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3-class basketball in North Dakota passes first test

The board unanimously voted Thursday to formally accept — not approve — the proposed three-class basketball system as presented and will now move forward with studies of finance and the impact to existing or new staff.

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Central Cass' Decontee Smith, center, is fouled by Kindred’s Abigail Duchscherer, left, in front of Kristina Freier during their Class B, Region 1 girls basketball championship game Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Wahpeton.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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VALLEY CITY, N.D. — A proposed three-class basketball system in North Dakota is one step closer to becoming a reality after the North Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors met on Thursday.

After hearing a formal presentation from the three-class basketball focus group, the NDHSAA board voted unanimously to accept the proposed plan that would soon implement a three-class system within the state. North Dakota has long had two classes of high school basketball.

The motion, made by board member Rick Diegel and seconded by board member Ned Clooten, includes the caveat that the board will move forward with a finance study and impact to existing or new staff study with the findings of each to be presented at a special meeting on Feb. 8, 2023.

The board has only formally accepted — not approved — the plan as it will await the findings of the finance and staffing studies before moving forward with any formal approval/implementation.

The focus group’s presentation was led by LaMoure Public Schools Superintendent Mitch Carlson, West Fargo Public Schools District Activities Director Logan Midthun, and Beulah Public Schools Activities Director Jason Simpfenderfer — three members of the 12-member focus group that is made up of a representative from the Eastern Dakota Conference, Western Dakota Association, the eight Class B basketball regions and two advisory members. Carlson serves as an advisory member, while Midthun represents the EDC and Simpfenderfer represents Region 7.

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Logan Midthun, district activities director for West Fargo Public Schools, presents to the North Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors regarding the proposed three-class basketball plan on Thursday. The board voted unanimously to formally accept the plan and next steps toward approval and implementation will be considered at a special meeting on Feb. 8, 2023.
Ryan Spitza / The Forum

Under the proposed plan, boys and girls basketball would be split into Class AA, Class A and Class B based on school enrollment.

Class AA would feature East and West regions with schools that enroll 575 or more students. Class A would also be split into East and West regions along with smaller subregions with schools that enroll 180 to 574 students. The revamped Class B would feature eight districts and four regions with schools that enroll fewer than 180 students.

After nearly four hours of discussion and deliberation, the board came to its unanimous decision.

“I think the biggest takeaway from everyone involved was the clear support for adding a division of basketball,” said NDHSAA Executive Director Matthew Fetsch. “Something that not too long ago probably didn’t exist to this extent. It seems like a lot has changed in the last few years as far as people’s conception of basketball classes."

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Fargo North's Keech Bior fends off Minot's Jaeger Gunville during the North Dakota state boys high school basketball tournament at the Bismarck Event Center on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

In order to reach the table at Thursday’s board meeting, the proposal needed to be supported by at least 60% of NDHSAA member schools. The focus group stated that 70%, or 114 member schools, supported the proposal.

After the focus group presentation and brief board discussion, the board opened the floor to those representing member schools. Thirty-one representatives took the floor to speak in support or opposition of the plan — or somewhere in between.

Key issues raised included competitive balance, the legality of implementing a “multiplier rule” for classification, and if the proposed system would potentially increase the number of basketball teams within the state.

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Representatives from North Dakota High School Activities Association member schools sit in on Thursday's NDHSAA Board of Directors meeting in Valley City. The board voted unanimously to formally accept a proposed three-class basketball plan and will move towards approving/implementing that plan at a special meeting to be held on Feb. 8, 2023.
Ryan Spitza / The Forum

The focus group was formed in early 2022 after a survey was sent out to member schools in January asking if those schools would be willing to support a three-class plan. Nearly 87% of member schools responded “yes” to the initial survey.

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A draft of the proposal was completed in August and open to review/comment from member schools through September. The final draft was implemented in early October with the goal of presenting to the board in November.

Carlson said after the meeting that the board’s decision was a step in the right direction.

“I guess I wasn’t really surprised at anything that happened (today),” Carlson said. “But it was just a good opportunity for teams to share what their concerns are and the pros and cons of the plan.”

Carlson added that next steps are now in the hands of the board.

“To be honest with you, our job is sort of done unless the (NDHSAA) board of directors wants us to help out with any type of clarification or modifications. Now it’s sort of in the board’s hands to decide where they want to go with it from here.”

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Bismarck Century's Bergan Kinnebrew can't pull down a pass against Minot during the North Dakota state girls high school basketball tournament championship game at the Bismarck Event Center on Saturday, March 12, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

It’s not yet known — if approved at February’s special meeting — when the three-class system would start. The proposal was intended for the 2023-24 school year, but the board discussed the potential of it being kicked to 2024-25 as issues such as state tournament venues, media contracts and officials still need to be addressed.

“The 23-24 timeline is very tight, obviously,” Fetsch said. “Feb. 8 will be the next time formal discussion on that will take place. I think the board definitely left that open-ended.”

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Enderlin's Joe Joe Hurlburt goes up for two against Central Cass during their North Dakota Class B Region 1 boys’ basketball game Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Casselton.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Diegel said he was satisfied with Thursday’s decision to formally recognize the plan and that a three-class system is long overdue.

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“I think three-class basketball has been needed and wanted by the majority of schools in North Dakota for the last several years. I guess since we’re moving into uncharted territory, I don’t know if anybody can answer exactly step by step what’s going to happen. But I’m very excited that we can start talking about three-class basketball and so we can kind of come up with adjustments so that a majority of our schools are satisfied and happy with that structure — those being our small public schools, our medium public schools, our parochial schools — so that we can all find a solution that is acceptable.”

The three-class basketball website — spearheaded by the focus group — can be viewed here .

Ryan Spitza joined The Forum in December 2021 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Marquette, Mich., a city of 20,000 on the southern shore of Lake Superior. He majored in multimedia journalism and minored in public relations at Northern Michigan University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in May 2019. While attending college, Spitza gained real-world experience covering high school and college athletics for both The Mining Journal and The North Wind.

Spitza can be reached at 701-451-5613 or rspitza@forumcomm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryspitza.
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