By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
It’s something that’s been talked about for years. Now it’s official.
Beginning with the 2014 football season, Class 6A will be divided into two divisions for only football. Stillwater High School will join the smaller schools in Division II.
With a 25-5 vote, athletic directors decided to divide Class 6A in football over another proposal that would have kept the class together in four districts with two larger and two smaller schools from each district advancing. Thirty of the 32 coaches voted, with Tulsa Union abstaining and another school failing to return its ballot.
The approved proposal will divide the class into two 16-team divisions, with two eight-team districts in each division. Four teams from each district will advance to the playoffs.
“It’s a real interesting change,” Stillwater football coach and athletic director Tucker Barnard said. “I’m a little torn, honestly. I understand the feeling and I know the challenges of being a much smaller school than (the bigger schools). But I also have a personal belief and a personal desire to play those schools.
“I’m not sure how it’s all going to shake out or what people’s opinion is going to be on this split four or five years from now. I know that in general people are usually pretty resistant to change. ... It’s difficult to compete for a lot of the smaller schools, but I just feel like Stillwater has a history of competing well against those big schools. I’m not sure that I completely agree with the idea that this is what had to happen, but this is what it’s going to be and we’ll make the best of it.”
Another proposal — deemed Plan II — called for Class 6A to stay together with four eight-team districts. Out of those districts two large schools and two small schools would advance to their respective playoffs.
Barnard, who confirmed that he was one of the five to vote against the split, said there was a third option that was discussed among the athletic directors at meetings but that proposal, along with an opportunity to keep things the way they are, did not appear on the ballot.
“The thing that causes the most concern is that we had 31 of 32 coaches in the meetings and had a plan that we all agreed on,” Barnard said. “Basically we agreed to split the playoffs similar to Plan II, where we had four divisions with three large schools and three small schools from each division making the playoffs. We were given a similar proposal with Plan II, which had two large schools and two small schools advancing but I don’t think a lot of people liked the way it felt. You could go 7-3 in a large division and not make the playoffs, so it wasn’t a good situation for those larger schools. Ultimately, I think that’s what killed that proposition.”
But the split might not be as bad as it seems for Stillwater. Either Jenks or Tulsa Union have won the last 17 state championships. Now that they’re playing in the smaller division, the Pioneers might have their own chance to win a gold ball.
“I don’t think that there’s any question that it makes us more competitive for state championships a lot sooner,” Barnard said. “Probably all of the bottom 16 schools — what’s going to be the new Class 6A Division II — feel like, ‘OK, now we have a more realistic chance of winning a state championship.’ In that sense, I think it is a good thing.
“I’m more concerned about losing the opportunity to play some of the larger, better schools. I think it drives us to be better. It may not be that way everywhere. I understand that there are some places that feel like they can’t be competitive with those bigger schools, but I just don’t feel like that’s the case here. If you look back over the history, I think we have been competitive. We don’t have any state championships to hoist right now, but we’ve been competitive and I think ultimately those schools have made us better over time.”
When asked whether or not a state championship in the new division would be diminished because they didn’t have to face Tulsa Union or Jenks, Barnard likened it to a state championship in a smaller class.
“There will be a lot of people that will want to say that,” Barnard said. “I don’t believe it will take anything away from that accomplishment at all. I can feel quite confident in saying that there’s a greater level of fairness for a smaller schools. There’s no doubt about that. I don’t think it will take anything away from whatever school wins that first championship or somebody that goes on a run and wins a lot of championships. They’ll be just as excited about that as they would if they won a Class 2A or 3A championship. It’s still going to be a great accomplishment and there’s going to be a lot of really competitive football in Division II. ... There’s just a personal element for me and our school. Stillwater High School, our community and Stillwater kids, like the challenge of playing the big schools.”
It’s losing that kind of challenge that has Barnard worried about the effect OSSAA’s decision will have on the Pioneer program.
“There’s been a lot of years where Stillwater has had some really good football teams,” Barnard said. “I just think that if you ask our kids what they want to do, our kids are going to say that they want that challenge. They know it’s a challenge and they know what they’re up against. We’ve played those teams for many years and they play great football and do a great job, but we want to see what we can do against them. ... Our kids come through junior high looking forward to being a high school football player and playing Tulsa Union or Owasso in the district schedule.”
They may not get to play teams like Jenks, Owasso and Tulsa Union in future district games, but there will still be plenty of rivalries to feed the frenzy of fans and players alike.
“Those rivalries are important to us not just because of the geographic location but because we are similar in size to each other and close to each other,” he said. “We tend to play each other in every sport, so those rivalries are developed that way. I’d imagine that there will be new rivalries that develop. We’ll have new teams that we’re playing every year. This changes the landscape of football quite a bit in Oklahoma. It’s yet to be seen whether it will be a positive change or not. I just hope that we’re able to continue to develop rivalries also. I would love to see the rivalries between Tulsa Union, Stillwater and Owasso — rivalries formed in district play — develop, too.”
As far as playing teams like Tulsa Union and Owasso in the future, Barnard wouldn’t rule out the possibility of playing non-district games against teams from the larger division.
“I’m hoping that we still have the opportunity to play some of those Division I schools in the non-district schedule,” Barnard said. “We would like to do that. There’s obviously a lot of things to work out. It’s not just a matter of what we want to do. We have to find Division I schools that feel like there is some benefit to playing Stillwater. What that might be will depend on different school’s perspective, but I think in the end Stillwater is going to put out a very competitive football teams.”
And when asked if there would ever be a possibility of a real state championship game — even if it’s just an exhibition the week after the state championships — Barnard seemed highly doubtful.
“I would be really surprised if (a postseason exhibition) gained any traction,” Barnard said. “I think there’s too much for both sides to lose. ... I think it would certainly be interesting, and I’m probably crazy enough to be in favor of something like that. I just can’t imagine it gaining traction across the state.”