The hot-button issue regarding Nassau high school sports in recent years has been its unique and controversial ability-based grouping. In a dramatic reversal, that button is now in the off position.
Beginning with fall sports in 2010, Nassau will join the rest of the state - and most of the country - in aligning its leagues primarily on the basis of enrollment. Earlier this month, the county's Athletic Council voted unanimously to make the change, according to Alignment/Scheduling/Placement Committee chairman Jim Amen Jr.
"Historically, there had been a lot of discussion back and forth about ability-based grouping," said Amen, who is the athletic director at Cold Spring Harbor. "It really came to a head with baseball. They were ferociously opposed to it. Questions were being raised about how we did things in Nassau County."
Among the complaints by those against ability-based grouping were:
Teams in the top conferences were guaranteed playoff spots before the season began and several entered the playoffs with very poor records.
Conversely, some weaker teams made the playoffs with excellent records based on weaker competition.
Some coaches objected to skewed statistics that were a product of the caliber of competition and not necessary the players' talents.
Amen's committee, which included several prominent athletic administrators and school officials around the county, investigated the issue for more than a year and a half. They met with officials in Section XI (Suffolk) and Section I (Westchester) and wound up adopting a system very similar to what those sections use.
"There are people who will argue for both sides and this debate could go on forever," Amen said. "The point was to come up with guidelines for a sports coordinator to decide the format for his sport. We came up with a document, which was approved - after some tweaking - by the Athletic Council. This is a fluid document. There's nothing that says that over time, we will not tweak it."
The document, obtained recently by Newsday, contains 17 bulleted items. The most important are items 1-4:
All alignments must be determined by enrollment.
Enrollment is determined by [official] school figures.
Geography and ability shall only be considered if the format of basic enrollment does not address the needs of the sport.
Ability (grouping by anticipated strengths) may be done with enrollment. This includes power rankings, power points, etc.
That last point allows for flexibility within the new system, similar to what Nassau currently uses in football and boys lacrosse. Conferences are formed based on enrollment, but schedules are drawn up based on ability as determined by preseason seeds and power ratings.
"We'll look at enrollment as the first criteria for creating schedules, but we're giving latitude to the sports coordinators to incorporate ability," said Dave Zawatson, district sports coordinator for Great Neck and president of the Athletic Council. "In sports like basketball, you can schedule non-league games outside of your classification. Schools can also appeal to move up or down in conference."
Nassau began wholesale ability-based grouping for all its five-classification sports (AA, A, B, C, D) three years ago, with Sol Lerner, district athletic director at Bellmore-Merrick, leading the charge. "I'm saddened that it's gone. I think it was best for the kids. Ability-based grouping takes into account individual needs of teams and children, where enrollment does not," said Lerner, who was also the Section VIII coordinator for boys basketball until this season.
Lerner acknowledged that his system had some flaws - "61 percent of the basketball coaches supported it last year; only 39 percent supported it this year," he said - and he proposed some "tweaks" to the Athletics Council.
"They refused to let me correct those inequities," Lerner said. "I told them if they think they can run it better than me, fine. So I resigned as coordinator."
Baseball voiced the loudest disapproval of Lerner's system, even hiring a law firm to investigate an appeals process. "I was definitely against it because it's all about open and free competition," said Tom Abruscato, baseball coach at Clarke. "I don't like the ideology of telling a kid how good he is before he steps onto the field. It's been a long process and the Athletics Council did a lot of research and deserves credit for making the change."
Another opponent to ability-based grouping is Al Freeman, who retired in 2007 after coaching boys soccer at South Side for 28 years but remains the Section VIII coordinator for the sport, which has used ability-based grouping for 25 years.
"Since I don't coach any more I'm not a shill for one team," Freeman said. "Coaches tend to want to do what's best for their team the next season. I'm an ability guy because I've always felt that ability sets up competition within leagues and gives every team a chance to at least compete in every game. In enrollment situations, there is much more of a chance for mismatches."
However, Freeman remains open-minded about Nassau's new system, acknowledging that different sports have different needs.
"One size doesn't fit all," he said.