St. Mary’s High School thinks so, but I have mixed feelings about it.
Last week, Rose Vargas, athletic director at St. Mary’s athletic, sent a press release to the local media making the case that St. Mary’s should remain in the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s 5A Conference, where the largest high schools in Arizona — those with at least 2,000 students — reside. Every two years, the AIA realigns its conferences to account for enrollment changes in schools throughout the state. On Oct. 18, the AIA will announce its conferences for the Fall 2011 through Spring 2013 school years.
“At this date, Saint Mary’s enrollment is 603 students,” Vargas said in her press release. “The average enrollment at other 5A schools is 2,400+. Despite the enrollment disproportion, Saint Mary’s has a long history of success competing at the highest level. The goal and intention of Saint Mary’s High School Athletics is to remain at the Division 5A level.”
In the past two years, St. Mary’s enrollment has decreased by 22 percent. In October 2008, it reported an enrollment of 778 students and successfully petitioned to stay in the 5A conference. It was placed in the Desert Valley region with five other schools, all of which have at least three times as many students.
Based on numbers alone, St. Mary’s should not be in the 5A conference, or even the 4A conference. It should be in the 3A conference with schools like Payson, Fountain Hills, Safford, Holbrook, Wickenburg and Lakeside Blue Ridge — all of which are bigger than St. Mary’s.
St. Mary’s has a long and proud athletic tradition. Its football team has won 67 percent of its games since 1938 and has won nine state championships. But its last football state championship was 15 years ago and the last time it made the playoffs was in 2006.
Vargas noted the school’s recent success in girls softball and boys and girls basketball, which have won multiple region and state championships since 2005. But those are sports where numbers are not as crucial and a few superb athletes can carry a team.
St. Mary’s has been blessed with many such athletes over the years, such as current NBA players Channing Frye and Jerryd Bayless and current ASU softball pitcher Dallas Escobedo, who during her St. Mary’s career from 2007-2010 was simply unhittable and last year alone struck out 500 batters in 36 games. As for the girls basketball team, there has been recent controversy over the fact that the coach and seven players from last year’s team came from the same club team.
Are numbers the most important factor in athletic success? Of course not. Skill, coaching, character and heart are far more important. After all, 300 Spartans held off up to 300,000 Persians for three days at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
But, numbers eventually catch up with you, as the Spartans found out on the fourth day of the battle.
There are some sports where numbers matter a great deal and football is one of them. This year’s St. Mary’s team is currently is 2-4, including an inspiring upset over longtime rival Brophy, which has more than four times as many boys as St. Mary’s. But the problem is that St. Mary’s had lost to Brophy the previous seven years in a row and in 9 of the last 10 years.
Tradition and history are important, but is it really fair to current St. Mary’s students to ask them to compete against schools three to five times their size?
St. Mary’s thinks so. If you agree, the school may need your help later this month when St. Mary’s expects to appeal its probable reclassification to the 4A Conference, where it would compete with schools only twice its size.
“The appeal process is nothing new for Saint Mary’s,” Vargas wrote. “Throughout the history of Saint Mary’s Athletics, the school has successfully appealed to remain in Division 5A every two years.”
I admire St. Mary’s grit and determination, and perhaps it would make sense for it to compete in 5A in some sports, just as colleges like Georgetown and Johns Hopkins play in Division I in some sports and Division III in other sports. But at some point, the math is inexorable and there is an undeniable strength in numbers. More importantly, the lessons taught to students in high school sports are the same in smaller conferences. The St. Mary’s teams of 20, 30 and 40 years ago did not have to compete against schools at least three times their size and there is no good reason to continue to ask that of current St. Mary’s students, who deserve the chance to create their own history and tradition. — Dan Barr