PHS athletic officials, coaches welcome challenge in wake of new classification

PLYMOUTH — Although Plymouth may have jumped up a class under the 2014-15 IHSAA reclassifications, athletic officials and coaches at the school are determined not to let expectations drop.
On Tuesday, the IHSAA announced its new classifications for two school years effective next year, and with an enrollment of 1,112 students last fall, PHS was the only school among 12 Pilot News Group-area schools to make a jump in class. The change will affect Plymouth’s basketball, baseball and softball programs, who bump up from 3A to the IHSAA’s 4A state tournament field, but the high school will remain in the 4A football class under the new six-class state tournament and likewise won’t make any change in the state’s two-class state soccer tournaments.
The new classifications leave Plymouth the fourth smallest school in the 4A tournaments ahead of New Castle, but officials and coaches say they welcome the challenge.
“Plymouth High School has enjoyed a tradition of athletic excellence as evidenced by decades of success — through IHSAA single, and multi-class distinctions,” said Plymouth Athletic Director Roy Benge in an email to staff in the wake of the new classifications. “Much of Plymouth’s success is… due to our past, current and future Hall of Fame Coaches and Athletes who helped set that bar of excellence. Our philosophy in individual and team competition has and will continue, to be the best we need to compete against the best. I have always been amazed by our coaches’ and athletes’ willingness to compete against any odds. That attitude is shared by many, near and far, across the state.”
Probably the most renowned chapter in Plymouth’s storied athletic legacy came in 1982, when former NBA player and coach Scott Skiles helped lead the PHS boys basketball team to the single-class state championship with a 75-74 double-overtime victory over Gary Roosevelt in an underdog match-up — the Pilgrims’ only state championship until their 3A title in 2007 — and PHS Assistant AD John Scott referenced that legendary season when talking about next year’s move up in the IHSAA classifications.
“Plymouth High School athletes have never backed away from a challenge,” he said via email. “Evidence of this was shown in 1982 when the Plymouth boys basketball team won a single-class state championship. At that time, the Plymouth High School enrollment was less than 900 students.
“The Plymouth High School Athletic Department welcomes this challenge. We look forward to many more successes on the courts and in the fields.”
Tuesday’s reclassification comes on the heels of a winter sports season in which both Plymouth’s boys and girls basketball teams were able to recapture sectional championships — the girls for the first time in two seasons and the boys for the first time in three years — on their way to regional runner-up finishes.
The move to 4A could make the road to that kind of postseason success a bit rockier, but PHS boys basketball coach Ryan Bales, who himself helped lead a small North Judson squad to a regional championship under the old single-class format in 1995, expressed confidence in his players’ and the program in general.
“I love the challenge,” Bales said. “It’s definitely getting a little bit tougher when you get into a 4A sectional. Typically throughout the state the fields are a little bit deeper. Sometimes you get into the smaller sectionals you have a couple games that are pretty down, but I think when you get into the 4A tourney, the majority of teams have a chance to win each year. I think for our kids with class basketball coming along, they maybe feel like when they play a bigger school, those teams are supposed to beat them, and in most cases — maybe not all — I feel like now let’s just play them and see what we do, see if we can win.”
The new classifications will mean realignments to tournament fields throughout the state, and PHS coaches won’t know their sectional fates until after the various state tournaments wrap up and the IHSAA shuffles fields after taking final tallies under the association’s new Tournament Success Factor, where schools may move up a class in a given sport based on their tournament success in the previous year’s state series.
As a member of the Northern Lakes Conference, Plymouth already competes in a large-school league alongside several 4A schools, and has for the most part been competitive in the NLC. Depending on how the boys basketball tournament shakes out over the next two weeks, the Pilgrims could find themselves in familiar territory against some of those NLC teams in the newly-appointed sectional fields, or they could be facing unfamiliar foes in the postseason. Athletic Directors typically contract with potential sectional opponents to play those teams during the regular season in an effort to prepare their teams for the state tournament, and if the latter happens, a shift in class may precipitate a change in Plymouth’s regular-season schedules next year as well.
“I’m anticipating that our regular-season schedule will change a little with us playing up,” Bales said. “We want to play the teams that we’re going to be facing in the postseason and that caliber of team. I’m sure we’ll still keep a lot of the rivalry games, whether that’s small school or big school. But we’re one of the smaller schools in our conference, and I think in a lot of sports Plymouth is very competitive in the Northern Lakes Conference. It depends on where we go — we could end up being in a sectional with a lot of Northern Lakes Conference teams or in the South Bend area.”
“Our office will strive to help your programs move forward through the transition ahead,” said Benge in his inter-office email. “Adjustment to some schedule changes are inevitable both by us and those we currently compete with. We will continue to express our willingness/interest to host future IHSAA venues as a 4A school. Our facilities, experience and success hosting previous IHSAA events will be a positive to consider.”