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High school girls’ basketball national rankings: Time for a change?

By Bob Corwin, 10/27/22, 7:15PM PDT


Times have changed in high school basketball and it's time for national rankings to change along with them.  The ideas presented below come from over four decades involved in girls’ basketball with my last decade consulting closely with those involved with national rankings in the sport.  What is right in one sport may not be the best way to represent things (here national rankings) in another sport so I am not weighing in as to recommending any changes in actions in rankings outside basketball.  
The goal of this piece is to present the reasons for the need to separate girls’ [and boys'] national high school basketball rankings into two lists, the make-up of each of the two proposed polls and how to accomplish this with as little pain (and more recognition) as possible.  Also, the article will briefly cover the handling of post-season honors in the sport.   Near the end of the article, the reader will find several links and definitions of terms used in this discussion. 
Competitive equity in recognition of a national ranking 
To start with, the simple question is who should one consider for ranking in girls’ basketball?   Obviously, the school needs to have talent enough to be successful on the court and strength of opposition should figure into the equation.   
The issue now becomes what rules did this candidate school have to follow to get the talent sufficient enough to produce (in pre-season expected to produce) results sufficient to gain possible ranking (here national) recognition.  Over the last five years (maybe a bit more), an increasing number of schools who do not re-class (see definitions below) and are not NFHS (see definitions below) members or involuntary affiliate member (see definitions below) schools are appearing strong enough to be serious national rankings candidates.  These schools have the competitive advantage of attracting players nationally and internationally (even boarding them) versus schools with pre-set boundaries of residence (city, town, county or even metropolitan area [in practice for private non-boarding schools]) as Federation schools have.                  
To further look at competitive equity, Federation schools in many states refuse to play schools that re-class (see definitions) as these players are viewed as being a bit older and more experienced.  Generally, these schools (NEPSAC, re-classing independents/academies, schools of voluntary affiliates that can re-class) have been excluded from the three national rankings (MaxPreps, Blue Star and ESPN) on the girls’ side.  Last year MaxPreps instituted a separate boys’ ranking of Independent/Academy schools but not considering the NEPSAC (see definitions) for inclusion.   

I maintain the competitive advantage of a wide geographic net in attracting players for the “Independents/Academy” schools outweighs the advantage of the NEPSAC in re-classing (with some built-in limitations on who NEPSAC schools can attract due to the greater academic emphasis of these schools). In doing some investigating, I found evidence of re-classing on the girls’ side in a couple of the Independent/Academy schools MaxPreps had ranked in its boys’ Academy/Independent poll.  One “Independent” school girls coach indicated off the record that the Academy/Independent schools that MaxPreps was ranking had boys that had at some point re-classed. As these schools had future NBA prospects, they needed to get recognized (no problem by me!!) having re-classed player or no re-classed players!

What I am saying is it is time to be open and honest and recognize all worthy basketball high school teams but do so in a fashion (described below) where there is significantly greater competitive equity be it not perfect.      
The nuts and bolts of the two national rankings polls [Federation and AIP]... 
One can argue how to be fair to all and come close to perfect competitive equity.  Below is a two-division setup easily accomplished with no need to check who is recruiting whom or who is re-classing for athletic purposes.  More schools will get recognition and all players will get the recognition they have earned on the court.  I do not say this is needed in every sport but feel the time has come for this to be implemented in basketball.   
Federation [really Federation state-series schools and Involuntary Affiliate members]: 
This group includes NFHS Federation high schools participating in a State series playoff and those schools in a NFHS Affiliate where they must be to be attached to be part of the NFHS. This includes schools in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association, South Carolina Independent School Association, Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools and the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (all of whom hold post-season championships for its members).  In these four states, the State Member largely consists of just public schools (and a few non-public that were mostly grandfathered in) but considers schools in these Affiliates to be in “good standing” with the State Member and NFHS.  I refer to these schools as members of the four “Involuntary Affiliates” (see definitions below).      
The schools in the Federation poll must conform to rules set outside the individual school sometimes in multiple layers (school board, conference/section as well as those of the State Member itself).  They usually include when a team can start to practice, play its first game and last game before post-season play [run by the State Member or Involuntary Affiliate], the number of games a school can schedule before post-season play, what the actual playing rules are (shot clock or no shot clock), has age restrictions, what a coach can or cannot do with team members in the off-season, how inbound transfers to a school are deemed eligible and who Member schools can or cannot compete with (sometimes very restrictive and sometimes no restrictions).  The schools described above almost never allow re-classing of students (see definitions below) except in very rare cases usually related to health issues and there is strong oversight on this issue.     
AIP [Academies/Independents/Preps] (really a bit more than this as explained below; some re-class for athletic purposes while others do not): 
This second ranking group would consist of the following:  
  1. Federation non-state series schools – a few State Members have schools that do not play in the State playoffs largely because their recruiting base (national and even international) would give them too great an advantage over other member schools. Yet these schools follow all other rules (including non-re-classing of students for athletic purposes) needed to make them eligible for inclusion in the State Member. 
  1. Voluntary Affiliate schools – these are primarily schools who are members of the Georgia Independent School Association and Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association.  These schools are connected to NFHS through an Affiliate when they could have attempted to join the State Member conforming to its rules but choose not to do so thus the term “voluntary”. 
  1. Maryland ‘approved non-member' schools - Maryland State Member MPSSAA consists only of public schools but has created a category of ‘approved non-member' for private schools in Maryland in order for them to play Federation schools both in Maryland and other states. To be an ‘approved non-member,' these schools must abide by the Maryland age limitation, non-use of players below ninth grade and Maryland’s eight semester participation rule.  Although a portion of Maryland’s private schools have sets of league rules, others operate independently able to practice as they choose, play whomever they wish to schedule when and where they so choose, take transfers as they so choose and even play by their own rules (use the shot clock as MPSSAA does [almost all do] or not.  No Maryland private school student ever plays for any “official” state title, as unlike nearby Virginia, none are held as there is no NFHS-connected governing body for these schools in Maryland.  Despite attempts in the past, the majority of non-public schools in Maryland prefer their freedom of action to forming a governing body as was the case of the four states with ‘Involuntary Affiliates’.  A few state Federations will not Maryland private schools in individual game settings as they see them as “non-members” [choosing to ignore the “approved” status] or not participating in a “official State series leading to crowning a State champion.”  
  1. NEPSAC members – these are the well over 100 private day and boarding schools mostly in New England. These schools (generally small) have existed for decades primarily catering to those interested in these select small school settings and financially able to send their children to board for high school or fortunate enough to afford the tuition on a non-boarding (sometimes referred to as “Day School”) basis.  In about the last decade, a significant number of these schools began to attract a growing percentage of future NCAA Division 1 boys' and girls' basketball players in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to the point where it is estimated that the number has grown to over 75% (on the girls’ side which I am discussing here although I understand it is large on the boys’ side as well) of D1 prospects in those four states (one reason why almost no Federation schools in those four states has been ranked nationally on the girls’ side since about 2015).  Speaking only on the girls’ side, I do wish these NEPSAC schools that have the Division one talent would venture more often outside the NEPSAC to test themselves.  Events now exist outside New England where this is possible and if you have the D1 talent, go play outside your comfort zone!      
  1. Independent schools and academies – these are educational institutions not otherwise attached above.  To qualify in this poll, instruction of students can be in person, online or a combination of the above.  The student-athletes must sometime during the school week congregate in a physical location (thus representing that institution) with academic supervision of the student-athletes totally outside the control of team representatives or their immediate family but at the institution.  Teams whose players are home schooled, or go to a separate school with its own set of teams and then go elsewhere to play after school would not be included in this ranking as they are simply playing “year-round club ball.”  
Although the five sub-groups each have varying strengths and weaknesses, collectively, I see these all roughly close on balance as to competitive equity. 
How to do this split 
The set-up is easy but determining who should be ranked in any poll is not.  Factors are always team talent, strength of schedule (out of state travel to play is usually a plus here) and results. With this in mind, I would continue with ranking 25 schools (as has been done) in the Federation/Involuntary Affiliates list (let us call it Federation for short) possibly adding regional rankings (kudos to Blue Star Media that has regularly done this).   
For the second list, I would start with 15 schools for now. Please note that we are not commenting on the academic status of these schools many of which are outstanding institutions of learning. Let us call this list Academies/Independents/Preps [for short simply AIP] even though a few schools belonging to a NFHS Member would be included here for reason described above.    
Basketball players of the current generation continue to seek out what appears to them and their parents/guardians as the best path to success be it in sport and/or education. The flow currently appears out of Federation schools in girls’ basketball and if this trend continues it will probably trigger a future need to expand the AIP poll toward 25 in number where the Federation poll should remain.      
Combined poll brief history and the ESPN Geico post-season split 
Looking back on MaxPreps (strictly no teams that re-class allowed even without a currently known re-classed player on the roster) final girls basketball poll from 2021-2022, three teams that would have been in the AIP poll made the final cut.  During the season this number probably was as high as six at one time but may have approached 10 if re-classing had not been an issue.    
Last year for the first time the ESPN Geico post-season event held in early April was split into Federation state-series teams and others outside that group.  I just wish more NFHS State Members would allow participation.  Currently under ten do.        
All-American selections 
Like it or not, it is time to bite the bullet and just consider a player by current graduation class.  With student-athletes re-classing in middle school (to get around most Federation rules) or quietly in non-Federation high schools, it is becoming less and less possible to play detective and for better or worse, most people do not care.  Some may feel players from re-classing schools should not be recognized. The consensus NCAA Division 1 national collegiate player-of-the year in 2021-2022 came from a NEPSAC school.  Should we have pretended that she did not exist in high school?    
My perfect world but this one isn’t 
In my perfect girls’ basketball world, student-athletes would start playing by middle school, get high level individual training and team coaching.  Parents/guardians and the student-athlete in question would before entering high school do their research.  Together they would pick out a school that best fits the needs of the particular student-athlete given geographic and financial considerations.  The student-athletes would re-class only under very unusual circumstances (usually health) as I consider a year of adult life (enjoyment of the freedom of adult life, earning power; getting closer to future retirement) more important than success in a sport and generally with hard work, those behind have a good chance of catching up (junior college is one tool).  Having found a good high school fit, the student-athlete would then complete secondary education at the one school before advancing to college where they would then get a degree (hopefully on athletic scholarship) from that one college/university. 
Unfortunately, the above world never fully existed and exists less today than ever with re-classing in middle or high school, playing for two or more high schools or abandoning high school basketball for “year-round club” and then playing for more than one college using the transfer portal.  Having followed high school girls’ basketball in particular and high school sports in general for over four decades, I see the changes outlined above needed in the areas of competitive equity of national rankings for high school basketball teams and recognition of its student-athletes.       
Definitions and links: 
Link to National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) State Members (and Affiliates via tab at top):  
The State Members are largely independent of each other but work together as to developing rules and sanctioning events with teams from more than one state through NFHS.  
New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) contains over 150 day and boarding schools) primarily in New England.  Link to list of members: 
Re-classing – the act of a student-athlete repeating a grade generally done in middle school or early in high school to enhance the student-athlete's chances to improve getting a college athletic scholarship along with improved ability to more successfully handle a college academic work load.  
Involuntary Affiliate – an organization of a group of schools connected to the NFHS whose members largely cannot belong directly to the respective State Member who in turn considers these schools in “good standing” with it and would not advise any other NFHS State Member not to play them. 
Voluntary Affiliate - an organization of a group of schools connected to the NFHS whose members largely choose not to attempt to belong to the respective State Member.  Some State Members will not allow their member schools to play these schools just as they will not play totally non-NFHS member schools.  
State series school – high schools that play for an official state title run by a NFHS State Member or Involuntary Affiliate (generally non-public schools). 
Anyone interested in contacting Bob regarding this article can at: [subject - changing rankings]