Championship division in high school sports has potential, but still plenty of questions (2024)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The best against the best in major team sports. That’s what the championship division that was approved by the Florida High School Athletic Association this week in Gainesville aims to create.

What does that look like when it’s put into play, what schools will benefit and could teams circumvent it if they wanted to?

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What is the new division?

Executive director Craig Damon floated the idea of a championship division last December and it was met with a lukewarm response. It would taken the top eight teams in state, according to the MaxPreps rankings and put them in their own division.

“Sort of at the time ... didn’t feel like they were quite interested in it,” Damon said.

FHSAA board member Ryan Smith brought that topic back up to Damon several months later and it made its way to the table during the final board of directors meeting of the school year. It passed on a 12-1 vote and will be implemented for the 2026-27 school year, a change from starting in 2025-26 as was originally proposed.

The same metrics stand. The top eight teams in the state in the major team sports go into their own playoff bracket. It is double elimination.

Why create a new division?

The state put a law in place in 2017 that allowed for controlled open enrollment, which permits students to transfer anywhere they want, provided there’s an open seat at that school. Florida is one of just seven states in the country (Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, South Dakota and Utah) that allow true school choice both within and across school district lines. While school choice is favored by lawmakers, parents and students, it allows for greater freedom for rampant transfers in athletics. Coaches in numerous sports are fed up with schools that dominate the championship rounds year after year after year.

The Suburban-Metro playoff system helped smooth out some of that in football, but that two-year experiment was voted out last December. Now, schools are back together like they were previously in football, packaged in Class 1A to 7A. St. Augustine football coach Brian Braddock was a proponent of Suburban-Metro because it took into account areas of the state that tend to benefit more from infusions of transfer players.

“It’s no longer about school size, it’s about access to athletes,” he said. “Suburban-Metro mitigated that, as it should’ve. That was perfect. It was a perfect 21st century version of school size. So, I don’t see how this championship division benefits the typical high school program one iota.”

Mandarin football coach Toby Bullock, like many coaches of teams who were put into the Metro class, wasn’t a fan of it at all because it split teams apart. But he’s a proponent of the championship division, which puts the best of the best together.

“Scares me to death. I think it’s the coolest, scariest thing ever. And I say that because you could have this wonderful team that, you know, if you stay in your classification, you’re going to probably win a state or play for a state title,” Bullock said.

“But boom, you get pulled up into a championship division, maybe you’re not as good as those other seven or eight guys, teams that are in it, but how cool is that man, to go out and win one of those. If you’re a competitor, you want to be in it. So, I’m in favor of it.”

Who would it help?

The biggest benefactor would likely be teams who have little to no chance to compete with the elites of the state. In boys basketball, no team from the immediate area (Clay, Duval, Nassau, St. Johns, Putnam) has brought home a state championship since Bolles in 2016. No public school from those counties have won a title since Raines in 2004. In girls basketball, an arena dominated by Ribault, the championship drought has dragged on since the Trojans’ last title in 2017.

Providence boys basketball coach Jim Martin, who has won three state championships, said that a championship division would help in the era of super teams.

Providence would have been the No. 8 seed in the championship division had it been in place this year. Martin points back to Providence’s epic clashes with rival Arlington Country Day in the early 2000s where Providence lost in the postseason to ACD four consecutive seasons, including a 30-29 grind in the second round in 2008. The Apaches went on to win a state-record tying five straight titles.

“I am in favor of it because some of those teams, there’s teams that are pretty good that would never have a chance [for a title in the current system]. It gives some schools a chance,” Martin said. “Back in the day with ACD, we were pretty good, we just couldn’t get past them. If you eliminate an Orlando Christian Prep or a Sagemont [in 2A], there’s probably four teams behind them in their class that would have a shot. It would be a dogfight.”

In a sport like girls soccer, a championship division would be a spectacle, and one where area programs would be represented well.

If the championship division were in place this year, Ponte Vedra (1), Bartram Trail (4), St. Johns Country Day (5) and Creekside (6) would have been in it. That would have meant the Sharks (6A) and Knights (7A) wouldn’t have won state championships in their classifications, but it would have truly been a best-of-the-best bracket.

The gray area

In the December meeting, a question was posed by a board member about teams being able to opt out of the championship bracket, feeling it wasn’t fair to penalize a good team. But in the one that passed Tuesday, Damon said there is no opt-out method for teams who qualify in the top eight.

Braddock said the rankings system can be manipulated, and pointed a scenario in Region 1-4S involving Pace as it tried to stay ahead of Creekside in the standings. The Patriots replaced 1-6 Hollis Christian with 6-4 Lafayette in Week 11 to try and boost its ranking. Will teams try and intentionally lose to slip out of that top eight in the championship division?

“If you creep into that top eight, our big reward for having a great group of kids who accomplish great things would be to go play an all-star team. That’d be our reward,” Braddock said.

Martin said that while qualifying for a championship division would be an “honor,” there are schools that still wouldn’t be capable of competing once they’re in it. That brings up the potential of teams losing a game that they shouldn’t or not scheduling as difficult as they would in the past to avoid qualifying for that division.

“That would happen the entire season. You wouldn’t want those big wins that would propel you into a MaxPreps top eight,” he said. “You’d see teams sandbagging all the way to not get a top eight.”

What a championship division would have looked like in 2023-24


Private schools indicated by italics; state champs indicated in bold

1. Cocoa

2. Chaminade-Madonna

3. Miami Norland

4. St. Thomas Aquinas

5. Clearwater Central Catholic (state runner-up)

6. Lake Mary

7. Gainesville Buchholz

8. Plantation American Heritage


1. Tampa Plant

2. Winter Park (state runner-up)

3. Carrollwood Day

4. Clearwater Calvary Christian

5. Tampa Berkeley Prep

6. Miami Gulliver Prep

7. Hagerty

8. Jupiter

Boys basketball

1. Miami Columbus

2. Winter Haven

3. Oak Ridge (state runner-up)

4. Westminster Academy

5. Miami Riviera Prep

6. Lakeland Victory Christian

7. Jackson (state runner-up)

8. Providence

Girls basketball

1. Orlando Colonial (state runner-up)

2. Lake Highland Prep

3. Orlando Dr. Phillips

4. Pensacola Washington

5. Miami Country Day

6. Plantation American Heritage

7. Pompano Ely

8. Winter Haven

Boys soccer

1. Gulliver Prep

2. Panama City Arnold

3. Niceville

4. Doral Academy (state runner-up)

5. Pensacola Washington

6. Tampa Prep

7. Mandarin

8. Bishop Moore (state runner-up)

Girls soccer

1. Ponte Vedra

2. Palm Beach Benjamin

3. South Walton

4. Bartram Trail

5. St. Johns Country Day

6. Creekside

7. Mariner

8. Montverde


1. Pensacola Catholic

2. North Broward Prep

3. Stoneman Douglas

4. Venice

5. Miami Westminster Christian (state runner-up)

6. Trinity Christian

7. Windermere (state runner-up)

8. St. Johns Country Day


1. Bartow (state runner-up)

2. Pace

3. Bloomingdale

4. Melbourne

5. Doral Academy

6. Coral Springs Charter

7. Hagerty

8. Wellington

Girls lacrosse

1. Delray Beach American Heritage

2. Lake Highland Prep (state runner-up)

3. Tampa Plant (state runner-up)

4. Manatee

5. Hagerty

6. Saint Andrew’s

7. Palm Beach Benjamin

8. Vero Beach

Boys lacrosse

1. Saint Andrew’s

2. Palm Beach Benjamin

3. Lake Mary

4. Lake Highland Prep

5. Bolles

6. Ponte Vedra

7. Bishop Moore

8. Cardinal Mooney

Flag football

1. Davie Western

2. Miami Palmetto

3. Tampa Robinson

4. Fort Pierce Central

5. Tampa Alonso

6. Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee

7. Fleming Island

8. Stuart Martin County

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Championship division in high school sports has potential, but still plenty of questions (2024)
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