Coaches hope tough non-district schedules don't hurt them in Region 4D

One of the things that Winchester/Frederick County high school coaches have enjoyed about competing in the Northwestern District over the years was they could take on a good non-district team and not get too wrapped up with what was taking place on the scoreboard.

Those days are over.

Handley, James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando are moving from Region 4C to Region 4D, and the concern for coaches is that their desire to play the best teams possible in non-district games could hurt their playoff chances if other schools in the region aren’t fielding schedules that are as challenging as theirs.

“My biggest thing is potentially being penalized for playing great competition,” James Wood baseball coach Adrian Pullen said. “I have never wanted to play bad competition. That doesn’t make you better. I don’t think you gain anything from playing lower competition.”

For the sports of football, volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and tennis, the move to Region 4D means that every regular-season game is going count toward making the postseason, which now starts at the region level instead of the district level.

With the exception of football — where eight playoff participants will be decided by VHSL power points — the 15-school Region 4D will be split into North and South sub-regions, with seven in the North and eight in the South in the aforementioned sports. The four teams with the best winning percentages in both sub-regions qualify for the region tournament.

The Region 4D North is made up of Class 4 Northwestern District schools Handley, James Wood, Millbrook, Sherando and Liberty and Jefferson District schools Charlottesville and Orange County.

On the plus side, the four region spots available to the Region 4D North is two more than were available to the old seven-team Class 4 Northwestern District, which also included Fauquier and Kettle Run before those schools moved down to Class 3.

On the negative side, the seven Region 4D North teams won’t play uniform schedules in pursuit of those four region tournament berths. And unlike in the Class 4 Northwestern District — where all seven teams got to participate in the district tournament — three teams won’t get to participate in the postseason.

Handley boys’ basketball coach Zach Harrell-Zook has faced a gauntlet in December in the two full seasons he’s been coach. His 2021-22 team started 2-7, but they ended the year 12-10 and posted an 8-4 mark in the Class 4 Northwestern District.

Last year’s team began 3-7 and responded even better from the lessons and toughness derived from a difficult early schedule. Handley tied Sherando for first place in the district with a 10-2 mark, won the district tournament and earned a Class 4 state quarterfinal berth in a 17-12 season.

“I put our December schedule up against anybody,” Harrell-Zook said. “I would argue we would not have been in the state quarterfinals had we not started the year 3-7.”

The Judges went 13-9 in the regular season last year. That was actually the second-best record of the seven teams that will be in Region 4D North this year, but not by a wide margin. Orange and Charlottesville each went 12-10, Millbrook had a record of 11-11 and James Wood posted a 10-11 mark.

That 3-7 start wasn’t alarming, because only the two Class 4 Northwestern District games in that 10-game span truly counted. In 2023-24, the Judges might feel a lot more pressure if they start 3-7.

“[These guidelines] are going to place an even bigger emphasis on us a program getting the guys ready a lot earlier and trying to get them to understand the magnitude of how important games are in December,” Harrell-Zook said. “They were important before, but now they serve a different element of importance. You want to play the toughest teams you can in December because before, the out-of-conference schedule didn’t matter. So go play, go test yourselves, go play the best of the best and go see what you’re really made of. Now, that could come back to bite you.”

Basketball provides the most opportunities for non-district games, but schools in the Region 4D North won’t have a large number of them in any sport. (Basketball plays 22 games, volleyball, baseball and softball play 20, and soccer and tennis play 16.) Class 4 Northwestern District schools will play a double round robin schedule with each other totaling eight games, and they’re also required to play the seven Class 3 Northwestern District schools once each unless the Class 4 and 3 schools both agree to not play each other. Orange and Charlottesville will play 14 Jefferson District games each.

Millbrook boys’ basketball coach Erick Green Sr. said he’d like to see a situation where every team in the Region 4D North plays each other to determine seeding, or have a point system. District athletic directors said those things were ruled out due to the travel involved and the limitations created by required district scheduling.

“In district play, you would play each other twice, and that would determine your record [for postseason seeding],” Green said. “[In Region 4D North] I would have hoped we’d all play each other once or twice, because I can’t see how you can [seed teams] by record when all teams don’t play each other. I don’t think it’s fair if the schedules are not similar and we’re not playing all the teams [in our sub-region]. You could just schedule a weak schedule just so you can advance to the top four. I just think, somehow, we need to have similar schedules.”

Green consistently sought out difficult schedules when coaching the Millbrook girls’ basketball team. Green didn’t have input in the boys’ schedule this year after being tabbed as the team’s coach in March, but the Pioneers will face Spotswood and schools from West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle in Jefferson (Class AAAA state semifinalist), Hedgesville (Class AAAA state quarterfinalist) and Spring Mills. Green said a point system might make playing larger schools (Millbrook also plays Class 5 Harrisonburg) more rewarding.

Harrell-Zook said the Judges don’t plan on shying away from strong competition, even if that means their winning percentage takes a hit. For example, Handley is playing Class 3 state quarterfinalist Spotswood twice, Class 2 state finalist Radford in Floyd County’s Chance Harman Classic, and a private school in North Carolina.

“We’re still going to play the best of the best,” Harrell-Zook said. “But it definitely adds an element of tough to how we like to operate and do things. I’m up for the new challenge, and I think our guys will be, too.”

Pullen said James Wood’s baseball schedule will include Region 4C champion and Class 4 state semifinalist Tuscarora, Broad Run, Loudoun Valley and Class 5 Riverside, which James Wood split with last season.

As far as what actually happens once teams make the playoffs, Harrell-Zook said he likes that Region 4D is split up into North and South sub-regions.

“The first part of your playoff experience for regions is going to be more locally,” Harrell-Zook said. “So that still kind of gives you that district element that you’re kind of used to.”

And for some sports, it might not be such a bad thing getting away from Loudoun County Public Schools, which Northwestern schools always had to play in the Region 4C semifinals to start the postseason.

James Wood won a state title in volleyball last year after Loudoun County High School won the previous 10 Class 4 and Group AA state titles, but LCPS in particular is strong in soccer. In girls’ soccer, Loudoun County schools have won every state championship in Class 4 or Group AA except one since 2008. Handley has been eliminated by the eventual state champion every year since 2019, and James Wood’s region semifinal wins in 2021 and 2023 are the only region losses LCPS schools have suffered against the Northwestern District since the end of the conference era in 2017. In boys’ soccer, Loudoun County schools won every Region 4C title except one (James Wood in 2021) since the end of the conference era in 2017.

“Do I like not having to see Loudoun right away [in the postseason]? Absolutely,” Handley boys’ soccer coach Cosmo Balio said. “On the girls’ side [for Handley], they’ve been running into the state champ right away in the semifinals every year. I think this kind of gives everybody an opportunity to kind of get their feet under them.

“I’m excited for [the new system]. I’m excited to see some new competition, and a new pathway to get into states. I feel we have a pretty decent group of guys and a lot of depth coming back that we could potentially see how that pathway works for us this year.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at
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