VHSL forced to allow private schools: Will Virginia’s youth soccer scene be affected?
In a surprising development that has left athletic directors and coaches with more questions than answers, the Virginia High School League announced last week that they’ll allow the state’s private schools to become members of the VHSL.
Liberty Christian Academy, a private school in Lynchburg, will immediately join after reaching an out-of-court settlement for the antitrust lawsuit they filed last year. All non-boarding private schools are now allowed to apply to join the public school leagues.
However, it appears dubious this will affect soccer, as many boys and girls private-school teams play in the fall whereas public school teams play in the spring.
“The only way it’d ever make sense [for us] is if the Virginia public schools decide to put soccer back where it should be in the fall,” said Matt Leiva, head boys soccer coach at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. “To switch over to the spring and join the public school program, it just wouldn’t make sense.”
One issue private schools might face by changing the timing of their soccer season is having to eliminate a spring sport while adding a fall sport. Some private schools don’t offer gym classes like public schools do, but require students to participate in a sport to graduate.
For smaller private schools who only offer one sport per season per gender, their students would be left with no fall options. For the spring, some athletic directors worry that the addition of soccer would dilute the talent in other sports.
The increasing popularity of lacrosse in Virginia presents another challenge. For some schools, including Virginia Episcopal School, several athletes participate in each program.
“Because we offer those in different seasons, we’re able to attract students to play both sports,” VES Athletic Director Bob Leake said. “With soccer in the fall, that affords many schools the ability to offer lacrosse and other sports in the spring.”
However, private schools could also benefit from changing when they play soccer. Many Virginia club and travel teams play in the fall, forcing athletes to either pick between teams or to play for both at the same time. Still, other obstacles remain.
Although some originally thought private schools’ travel times and costs would be cut by joining the VHSL, it becomes less true the farther a program is from the city. It also depends on where a school falls in the enrollment mix.
“I believe if we were to do it, we would be a 1A school and the closest 1A school to us is over two hours away,” Eastern Mennonite School athletic director Dave Bechler said. “The transportation for the conference tournaments would not be any better than what we’ve got now and we’d have some of the other issues we’d have to deal with.”
An additional obstacle is a potential provision that may require student athletes to come from two of the public school areas that supplies students to those schools. One athletic director mentioned how several of his coaches have already come to him asking if they could recruit LCA athletes, who would be ineligible under this rule.
Although boarding schools can’t enter the VHSL, day schools still attract students from a greater area than public schools. It would also be very difficult for some boarding schools to overcome if they are eventually allowed to join the public school leagues.
“For a school like us, that would be almost crippling, if they said you could only get athletes from this particular area,” Leake said. VES’s varsity boys’ soccer team draws players from North Carolina and Florida to Germany and China.
However, even while acknowledging the potential problems, one coach sees it as very positive change. Gino Leon, who is the varsity girls’ soccer head coach at Bishop Ireton High School in the fall and Fairfax High School in the spring, says this could get private school teams more exposure.
Other potential benefits include greater gate revenue and in some cases, a step up in competition. But for Leon’s private school, Bishop Ireton, joining the VHSL would mean leaving one of the top high school soccer leagues in the country: the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. That’s why he’s unsure of if he’d want his team to follow in LCA’s footsteps.
“It would be a very hard decision to make,” Leon said. “I really don’t know which way I would go. That’s a tough one.”
Unlike Leon, Bechler, Leake and Leiva doubt the rule change will spur much action. Bechler says his school hasn’t given it much thought while Leake’s conversations with other athletic directors make him think his division won’t lose any of the remaining 11 teams after LCA left. Leiva doesn’t believe many private schools will do this either, particularly in the WCAC.
“It opens up a lot of doors that the state of Virginia hasn’t really dealt with in the past,” Bechler said, “so it’s uncertain where it will go from here.”