Frank Huston has seen it all over the years.
Since beginning his career as a softball head coach back in 1967, Huston has seen the road to a state tournament change various times in various ways.
For many years, only the best 16 teams would make it state. In 1994, it became one of the best eight teams in three classes. A decade later, it became the elite eight in a four-class alignment.
Now, after 45 years as a head softball coach, a new challenge awaits Huston this season. The long-time leader of the Ottumwa softball program will be one of 40 coaches looking to lead his team to becoming Iowa’s first-ever Class 5A state champion this summer as the Iowa Girls Athletic Union begins a new five-class era of athletics with this summer’s softball season.
“I think it’s probably a good thing for the entire softball program in the state of Iowa,” Huston said. “It doesn’t effect us too much, but it will have an effect on some our neighbors. It’s gives a lot of schools the chance to make it to state without having to go through schools that have such a huge size differential.”
“I think it makes things that much more exciting,” Ottumwa senior Paige Schreiner added. “It’s such a prestige stage. Class 5A is unheard of in Iowa. I feel very fortunate to be a part of the first group to play on that level with the biggest schools around the state.”
The chase for a new state title is just one of the many subplots to the new alignment, which will be in effect for softball, volleyball and basketball. The main factor that led to change, providing more statewide parity, has already created new levels of excitement for schools that suddenly see new opportunities and new postseason rivals to contend for state tournament berths with.
“Instead of playing the Fort Madisons and Keokuks, we’re facing Albia and Davis County now,” Centerville head coach Mike Miller said. “That doesn’t make it any easier, it just makes it a different look come tournament time. That’s what makes it fun.”
Miller’s team is one of the schools that doesn’t move, as Centerville will remain in Class 3A. The Redettes have already seen one benefit to the new format, as Centerville began the season ranked sixth in the 3A preseason softball poll.
Miller is hopeful his team can live up to those preseason expectations as one of the last eight teams to make it to Fort Dodge for the 3A state tournament. The new road the Redettes will have makes that goal seem much more attainable.
“I’d be lying if I said we were looking forward to facing teams (in the postseason) like Oskaloosa and Fort Madison that have the numbers on us,” Miller said.
Ultimately, numbers played the biggest factor in the state moving their biggest sports from four classes to five. IGHSAU assistant director Joel Oswald cited enrollment differentials found in Class 4A alone last year when West Des Moines Valley, the biggest school, nearly quadrupled the smallest 4A school (Western Dubuque) with an enrollment advantage of 2,016-564.
Ottumwa, which is separated by almost 70 miles from any school with a Class 5A-level enrollment, would also find themselves at a competitive advantage without the separation by classification.
“We sit geographically in an area with a lot of smaller schools,” Huston said. “If you have no classes, two classes or three classes, it would probably benefit us because we have the opportunity to play smaller schools to get to state.”
Instead, the creation of a fifth class that moves the largest 40 schools will allow for more shifting to help create more balance for area teams. Oskaloosa, which has found themselves at different times in postseason matchups with the Bulldogs, will be a Class 4A team for all three sports, along with Fairfield and Chariton.
“The schools that maybe were a little out of their reach when they were forced to play in a bigger class will have a real chance at making it to state,” Schreiner said. “Schools like Carlisie, Clear Creek-Amana and Dallas Center-Grimes would be good no matter what class they were in, but it’ll be interesting and exciting to see how other teams react to playing in these new classes.”
Other area teams that will be part of the classification changes including Davis County and Albia joining Centerville in Class 3A, which should lead to several postseason battles between the SCC rivals. North Mahaska, which has been one of the better schools for girls athletics in Class 1A, including a unbeaten run to state basketball title last winter, will now move up to Class 2A while Bluegrass schools like Moravia, Moulton-Udell and Twin Cedars will have the chance to be one of eight new state tournament qualifiers.
“The more that can qualify for state, the better it is for those communities,” Huston said. “If you look at other sports like track, a lot of teams are represented already at that state meet. Maybe now it’s fair for all.”
The first real impact of the new classification won’t be seen until later this summer. That impact will be on display in Fort Dodge in late July, where 40 teams will converge to compete for five titles in the new, expanded version of the state softball tournament.
“That’s crazy. That seems like so many girls,” Schreiner said. “But, the more girls there are the more exciting the tournament gets. With 40 teams of girls in one location, it’s going to create more enthusiasm than you’ve ever seen before.”
2012 AREA SCHOOLS SOFTBALL CLASSIFICATIONS
Oskaloosa, Fairfield, Chariton
Centerville, Davis County, Albia
Eddyville-Blakesburg, Cardinal, Van Buren, Pekin, North Mahaska
Twin Cedars, Sigourney, Tri-County, Moravia, Seymour, Moulton-Udell