By D. Mark Mitchell

Sports Columnist


Early this year the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) added another size classification, called 7A. The AHSAA Central Board of Control voted to make the change from six to seven classifications for athletic participation. This was the first time a classification had been added by the AHSAA since the 1980s.
Back then the increase was from four to six classifications.
Classifications are governed by average daily attendance for sophomores, juniors and seniors, grades 10 through 12. Class 6A  was the largest classification before this year’s addition. 6A schools started at 749 students and increased to Bob Jones High (Huntsville/Madison) with 2400 students. This is a large gap in one class, particularly considering the other five classes combined have less difference.
This gap was the main reason for the addition of the seventh class. The board knew the top class, 6A, needed to be divided and created another class to accomplish this. Adding another class means more schools will be in the playoffs, which means more students will participate in the playoffs. Every sport will have another state championship and runner-up.
Some wanted to add two more classifications to make it 8 instead of 7. The CBOC looked at all options and the pros and cons and voted to add one class which would be called Class 7A.
Opelika remained in class 6A, 73 students away from class 7A. Rivals Auburn, Smiths Station and Central moved to class 7A. Familiar opponents, Jeff Davis, Robert E Lee and Enterprise went to 7A. Carver and Benjamin Russell remained in 6A.
I thought Opelika’s new 6A region would consist of Carver, Valley, Russell County, Benjamin Russell, Wetumpka and Stanhope Elmore. That would be six region games and non-region games with rivals Auburn, Central and Smiths Station. This schedule would allow Coach Blackmon to add one game with a team of his choice.
However, when the new regions were announced, Opelika’s changed in a big way from my thinking. Benjamin Russell, Valley, Chelsea, Chilton County, Oxford and Pell City made up the new 6A region. The administration knew the new region would be different for Opelika teams, parents and fans.
The football schedule is more important than one might think. Football generates more revenue than any other sport. These revenues help pay for non-revenue sports and offset their costs. A good football season translates into big crowds. When the Bulldogs play rivals Auburn, Central and Smiths Station the stands are full. Other teams’ support varies which is why playing traditional rivals  helps keep a steady cash flow.
The new region lacks familiar names. Opelika was forced to learn about new schools and create new rivals. This is hard and can’t happen overnight. Opelika played Chelsea, Pell City, Chilton County and Oxford for the first time this season. The Dawgs added Central, Auburn and Enterprise. The AHSCADA  invited Opelika to play Carver in the annual “Champions Challenge”. The Wolverines already had a ten game schedule and called this game their Fall Scrimmage even though it was played like a playoff game.
Smiths Station principal Dr. Jason Yohn, serving as interim Athletic Director after Coach Mark Rose left for North Jackson, told Coach Blackmon Smiths Station would not sign a two-year contract for 2014-15 school years.
This year’s home schedule included one traditional rival/familiar opponent, the Central Red Devils. That game just happened to be the largest crowd home crowd of the 2014 season. The other home games against Chelsea, Chilton County and Pell City drew small crowds on the visiting side as did the playoff game with Wetumpka.
The 2015 home schedule will help offset this year’s small crowds. Auburn, Benjamin Russell, Oxford and Valley will pay visits to Bulldog Stadium. The four games should attract large crowds. The Dawgs only have nine games on the schedule. Coach Brian Blackmon is working to add a another home game.
Other sports such as baseball, softball, basketball and soccer play in Areas.  Areas are made up of a smaller number of teams, normally four.
Opelika’s Area consists of Russell County, Benjamin Russell and Valley. This saves the sports money by not having to travel so far and allows the teams to schedule more games against rivals or schools within a 60-80 mile radius. Parents and fans can travel when games are close which creates revenue for the team hosting the game.
Track, tennis, golf and volleyball participate in sectionals which includes six to eight teams. These sports have little or no way to produce revenue because you do not have to pay to watch.  Baseball and basketball attract good crowds which helps with the cost of running the programs.
We have just completed the first football season under the new AHSAA classification change. I can already tell the change effects Opelika in many ways. Every high school in Alabama that competes in athletics must have financial support. Revenue insures every sport has the proper equipment and extras  to be successful. You must have good athletes and support of the school system. Opelika has every ingredient needed to be successful including the All-Sports Booster Club which raises over $100,00 a year.
Girls(8-5 A-1-0) and boys (8-2, A 1-0) basketball teams swept Valley last week at the OHS Sports Arena as both teams opened Area play with double digit wins.
Coach Booth’s Lady Bulldogs defeated the Lady Rams 60-48. Junior guard Jaylen Snipes poured 28 points while teammate Alexis Sydnor added 12 points.
The boys blew open a close game in the second half, on the way to a 20-point win 72-52. Pernell Vickerstaff scored 18 points, Joey Payne hit for 16 while Kingston Frazier and AJ Butler added 12 points apiece.
The girls will participate in the “Ball ‘N Power” tournament at Faulkner University Dec. 29-31. The boys will travel to LaGrange for the “Granger” tournament which features Alabama schools versus Georgia schools.
Funeral services for JaKell Mitchell were held last Saturday at Greater Peace Baptist in Opelika. The Reverend Clifford Jones officiated the service before a crowd that packed the sanctuary, the fellowship hall and balcony. I must admit, going to a funeral of an 18 year-old young man was not on my  “wish list.” When we learn of any loved one’s death our minds start to think. We look at life  differently. upon hearing about a young person’s tragic death.
Saturday morning seemed to go fast. I met Coach Blackmon and his family for the funeral. Mario had asked both of us to be his guests and sit in the sanctuary with the family.  As expected, the funeral weighed heavy on JaKell’s family, especially the immediate family.
The program planned by the family brought out the good life JaKell lived for his 18 years. Reverends Bandy and Carter prayed and read scriptures from the Bible. The Greater Peace Choir, led by Jerry Jackson, lifted spirits through music and singing. By the time Pastor Clifford Jones started his words about JaKell you could feel God’s presence.
Yes, I felt God’s presence as we laid the body of JaKell Mitchell to rest. Peace filled the room. I want to applaud Harris Funeral Home, Greater Peace Baptist Church and the many people who helped conduct the service. Reverend Jones, your message was perfect.
Pastor Jones ended the service by closing his Bible and asking for every African-American male to listen to his final thoughts. I cannot quote Pastor Jones word-for word but he challenged all to stop the violence; put the guns down; if you have a child, raise him in the Church and be a real father figure, take the responsibility you have as a parent.  I wish everyone could have heard these comments. A fitting way to end a funeral of a special 18 year-old child who was a friend and an inspiration to everyone who knew him.
D.Mark Mitchell is sports director for iHeart Media.