By DAVID LESNICK
The Daily Inter Lake
The last time Class AA sports in Montana dealt with a major change like this was just over a decade ago with the addition of Glacier High School.
That was for the 2007-2008 school year.
Well, it’s happening once again.
The 2019-2020 AA sports calendar welcomes Belgrade to the mix. With their enrollment (862.75) average for three years exceeding the Class AA mark of 779 students, the Montana High School Association easily approved their changing classes.
The Panthers have enjoyed athletic success in a variety of sports as a Class A member of the Central Division. So this promises to be a positive and competitive addition.
Prior to Class A, Belgrade competed in Class B and C. It will become the first Montana school to have competed in all four classes.
Class AA will quickly experience another addition in 2020-2021 when Gallatin High School in Bozeman joins the ranks. That will also give AA 16 schools.
“I’m excited about it,” Flathead activities director Bryce Wilson said.
“Sometimes change is hard, but this is a change for the positive for our sports. I’m looking forward to the challenges that may arise by having more teams in AA. It will be an exciting time to have more competition.”
Wilson said the eight-team divisions — Eastern and Western — “makes for a clean bracket for divisional tournaments with no byes.”
For the coming sports season, the Western Division will have its usual seven teams — Flathead, Glacier, Helena Capital and Helena High, Missoula Big Sky, Hellgate, Sentinel — plus Butte.
Butte moves from the Eastern Division to the Western with Belgrade replacing it in the Eastern Division, which will have seven schools for this academic school year, but eight when Gallatin opens its doors a year after that.
“I’m excited,” Glacier activities director Mark Dennehy said.
“I think it will be good. We will just have to evaluate everything (as we go along). I think in general, a lot of good work was done by a lot of good people.”
Football has been impacted perhaps the most regarding scheduling this fall. To accommodate a nine-week season and a 15-team league, all AA teams will make the playoffs. Eastern Division teams will play eight games and have a bye during the regular season (Aug. 30-Oct. 25). Seven of the eight Western Division teams, on the other hand, will have a full schedule — nine games.
Every school will play everyone in their division, plus two games against foes from the other division.
Since Glacier and Missoula Hellgate are the two Western Division teams to draw Gallatin for the new two-year schedule, both were given a bye week for 2019. Glacier filled that with a nonconference game at home versus Mount Spokane on Sept. 6. Hellgate will be off the first weekend, then play eight straight games.
So, for the first round of the 2019 playoffs, which begin on Nov. 1, or the 10th week of the season, it will be crossover divisional games as follows:
• Western AA No. 1 seed — Bye
• Western No. 2 seed vs. Eastern No. 7 seed
• Western No. 3 seed vs. Eastern No. 6 seed
• Western No. 4 seed vs. Eastern No. 5 seed
• Western No. 5 seed vs. Eastern No. 4 seed
• Western No. 6 seed vs. Eastern No. 3 seed
• Western No. 7 seed vs. Eastern No. 2 seed
• Western No. 8 seed. vs. Eastern No. 1 seed
The top seed from the West, following its first-round bye, will be then be reseeded with the remaining winning teams for the quarterfinals. The semifinals and championship games will also be reseeded.
Regarding the other sports for Western AA, the addition of Butte will result in the loss of two nonconference games for Flathead and Glacier. That will eliminate games against Idaho foes in sports like basketball or volleyball.
For soccer, the addition of Butte eliminates a season opening tournament in Great Falls and Helena for Flathead and Glacier and the other AA schools.
“All our games are now conference games,” Wilson said.
AA soccer will also go with a different postseason format, switching from play-in games for state to a quarterfinal, semifinal and championship bracket like Class A uses. Matches will be held on Tuesday and Saturday, starting with divisional play then cross divisional matchups.
“Hopefully, this would build momentum for the sport,” Dennehy said.
“Make for a better following (of students and fans).”
Volleyball will switch to a divisional postseason format the following school year when both divisions have eight schools. There will also be two regular-season tournaments, hosted by Helena, Bozeman, Butte or Great Falls, where teams from the Western will play those from the Eastern.
Golf will add a divisional tournament as well next year.
“You will now have to qualify for state (golf),” Dennehy said. “You are not automatically going.”
Flathead and Glacier will benefit from the new alignment when it comes to tennis. Those two schools were constantly switching between the Northern and Western Division for divisional play. Both will now be permanent residents of the Northern Division with Great Falls and Great Falls C.M. Russell.
The tennis season will also be extended a week starting in 2020-2021. Previously, that state tournament was held a week before state track and softball. Those three sports will now end on the same weekend.
“A lot of good work was done by the activities directors for the transition,” Dennehy said.
“We looked at every sport, how it was impacted and made changes accordingly.
“We’ve been working on the football schedule for approximately three years. The coaches started on it, trying to develop a schedule. As they worked, they found out how challenging it is. They recognized the good work (by all AA activity directors) of schedule building from the previous dates. They said: ‘Go ahead; you guys can take this back. We trust what you are doing.’”
Important first game/match/meet dates to note for Flathead and Glacier this fall:
Golf — Aug. 19
Football — Aug. 30
Boys/girls soccer —Aug. 31
Volleyball — Aug. 31
Cross Country — Sept. 6.