UIL sees mixed reviews on recent rule changes

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FILE- The UIL Legislative Council passed an amendment for split divisions in the postseason for volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball and baseball. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]
The winds of change seem to blow constantly through the University Interscholastic League and sometimes those changes are minor and sometimes the changes are major.

The latest change by the governing body of high school public athletics to the playoff format is a doozie for several sports.

Last week the UIL Legislative council committee on athletics voted to change the current playoff structure – effective Aug. 1, 2024 – going with split divisions in postseason for Class 2A-6A volleyball, 4A-6A soccer and all six classifications in softball, baseball and basketball.

In a nutshell, the change – which has been talked about amongst Texas coaches and administrators for years – creates two state championship brackets in each classification.

Think the way the football postseason plays out with 12 state champions, and you have in focus the picture of what the future landscape looks like in volleyball, softball, baseball soccer and basketball.

However, unlike coaches in football learning at each two-year realignment which division their team plays in, for now, the Division I and Division II brackets will be determined by the enrollment of the four playoff teams following the completion of each district season.

The change has its obvious pluses and minuses.

A plus being schools with similar enrollments will mostly be pitted against each other, although there will remain large enrollment differences in some cases.

A minus, for some, is the end of regional tournaments and state championship weekend for baseball, softball, volleyball and basketball as “state” games will all be for a state championship, meaning state semifinals games will be held at neutral sites across Texas.

This action by the UIL didn’t cause a firestorm of emotions from coaches and administrators as this move of two divisions had leaked out earlier in the year.

And let’s be real, since the two-division format in say basketball and volleyball has never been experienced, it’s impossible for coaches to have a complete grip on what will happen until they personally experience the new format during the 2024-25 season.

Bushland volleyball coach Jason Culpepper, Amarillo High volleyball coach Haleigh Burns (who led Randall to a state runner-up last season) and Randall High boys basketball coach Trevor Johnson are three Amarillo-area coaches who experienced runs to the state tournament last year.

Trevor Johnson will begin his first full season as the Randall basketball coach in 2024-2025. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]
Randall High’s Johnson, who last year was an assistant coach and then interim head coach, saw the Raiders reach the state semifinals the past two years in San Antonio. He learned of the possible move back in March and is all good with two divisions.

“We had first heard about it in San Antonio at the state tournament, so I’m not surprised at all,” Johnson said. “Look, I think it’s good for the kids. I think it will give more teams an opportunity to be successful. And that’s coming from a larger Class 4A enrollment school so that might be selfish of me.

“Now it is a Catch 22. It’s going to be sad not having the traditional state tournament, you know, the coolness of it. It’s going to be weird not having the semifinals and then championship Saturday. But looking at it from where we stand for our program I’m really intrigued about it. I already have the enrollments for our district figured out.”

In Randall’s case the two-division format could mean a trip through the Division II bracket if say Canyon ISD district rivals Canyon High (1095 enrollment) and West Plains High (1162) make the playoffs as each owns a larger enrollment than Randall (1084).

Canyon ISD athletics director John Peterson said he likes the change and embraces “a chance to have two teams from the same district win a state championship. I think what the two divisions does is give a chance for coaches and student-athletes all across Texas a chance to experience more success. So when I look at it from that standpoint, I support the change.”

Bushland volleyball coach has 789 career wins entering the 2024 season. [Joe Garcia III/ Press Pass Sports]
Last fall Bushland’s Culpepper continued an incredible coaching career guiding his Lady Falcons to the Class 3A state volleyball championship.

Culpepper has experienced a format while coaching at Randall (he won a state volleyball championship there, too) where there was no regional tournament so that’s not a big deal to him.

He said when you look at the numbers Bushland’s state rival Gunter will likely still be in the Lady Falcons path, so not a lot changes.

“The thing that has changed is with two divisions you don’t have to play the New York Yankees of your classification and can still win state,” said Culpepper, who owns a 789-149 overall coaching record and captured four state titles with Bushland the past five years.

Culpepper has talked with other coaches and likes an idea of seeing the UIL move the classifications in Texas from six to eight and remaining with one division.

Burns recently departed Randall for Amarillo High, her time with the Lady Raiders producing an amazing 169-37 record highlighted by a state championship in 2022 and a state runner-up last year.

Burns makes the legit point of not having seen how this format plays out during the grind of season, she is simply hoping for the best.

“I guess I understand where they are going with the decision by sliding into small and big school,” Burns said. “I understand that they are trying to give schools the opportunity to compete with other schools their size and eliminating the possibility of some bigger schools just dominating the smaller schools. I think change is always hard at first and I can see both sides of this.

“As a coach, I will do my best to prepare my team for whatever and I can’t complain about something I haven’t experienced. I have my questions, concerns and reservations but I’m hoping that this can be a positive experience for teams that work all year to make those games.”

Haleigh Burns will begin her first year as the Amarillo High volleyball coach. [Joe Garcia III/ Press Pass Sports]
As far as the regional tournament goes, Burns and Johnson said they have fond memories and will miss the format but may benefit down the road without a regional tourney.

“I love the regional tournament,” said Johnson, whose last two trips to the region I-4A tournament in Lubbock have ended in wins over rival Canyon in the championship game. “You have those two days where going to state is on the line. But on the other hand, no regional tournament will give you more time to prepare for a team instead of playing the next day. And then how nice would it be for players and fans to see the Canyon-Randall game at the First United Bank Center instead of in Lubbock?”

Burns said the intensity and emotions of playing in – and winning – the regional tournament bring back special memories.

“I have some concerns that there will now be two state champions and how playoffs will go losing the regional tournament,” Burns said. “Some of the best memories and experiences as a coach for me have been at the regional tournament. That experience with your team is something I have used to motivate my teams in the past.”

The UIL has definitely changed the playoff landscape with this decision.

Obviously, players, coaches, administrators and fans will experience quite a change in 2024-25 and then know a whole lot more of how to handle this change in 2025-26.

The UIL announced other news from the UIL Legislative council committee on athletics.

Authorized the staff with a survey to add a shot clock for basketball games.

Authorized the staff to monitor adding the sport lacrosse as a sanctioned activity.

Denied, rejected or took no action on the following proposals:

A) to place mileage limitations on football first round playoff games

B) to allow part time employees to be a head coach of a team sport

C) to require facilities of a certain size for football playoff games

D) to allow college students to volunteer coach

E)  to change the rule regarding track and field uniform regulations for males

F) to change the run-rule in softball

G) to mandate statistics reporting through universal application

H) to add a mercy rule for soccer

I) to alter junior high cross country meet times

J) to add ice hockey as a sanctioned activity

K) to add disc golf as a sanctioned activity

I) to add boys volleyball as a sanctioned activity

M) to add archery as a sanctioned activity

N) to add 3A and below soccer as a competition

O) to add girls flag football as a sanctioned activity

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