A System Founded to Elevate, But Designed to Separate
PHOENIX, Ariz. – With the open division and power points weighing more on Arizona high school sports in ways people have never seen, they are beginning to question the foundations of the AIA more than ever.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) regulates the majority of high school athletics in Arizona.
The AIA ranks teams with a system called power points. It ranks teams based on strength of schedule. The higher the number in the ranking, the better. This number is determined by a huge number of variables.
Power point rankings are based on an algorithm that displays a ranking number on the azpreps365.com website. In football, the top sixteen teams in each division with the highest power point ranking are able to compete for a state championship. In most other sports, seeds 9-24 compete for the final eight spots with a play-in game.
In addition to conference tournaments, for football, the top eight teams with the highest rankings from 6A through 4A compete for an Open State Championship. For boys’ and girls’ basketball, the top 32 teams from 6A through 4A qualify for the Open Division.
Does anyone know, in detail, how the power points algorithm works? No.
According to the AIA rankings FAQ, “The AIA Rankings are based on the algorithm derived utilizing statistical mathematics presented in a research paper titled: “A Solution to the Unequal Strength of Schedule Problem” by Roy Bethel in 2005 and developed by MaxPreps for nationwide high school sports.”
Does the Executive Director of the AIA David Hines know? “Absolutely not,” he said.
“We've had our math teachers try to figure it [out],” Centennial High head football coach Richard Taylor said, “and they can't.”
Each team is given a region to play in. These regions are comprised of five or six teams, but if a team wins their region within their division and has the best record that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed an official spot in the playoffs.
The regions are selected by the AIA and not the schools, leaving half of most teams’ schedules out of their control. In many other states, schools are placed in conferences/regions that are selected by their athletic directors, similar to the system in NCAA athletics.
This system makes it so that a 3-7 Centennial football team, who finished dead last in their region, were able to compete for a state championship at the 6A division during the 2021 season, because of how high their power point ranking was.
“In my opinion,” Taylor said, “ I don't think a 3-8 (after their playoff loss) team deserves to be in the playoffs.”
The Tolleson Union High School football team, a 6A team that finished 7-3 and first in their region during the 2021 season but finished 17th in the 6A rankings and couldn’t even compete for a state championship.
Tolleson had the same or a better record than 13 of the 16 teams that competed for a state championship during the 2021 season.
The exact same year, Sierra Linda finished with an 8-2 record but finished 20th in the 4A rankings and missed the playoffs.
“Tolleson had some wins, they may not have played some schools that got them a lot of power points, but you know, a win is a win,” Arizona High School Hall of Fame Coach Osborn Shackelford said.
If a team has the best record in their region they are not guaranteed a playoff spot. So what's the point of regions then? The only point is to make scheduling games easier, as each team plays teams in their region during a season.
“If you win [your region], ‘good, you won region’, you get a plaque— but that's it,” Goytia said.
So with a beast as big as high school sports, how does an organization like the AIA tame it and try to keep everyone happy?
Here is a little secret: they don’t.
The implementation of the power point ranking system was founded on reasonable standards, but it is not free from faults.
“Football has become destination schools,” Hines said. “It [had] become the haves and have-nots, and the disparity between teams was getting wider and wider. We were having games that were blowouts throughout the season. We had teams and schools that were starting to get fewer and fewer kids out to play.”
So what did the AIA decide to do?
“We put together a reclassification committee and the goals of the reclassification meeting was number one, the safety of the kids,” Hines said. “Number two was that we wanted competitive regular season games, and then the third criteria was we wanted competitive postseason games.”
The AIA did this and achieved its goal.
“It made games more competitive,” Hines said. “It was really good to see the really elite teams play each other. It was really good to see schools that had not had an opportunity to be in the playoffs get to the semis or finals.”
But, as a result, the AIA created a system that doesn’t reward wins.
High schools can play top opposition and not win, yet still have a shot at the playoffs over a team with a better record who played worse talent.
The biggest competition and the most talented players are held in the East Valley of Phoenix and Peoria, a city that starts just north of Glendale but extends higher than Deer Valley.
Five of the eight high schools in this year's open state championships for football are from the East Valley, the rest are from Peoria and North Phoenix. None are from the West Valley or South Phoenix.
One reason is that higher-income families moved from West Valley to the East Valley in the 1990s due to the completion of the I-10 Interstate highway connecting East and West Phoenix. Because of the perceived superiority of East Valley schools, it leads to the same football teams being in the Open State Championship rounds every year based on power points.
Dra Rogers, head coach of the Desert Edge varsity men’s basketball team believes there is “no question” that there is an East Valley bias.
Because of the high-income areas surrounding the top school football programs, they can generate more money for the football programs using boosters. Booster clubs are formed by the parents of athletes who play the sport and give money to the program for uniforms, food, athletic training, and other essential needs.
“There are booster clubs at some of our bigger schools that make up to $175,000 to $200,000 a year,” Executive Director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association David Hines said.
Saguaro High School is located in the upper-class Scottsdale area and was able to generate $277,426 in 2019 for its football program according to guidestar.com. Saguaro has qualified for the Open State Championship every season.
Maryvale High School, which has no boosters and is located in the lower-class area of the Maryvale Village, only gets $8,000 per year.
“The $8,000 towards uniforms actually comes from the district. So [if] we needed something additional, we got to work out a way for us to get some additional stuff,” Maryvale head football coach Byron Traylor said.
The Maryvale football program relies on money from concessions and one Maryvale teacher stand to help feed the players on Friday nights and Saturday mornings as well as purchase new equipment and clothing.
Maryvale High School is located in a low-income area and is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Valley, according to Orent Criminal Law Offices. The parents of students face many hardships.
“That is the challenge is getting parent involvement,” the mother of Maryvale football player Dezmond Taylor, Angel Madrigal said. “I'm a working mom. I'm a single working mother, and you have to dedicate time to supporting your children. And if you're not able to because of your home situation or your work situation, it can be a lot for you.”
The AIA mission statement says, “create and sustain an ethical culture through activities that encourages maximum student participation by providing AIA member schools with an even playing field to ensure fair and equitable competition in interscholastic activities.”
Is the power point system truly creating an even playing field?