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Southern to return to Class 3-A, join county rivals

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Southern Alamance is heading back to Class 3-A, and the Patriots will be joining familiar company.

The school’s request for reclassification was granted last week by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. The Patriots will move out of the Class 4-A DAC-VII Conference after this school year, halfway through the four-year alignment cycle.

Southern will be in the Central Carolina 3-A Conference with Eastern Alamance, Western Alamance, Williams, Cedar Ridge, Orange, and Roxboro Person.

“I’m still a little bit in shock,” Southern athletics director Stephanie Smith said. “This conference is a great fit for us.”

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In another move, the NCHSAA granted Northwood’s bid to move to Class 2-A, leaving the Central Carolina 3-A Conference and joining the Mid-Carolina Conference.

Smith said in at least 24 years it will be the first time Alamance County’s four largest schools will be in the same conference.

The NCHSAA heard requests from nearly 20 schools on classification issues during its annual late-fall meeting. Most of those were granted.

Also decided was the placement of soon-to-open Southeast Alamance, which will be in Class 2-A and be part of Mid-Carolina Conference. That’s a split league with Class 1-A and 2-A schools. Cummings, Graham and Bartlett Yancey are among the schools in that league.

Southern’s request came because of an expected enrollment reduction of at least 12 percent based on the diversion of some students to the new high school. That would put Southern’s enrollment in the Class 3-A range.

For conference scheduling, it’s likely that Southern will take Northwood’s spot in the Central Carolina 3-A Conference rotation. Still, conference commissioner Mike Pennington, a former Western athletics director, said there are details to iron out, some of which could be decided at a conference meeting next week.

Boys’ basketball coach Chris Miller, also an assistant with the football team, said it’s good for the Patriots to be headed to Class 3-A.

“Most of my life when I played at Southern, everyone in the county was in the league,” he said.

Further, Miller said the Patriots have encountered a stream of non-conference rivalry games before entering conference play in many sports. He said it will be more natural to have those rivalry clashes come as part of conference competitions.

Williams football coach Patrick Stokes said he likes the altered makeup of the conference.

“It’s wonderful for their community,” Stokes said of Southern. “It’s a chance to rekindle rivalries. It’s healthy for Alamance County kids to have that. Those rivalry games will be late in the season and that adds to it.”

Southern football coach Fritz Hessenthaler is on board with the move. He sought out Smith shortly after the decision was revealed to offer a list of potential non-conference opponents.
Southern will play Eastern, Western and Williams in league competition, so the Patriots will need to replace those teams on non-conference slates.

Finding non-league opponents for football is trickier than other sports because of the one-game-a-week set-up and hooking up with other teams with matching available dates.
Southern’s football team finished in second place behind Durham Hillside the past two seasons in the DAC-VII Conference. Had the Patriots been in the Central Carolina 3-A Conference – based on this year’s results against current members of that league – they would have been in third place at best.

Smith said she has received interest from some DAC-VII Conference schools for potential non-conference matchups.

“I think it’s good for them,” Eastern Alamance athletics director and football coach John Kirby said. “They represented well in the 4-A. This probably adds to the rivalry when it’s in the county and it’s a conference game, it adds to it.”

It’s not just about football. Southern and Eastern softball teams own recent state championships.

Overall, the move should reduce travel time and costs for the Patriots.

“We’re going to get to enjoy some shorter trips,” Smith said.

Kirby said he knows how important that is.

“Travel is money,” he said.

It also could help with gate receipts. Smith said Southern has done better with crowds for non-league games – often against other in-county foes – than DAC-VII Conference events with the opposition from Durham County or Orange County.

In her presentation to the NCHSAA board, Smith provided cost breakdowns for travel in each conference, showing conservative savings of $5,000-$6,000 annually if a move was granted. Plus, less travel time is important in terms of hours away from campus and getting students home earlier on weeknights.

“I think everybody is excited,” said Western athletics director Sean Quinn, a former girls’ and boys’ basketball coach and ex-athletics director at Southern. “They’ve been part of conferences that haven’t been a part of the county.”

Southern began play in its current conference in the 2021-22 school year. In the four-year cycle before that, the Patriots were in a Class 3-A league that included Williams plus some Guilford County and Randolph County schools.

Southern spent a previous stint in Class 4-A grouped with schools in Guilford County/
At a recent intense non-league basketball game against another county school, Southern baseball coach Jason Smith, who’s the athletics director’s husband, pointed out: “This gets to happen twice when we’re in the league together.”

The impact from the addition of Southeast Alamance isn’t limited to Southern. Kirby said there’s bound to be a fallout in terms of enrollment for other schools in the county, particularly a neighboring school such as Eastern.

“I don’t know how we wouldn’t be (impacted),” he said.

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