Pity Jimmie Lewis.
The 15th-year Harlem coach has his best team in years, but making the state playoffs will be tougher than ever. He can blame the Georgia High School Association's biennial region realignment.
For some area schools, the new region plans works out well. Take the other Columbia County high schools, for example. Greenbrier, Evans and Lakeside now are in the five-team Region 3B-AAAA with powerhouse Statesboro and Richmond Academy. One of the Columbia County schools is most likely assured of a playoff spot, as long as they can defeat Richmond Academy.
One school in the same boat as Harlem is Richmond Academy. The Musketeers, which went 2-8 last season in Class AAA, moves up in class and will face stiffer competition. The school will also make a pair of seven-hour round trips to Brunswick, Ga., for region crossover games.
Richmond Academy is not the lone school with travel issues. Hephzibah and Burke County now face four Savannah-area schools. The Rebels, who traveled no farther than Thomson last season, will make three round trips of at least five hours in the fall.
Hephzibah coach John Bowen said he doesn't have to worry about high gas prices affecting his team's budget (the Richmond County school system handles transportation); he has plenty of other concerns, though.
"You worry about the travel and how the attendance is going to be," Bowen said. "If we get off to a fast start, we'll get the support."
Support might mean little at Harlem. In 2005, the Bulldogs went 6-4, with blowout region wins over Richmond Academy and Hephzibah. Yet they still missed the playoffs.
This year, Harlem trades in those two schools for Washington County, which has advanced to the Georgia Dome two of the past three years and state power Thomson - and all of a sudden grabbing one of the two subregion playoff spots seems a long shot.
"Thomson and Washington County are your two perennial powers," Lewis said. "You've got to beat one of them just to have any shot at making the playoffs."
Lewis said the problem with realignment is its inconsistency with the amount of teams. Four-team regions - such as 1-AAAA, in which Americus-Sumter, Bainbridge, Lee County and Thomas County Central - will make postseason play the next two years in every sport, regardless if the schools lose every game.
"I don't understand how we can have 12 schools in our region (in football) and you've got teams in south Georgia with four or five," Lewis said. "If I was in a region with four or five teams, I think I'd have a shot."
J.B. Arnold wondered whether his Jefferson County team will have a shot this season despite moving down in classification. The Warriors move to Region 3-AA and will face Laney, Metter, Screven County, Swainsboro and Westside.
"I'll put our team's schedule up against anybody," Arnold said.
Arnold cited his opponents' success in recent years; Jefferson County plays eight teams that have advanced to the state semifinals since 1998.
"We may have taken a step down in classification," Arnold said, "but we didn't take a step down in competition."
Georgia Region Realignment
Region 3B-AAAA: Evans, Greenbrier, Lakeside, Richmond Academy, Statesboro
Region 3A-AAA: Benedictine; Burke Co.; Hephzibah; Liberty Co.; Rich. Hill; South Effingham
Region 3B-AAA: Butler; Cross Creek; Glenn Hills; Harlem; Thomson; Washington Co.
Region 3-AA: Jefferson Co.; Josey; Laney; Metter; Screven Co; Southeast Bulloch; Swainsboro; Westside
Region 8A-AA: Greene County, Morgan County, Oglethorpe County, Putnam County, Washington-Wilkes
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.