The process of determining which schools in the Mississippi High School Activities Association will be in which regions for the two-year period beginning next fall is starting to reach a critical stage.
Last week, the MHSAA released the official enrollment numbers in grades 9-12 from the State Department of Education, and fans all across the state have spent the past week parsing their lists to see where the class breaks are and thus how the regions may shake out over the next two years.
The preliminary region assignments will be announced next weekend at the annual coaches' meeting in conjunction with the football state championships. After appeals are heard and decided on, the official assignments will be announced early next year.
Larry Dolan, Forrest County AHS football coach and athletic director, is on the MHSAA Executive Committee, which essentially ratifies the work of the executive directors who do "80 to 85 percent of the work.
"What they do is take a map of Mississippi and do one class at a time," Dolan said. "And they put a push pin for each school in the state in that class. Then they geographically look at it, and most of the time they fit."
After dividing the state into a north half and a south half, the directors assign schools to regions based on the best geographic fit, while also taking into account long-standing relationships between schools.
Up or down?
However, in some cases there is a geographical imbalance that has to be corrected, and sometimes that means assigning schools to regions not in their natural area.
Such a case is developing in Class 6A, where movement of schools up and down has created another situation where a Hattiesburg-area school will be grouped with schools on the Gulf Coast.
This year, the enrollment numbers show George County and Natchez moving down to Class 5A in the South, while Starkville, Hernando and Provine in the North have moved up to 6A, with Vicksburg moving down to 5A.
Not only does that mean some schools that have been in the North will slide to the South - probably Northwest Rankin and Jim Hill - but that leaves only seven schools in the Coast Region (4-6A for football and regions 7 and 8 for other sports).
In the past, Petal has been the area school that has been assigned to the Coast, but that may not be the case this time.
Oak Grove football coach Nevil Barr told Hattiesburg American sports writer Jason Munz earlier this week that he'd welcome a move to the Coast.
The reason is simple economics. Fans of the schools on the Gulf Coast travel in support of their teams much better than many of the schools from the Jackson area that are in Region 3. More visiting fans means more money for the host school.
Dolan said he wasn't sure how much a school's desire to move in a particular direction would impact the decision, but he said it would probably be at least considered.
New look in 4A
Once the 64 largest schools are assigned to Class 6A and Class 5A, the remaining schools are generally divided more or less evenly. In the past that has worked out to about 48-50 schools in the four lower classes.
This time, that might mean some big changes are in store for local schools. Things are going to be especially different in Class 4A.
According to the new enrollment figures, Laurel will be moving up to Class 5A, Moss Point and McComb will be dropping to 4A, Pass Christian will be moving up to 4A, and Tylertown and Louisville will both be dropping back to 3A.
That is going to mean some rearranging of the regions in 4A. In a preliminary division of 4A schools that I worked up over the weekend, I've got Newton County, which was in 5-4A, moving up to 4-4A to replace Louisville. That's going to leave two spots open in 5-4A.
Further, McComb takes Tylertown's spot in 7-4A, Purvis and FCAHS both go up to 5-4A and Poplarville slides over to take Purvis' place in 7-4A. Another scenario has FCAHS and Greene County both moving up to Region 5, with Purvis and Poplarville staying in their current regions.
And that's not even taking into account the possibility that Sumrall might find itself on the other side of the break between 4A and 3A. By my calculations, I have Sumrall staying in 3A - by exactly three students. If that's the case, Sumrall will be the largest 3A school in the state.
They are also sweating it out in Lumberton to see where the break between Class 2A and Class 1A is going to fall.
The prevailing view is that the Panthers are dropping to 1A, because the school's enrollment came up at 192. But that's not a certain thing. Complicating matters is the fact that there are still about a dozen schools, mostly in North Mississippi, that don't play football, but still have to be accounted for.
My thinking is that the MHSAA will want to avoid the 10-team football regions that have existed in 1A in years past, and if that's the case, I can see them keeping Lumberton in 2A, along with Hamilton and Pelahatchie, which have 195 and 193, respectively.
As you can see, there is a lot of work to be done between now and next Friday.