There’s an old cliche about it never being too late to do the right thing.
Certainly, the philosophy of “better late than never” is being proven true when it comes to soccer.
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletics Association finally implemented a split of its public member schools and private member schools last year, a long-overdue switch that drastically changed the landscape of high school sports in the Volunteer State. And for long-suffering public schools in the shadow of their big-city and often-wealthy private school counterparts, the move has certainly leveled the playing field.
When the Class A state soccer tournament starts in Murfreesboro this week, not all of the eight schools participating will be public schools, but most of them will be.
Contrast that with the old system, last spring, when private schools littered the Class A/AA bracket. And while Greeneville ultimately won the state championship, with a 2-1 win over Page in an all-public finale, even that illustrated how much the system was tilted against the smaller schools. It’s tough for a small high school, with a few hundred students, to compete against the likes of Greeneville, which boasts an enrollment upwards of 1,000 students.
The playing field was uneven across the board under the old setup — football, basketball, you name it — but nowhere was the disadvantage as obvious as on the soccer pitch. Just as Oneida and Scott High, who for years found themselves competing against the likes of CAK and Knox Catholic in soccer.
With those two Class A/AA bullies ruling the old District 4, it was impossible for the Indians or the Highlanders to win a district title or advance beyond the regional semifinals. That didn’t appear set to change anytime soon.
In year one of the new system, Oneida’s girls won their first district championship in years and advanced to the substate for the first time ever. Oneida’s boys didn’t win a championship, but they advanced to the substate for the first time ever. And Scott High’s girls won their district championship for the first time ever.
CAK will have ample opportunity to compete for championships in Division II. In fact, the Warriors are in the state tournament in year one of the new classification. And Catholic, which remains in the public schools ranks (proving the new system still isn’t perfect) but is at least separated from the smallest schools in the state, will have ample opportunity to compete for championships in Class AA.
But for the first time in many years, so will public schools like Oneida, Scott High and others.
With the Lady Indians and Lady Highlanders winning championships right off the bat, and the Oneida boys turning in an historic season in their own right, interest in the sport will be increased, which should drive up participation and, at least in theory, improve the sport. It’s hard to see how that isn’t a win for the public schools.
The increased success when you match publics against publics and the newfound opportunities to compete for championships will also drive up attendance and increase the gate take. It’s hard to see how that isn’t a win for TSSAA.
Sometimes, late is better than never. And local high school soccer is certainly proving that true.
From the Pressbox is a sports analysis column appearing in the Independent Herald.