The Anchorage Christian girls basketball team will continue its quest for a third straight state championship this week at the Class 3A state tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center.
The undefeated Lions are nearing the end of a season so dominant that three of their opponents forfeited games against them rather than face the prospect of a lopsided loss.
The forfeits left Redington, Houston and Homer high schools $500 poorer for not showing up to play scheduled conference games. They left the Lions disappointed. And they left the Alaska School Activities Association, which levied the fines against the schools, with a dilemma: how to deal with private schools like ACS whose enrollments are not restricted by geographical boundaries.
“I’m not even sure what the long-term solution is,” said Tom Lytle, the principal at Redington High School in Knik. “We have attendance boundaries and the private schools don’t have the same restrictions. I think that makes fielding a team that is equally competitive challenging.”
Lytle said he supported coach Tim Maki’s decision not to travel to Anchorage for a Feb. 20 Southcentral Conference game at ACS. A month earlier, ACS beat Redington 105-18 in a game at Redington, and Lytle said Redington started talking to ACS right away about the prospect of forfeiting the next game.
“We felt a little disappointed their coach continued to full-court press and play all his starters,” Lytle said. “It was demoralizing for our girls.”
Jason Hofacker, the secondary school principal at Anchorage Christian, said the win over Redington was the most lopsided of ACS’s season.
“I can’t explain what happened that day,” Hofacker said. “That’s a tough one, because Redington is like the fifth-best team in our region. Was that a perfect storm of we couldn’t miss and they had a bad day? That’s how I feel when I watch the video.”
Lytle said Redington believes ACS should have eased up in the second half of the game. Hokafer said ACS administrators don’t tell coaches how to coach their games, and even if they did, this year’s team is a hard one to rein in.
“They’re a good team and aggressive defensively, so even if you tell them to go half-court, they’re still aggressive,” he said.
Hofacker believes the forfeits are part of a bigger issue ASAA needs to address — how to deal with nonboundary schools in a state that doesn’t have enough private schools to group them in a separate classification or even a separate conference.
“We’ve been trying for years to change the way things are,” Hofacker said, whether that means restructuring the four classes that exist now or adding a fifth one. “But nothing has happened at the ASAA board level, and I think a lot of these schools are frustrated.”
Billy Strickland, ASAA’s executive director, doesn’t dispute there is disparity among boundary schools and nonboundary schools. ASAA is looking at different classification models, he said.
Currently, schools are classified according to their enrollments. Some states, Strickland said, make up for a private school’s advantages by counting each student at a private school as 1.5 students, which can be enough to move a school to a higher enrollment-based classification.
“We don’t have a great placement (system) for some of our schools,” Strickland said, “and I would throw ACS, Grace Christian and Monroe in there. The ACS girls are probably the best team in the state this year, just like Monroe with Scooter Bynum was the best boys team in the state.
“… You look at the history of 3A basketball and you’ll notice it’s a rare year when we don’t have three (private schools) in the semifinals. There’s a lot of reasons they’ve been successful that don’t involve recruiting, but they have some advantages that a school like Seward doesn’t have — access to more kids, more coaches, more development programs.”
Public schools typically fill classrooms and sports teams with students who reside in that school’s geographical boundaries. There are ways around those boundaries, especially in bigger districts with multiple schools. Kids can transfer to another school for academic reasons, and those who are home-schooled or attend an alternative-education program like Mat-Su Career Tech in the Valley or Steller Secondary School in Anchorage have their pick of high school teams.
“The impact of alternative-education students … has fundamentally changed the way schools get their players,” Strickland said. “It’s not the kids in your neighborhood any more.”
People accuse ACS of recruiting, Hofacker said, but he counters that private schools have to pursue students.
“We recruit every single kid, athlete or not,” he said. “That’s how we survive. They don’t have to come here. We have to recruit them.”
ACS, founded in 1972 by Anchorage Baptist Temple pastor Jerry Prevo, provides needs-based scholarships that help with the $7,665 annual tuition, Hofacker said. He said a third party administers the scholarship program and it examines a family’s financial records to determine the level of aid.
“Are there local people in our church or any other churches that sponsor other kids? Yes, but that’s outside my control,” Hofacker said.
For the most part, the girls who play for ACS have been at the school for years, he said: “Of the 12 on the varsity team, I would say eight have been here since second grade.”
He thinks the Southcentral Conference is the appropriate conference for ACS, which has 105 students in grades 9-12. It would be difficult to compete year after year against Class 4A schools with several hundred students, he said.
“We don’t think the answer is to throw them up in the current 4A structure,” Strickland said. “We’re actually looking at five classifications, but that would require some fundamental changes and we want to wait and see how school finances turn out.”
With severe budget cuts looming throughout the state, there is a limit to what school districts can afford in the quest for parity, he said: “The last thing we can do right now is put together conferences that would cost schools more money.”
Realignment and parity will no doubt be part of the conversation when the ASAA board meets this spring in Kodiak. Meanwhile, the Class 3A state tournament begins Thursday with three private schools in the boys bracket — ACS, Grace Christian and Monroe — and one in the girls bracket. The ACS girls open play Thursday at 11 a.m. with a game against Kotzebue.
This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Jason Hofacker’s name.