the state swimming meet is divided into two classes: The AAAAAA and AAAAA schools compete in the big school state swimming meet, and everyone else competes in the smaller school meet, which includes everyone from Class A through Class AAAA.
“One thing the GHSA does is they have two categories for the state swimming meet,’’ Davies said. “We would be competing with the AAAA schools. One of the things we are hearing from our parents is they want to give the kids an opportunity to compete. We would be a Class A school competing with everyone in AA, AAA, and AAAA in swimming, and fewer kids would have the opportunity to compete.’’
Deerfield wanted feedback from parents, so the committee created a survey for parents to find out what they wanted for the school. There were questions on the survey, but no one was asked specifically if DWS should move to the GHSA or not.
Committee members could not be interviewed for this story because Deerfield chose to keep their identities secret. The DWS parents have been talking for weeks about what the move would mean to their children.
“I have heard both sides of the argument from parents, and there are some vocal voices on both sides,’’ said Jeff Lanier, who went to DWS for 12 years and has had four sons play sports there. He has a daughter in second grade and another in fifth grade at Deerfield now, and his youngest son, Grey, is a junior.
He is as invested as any parent or alum at the school.
“It’s a very difficult decision,’’ Lanier said. “But it’s one that was not initiated by Deerfield. We have been painted into a corner. The Macon schools left and they will play each other (in the GHSA). The AAA division in the GISA has dwindled down to nothing. I truly wish the GISA had been more proactive when they saw the trends of schools leaving years ago. When schools started to leave they didn’t do anything.’’
Schools have been leaving for the past decade, and that’s what bothers many DWS parents and coaches.
“It’s a trend that has been going on for the past years. It started when Riverside Military left 10 years ago and other schools started leaving and the dominoes started to fall,’’ Lanier said. “It bothers me that the GISA just sat there and watched it. They kind of dropped the ball. I think it’s inevitable that Deerfield will go to the GHSA, it’s just a question of when.’’
Lanier said everyone at the school has an opinion.
“I truly can see both sides of the issue,’’ he said. “There are parents who really want to stay because they are comfortable the way it is now. People don’t like change. I’m not going to be upset no matter what the decision is. I have faith in the board. It’s made up of a lot of really smart people who have the best interest of the school, and they will do the right thing. That’s a group a whole lot smarter than me, and they will make the right decision.’’
NO CROSSOVER HURTS THE GISA
Deerfield’s dilemma exists in part because the GHSA won’t allow its members to play GISA schools.
“If the GHSA allowed teams to cross over and play, then I would have all the competition I want,’’ Gruhl said. “We wouldn’t be talking about moving to the GHSA.’’
No one likes the idea of playing watered-down competition in the GISA, but as teams leave the organization, schools such as DWS have no where to go to find better competition because of the GHSA’s ban on playing teams from the GISA.
“I don’t know why they don’t allow their teams to cross over,’’ Davies said. “I saw it in Pennsylvania and saw it in Texas. If the GHSA allowed teams to cross over and play the GISA you would never have a problem filling your non-region schedule. I really think if the GHSA had allowed the crossover, we would not be thinking about moving, and the Macon schools would have stayed.
“The GHSA was going to put a proposal on its agenda to play crossover games. And it got removed from the agenda.’’
Deerfield, which is arguably the most successful private school program in the state in athletics, is already hunting for good competition. Gruhl plays in a holiday basketball tournament in Alabama against that state’s top private-school league teams, and Lowe has been inventive by going to Tallahassee to play Florida powerhouse North Florida Christian, which is a member of Florida’s FHSAA that has both private and public schools.
“You want your teams to get better,” Davies said. “And if you fill your schedule with public schools it will get better. We need four more North Florida Christian’s.’’
CAN DWS COMPETE IN THE GHSA?
A number of parents simply don’t want to change and are adamant about their feelings. After all, they are paying $11,000 a year to send their child to Deerfield, and they have a strong argument because Deerfield has had great success in the GISA.
If Deerfield leaves for the GHSA, the cross-town rivalry with Sherwood Christian would end because the two schools would no longer play each other, but SCA, which is in Class AA in GISA, would hardly be affected. The Eagles have local rivalry games within their region against Terrell Academy, Westwood and Southwest Georgia Academy.
Southland, a Class AAA GISA school and region rival of Deerfield’s, would probably not be affected, either.
“As far as I know we have had no discussions about leaving,’’ said Southland Athletic Director Tim Goodin, who coaches the football and baseball teams. “We’re a lot closer to the AA numbers than Deerfield. We are only about 20 kids over the AA limit. Deerfield probably has 100 or more students than we have. It’s the bigger schools that are leaving, and they are a lot bigger than us. That’s probably why we haven’t had any discussions.’’
Deerfield’s possible exit might also change the classifications in the GISA. Mount de Sales, Tattnall Square, Stratford and Deerfield are some of the largest schools in GISA, and there is speculation that the GISA might do away with the AAA classification.
“If Deerfield leaves, the GISA will probably go to two classifications,’’ Goodin said. “That was discussed two years ago. If they did that, we would probably be in the same region with Terrell Academy, Sherwood and SGA (which are all AA now).’’
Deerfield has enough trouble worrying about which schools will be in its region in the GHSA. But that’s an accepted part of the equation.
“Any time you have change there are going to be question marks,’’ DWS football coach Lowe said. “Whether we stay or go, there will be question marks, and if we go to the GHSA because it’s brand new there will be more questions. It’s like changing jobs or anything else.’’
Lowe knows DWS can compete in the GHSA. He has been there, done that. Lowe coached at Calvary Baptist, a GHSA school, for six years.
“We made the playoffs every year I was there,’’ Lowe said. “It’s a big difference in competition because there is a deeper pool so your definition for a successful season changes. Can we compete? Yes we can.
“The difference is we go in every year knowing we want to play in that final game (for the state championship),’’ added Lowe, who has won four state titles at DWS, including three in the past five years. “There’s a difference in saying you’re going to win the state championship every year and being competitive and having a successful season.’’
Other schools have left the GISA for the GHSA and had success.
Deerfield feels if it makes the move that it will be able to compete in all sports, including football and basketball. Schools such as George Walton, which made the move to the GHSA three years ago, have had a lot of success and the feeling is if Deerfield makes the move the Knights will be able to compete in Class A in all sports.
“Absolutely,’’ said Seminole County football coach Alan Ingram, whose team has won the last two Region 1-A football titles. “They would be able to compete in football and basketball and all of the other sports. The private schools who have dropped out of that league and come into the GHSA have had no problem competing. George Walton has done very well. Nobody questions that (Deerfield would be able to compete). I know both of their coaches (Lowe and Gruhl) for years. Allen and Gordy do a great job of coaching. Good coaching can take care of a lot of things.’’
Don Williams, who is the head football coach and athletic director at George Walton, understands Deerfield’s problem, but agrees that the DWS teams would have no trouble competing in the GHSA. George Walton made the move without a hitch and the football team played in the GHSA state semifinals this season.
“We did it because of travel issues,’’ Williams said. “And our parents were in favor of us moving to the GHSA because they were tired of the travel. They were all for it because the travel killed us. For instance, we would travel 3 1/2 hours to play Deerfield, and 3 1/2 hours back. We haven’t had any issues after coming to the GHSA. We love the GISA but we’ve been very happy in the GHSA. It’s been good for our kids to play in the GHSA.
“We had a lot of success in the GISA. Deerfield had as much success as anyone in the GISA, and they will have success in the GHSA. Schools like Tattnall and Deerfield will be just as good in the GHSA as they were in the GISA.’’
Williams said he understood Deerfield’s problem of being uncertain of a future in the GHSA, but added that he thought the move would work out well, because of the schools in Region 1-A.
“I’m from Cairo and I coached at Early County,’’ Williams said. “I grew up in South Georgia, and I know Deerfield will be able to compete in (Region 1-A) and I know they will be fine, because those are good people at Seminole County and Miller and Mitchell County and those other schools. They’re going to play hard and you better be ready to play, but the folks in South Georgia are good people.’’
Williams knows there are a lot of questions facing Deerfield, but he said he had faith the school would make the right decision.
“I know they are looking at it and you are just going into the unknown,’’ Williams said. “You have to do what’s best for your school, and Deerfield has a great history.’’
There’s little doubt that DWS could compete in Class A in all sports, but many wonder how Deerfield would fare against the bigger schools in Albany. If Deerfield makes the move to the GHSA it wouldn’t affect Albany’s four public schools, which are all Class AAAA schools.
“If they are a Class A team it wouldn’t have any impact on us at all,’’ said Dougherty County Director of Athletics Johnny Seabrooks, who oversees the public schools but would have no jurisdiction over DWS.
“If they were a AAAA school they would be in our region and they would play our four schools, but if they’re a Class A team they wouldn’t be on our region schedule. I don’t see any impact right now. It will be 2014 before they come and no one knows what the GHSA will do. Will we stay with six classes or go back to five classes? The classifications could change.’’
Seabrooks said he didn’t know if the Albany public schools would play Deerfield in non-region games or not, but he added that the decision will be up to the individual schools.
“I let the schools make their schedules,’’ he said.
Even though Westover, Monroe, Dougherty and Albany High are Class AAAA schools, there could be opportunities to play Deerfield in non-region games.
Over the years, DWS could emerge as a new city rival — even as a Class A team facing bigger AAAA schools.
“I think it would be in their best interest to come over to the GHSA,’’ Westover football coach Octavia Jones said. “As an outsider looking in, I think it would be of more benefit for them to come over than to stay. I think they can compete in that region (1-A).
“It won’t have any bearing on us because we’re AAAA, but it could give us a chance to pick up a non-region game and not have to travel. I’m pretty sure that a non-region game between us and Deerfield would have a lot of interest and have a pretty good crowd.’’
Don’t buy any tickets yet.
“There are people at Deerfield who just don’t like the idea of change,’’ Gruhl said. “They like things the way they are. People are afraid of change. They are comfortable with the GISA. There’s good and bad in doing it either way. Neither is perfect. That I know for sure.’’