AIA introduces big school sports changes

The Arizona Interscholastic Association on Friday announced a new proposal for state track that would crown a true state champion, much like in the Open Division for football and basketball, which will take place for the first time this year. (Dave Minton/AFN Staff)

The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board on Monday approved an extra state track division and a true state championship format.

The proposal was announced Aug. 12 during the first annual AIA media day held at the association’s offices in Phoenix. Executive Director David Hines also had updates on other sports, including football, basketball and girls flag football.

“We will run a true state championship with a trophy and a banner,” Hines said. “We are going to have a California-style state meet where the elite of the elite get to go against each other.”

State track will now have a fifth division. Currently, there are four divisions, with the fourth designated for schools in the 1A, 2A and 3A conferences.

Division V will be for 1A and 2A schools and leave Division IV for 3A teams. The other divisions — I, II and III — would remain unchanged, servicing 6A through 4A schools.

The proposal also included a new format for the state championship meet, which typically kicks off in the second week of May.

The meet will now begin a week earlier and crown division state champions. Divisions IV and V would compete at one location over the course of two days. Divisions II and III would compete the same day at a separate site, and Division I on its own elsewhere.

From there, the top 18 athletes and teams for all events in all divisions will be merged and move on to compete in preliminaries of the overall state championship meet.

The top nine from each event would move on to the second day of the state meet. There, state championships for individuals and teams will be crowned.

“We have done a lot of data on that,” Hines said. “At one point we would’ve had a 1A kid win the state championship, it was a girl that ran the 100. We had multiple kids at 2A and 3A that would be state champions and then of course four, five and six. It will be fun to watch.”

New for Open Division football

The Open Division for football was introduced in 2019 to bring together the 6A-4A conferences and to crown a true state football champion.

At the time, Saguaro was dominating at the 4A level. The Sabercats were moved up to the 5A level two years ago and again to 6A with the most recent update to the football classifications. That change also brought up teams like Cactus and American Leadership Academy - Queen Creek, two 4A schools that made the Open Division last season.

Hines said a vote in May by the 4A Conference committee to continue including the conference in the Open Division finished in a tie. But to offset that, new multipliers were introduced.

All 6A teams will receive a multiplier of 10 after the regular season. Teams in the 5A Conference will have a multiplier of nine and 4A teams a multiplier of eight. Hines said this will even the playing field, to a certain degree.

In retrospect, it will reward teams that play a tougher schedule in the higher conferences. And while it doesn’t fully eliminate 4A teams from contention, it makes their path to the Open harder.

“Our process of reclassification has made a huge difference in the parity of high school football,” Hines said. “Even with the multiplier, if they’re good enough, a 4A team can still make the Open.”

Basketball Open Division

The AIA will host an Open Division basketball tournament for boys and girls to conclude the winter sports season this year. It will feature the top eight teams from the 6A-4A conferences and the next best rated eight teams from those conferences.

Those 32 will be put into a bracket, with the first round taking place before other conference tournaments. The second round of the Open tournament will coincide with conference play-in games, which feature an additional 16 teams.

Those who are eliminated from the Open Division will be placed back into the conference playoffs with teams that win play-in games.

Those teams from the Open will maintain their original ranking before being taken to the Open tournament. The eight who remain in the Open will then play for a true state championship, much like the football format. Conference champions will still be crowned for 1A-6A.

From the start of basketball playoffs through the first few days of March, the AIA will host 275 tournament games. All championship games will take place at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

“It’s a humongous job but we’ve worked with the coaches and our schools, and we think we are going to have, basically, 30 days of state basketball,” Hines said.

Hines said the AIA will also introduce 335-second shot clocks for 3A-6A conferences this season. The 1A and 2A voted against them.

During the regular season, shot clocks will be used if schools have technology in place. If they don’t, games will be played without them.

In the playoffs, however, shot clocks are mandatory for all games. If a host school does not have the technology, the games will be moved to a different venue.

“All state games, 3A through 6A, will use a shot clock,” Hines said.

Girls flag football

Girls flag football has grown exponentially in the last few years. The Chandler district crowned its first-ever champion after district-play between the six high schools last spring.

With Chandler leading the way, other districts have now started recruiting student-athletes for programs at their high schools. Mountain Pointe, all Mesa schools and others have jumped on board this year.

With that, the AIA has identified girls flag football as an emerging sport. If it continues to grow, it could officially become a sanctioned sport under the association as soon as next year.

“We are going to have a committee together and start talking about that,” Hines said. “We are hoping to tie that to state football. The culminating event for that would be tied to our state football.”