Friday, April 9, 2010

Playoff Proposal Defeat Good News For Pioneers

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of Cape Ann League football are greatly exaggerated.

By an overwhelming 190-114 vote, a proposal that would have tripled the number of teams making the playoffs, realigned all of Massachusetts football into new divisions and eliminated all existing football leagues, was soundly defeated at a meeting of the MIAA on March 26th.

And that is good news for Lynnfield High football.

The idea behind the proposal was to get more teams into postseason play, similar to the situation in other sports where up to 50% of teams make the tournament. An additional goal was to level the playing field by aligning schools with similar enrollments into the same division.

Unfortunately for Lynnfield, the realignment made the Pioneers the smallest school out of 16 in Division Four North. That meant they would be battling much bigger schools like Pentucket, Swampscott and Melrose in addition to many of their current CAL Small brethren like Newburyport, Amesbury, Hamilton Wenham and North Reading,

Obviously it was not a very good situation for them to be in.

The biggest problem for the realignment for Lynnfield was the size of the schools at the top of their proposed division. For alignment purposes, Lynnfield had 337 male students. The top three schools in Division Four North would have been Melrose (426 or 26% more than LHS), Pentucket (412), Saugus (407) and Stoneham (401).

The Pioneers stopped playing CAL Large opponents to avoid such mismatches.

By contrast, the spread in the CAL Small is much tighter. Newburyport, at 375 is only 11% larger than Lynnfield with Manchester-Essex/Rockport (371), Hamilton Wenham (347), North Reading (346), Amesbury (340), Ipswich (315) and Georgetown (200) all with similar enrollments.

LHS Principal Robert Cleary and head coach Neal Weidman attended the meeting and voted against the proposal.

"Where Lynnfield fell was not the best thing for us," Weidman said. "The football committee did a good job and provided a good base. Eventually something will be done. But I have to look out for what's best for our kids."

Weidman had expected the vote to be close, but as debate went on during the meeting, it became clear that opposition to the plan was overwhelming.

"During the open discussion portion a lot more people spoke against it than for it," Weidman said. "There were just too many unanswered questions."

According to the coach, much of the opposition centered on two main issues, financial and competition.

On the financial side, teams that made the playoffs would lose two games worth of gate receipts. How the monies collected from the MIAA at the playoff games would be shared with the teams was an open question. And despite the realignment, there was still some questions as to the competitiveness of the proposed divisions.

Other teams in the CAL Small were split on the proposal.

Amesbury helped lead the opposition to the plan with principal Les Murray writing the "con" opinion in the Boston Globe. He cited travel concerns - hiking to Watertown and Bedford as examples - the loss of local rivalries and the overall scheduling.

Under the proposal, every team would play their first seven games within their division. Beginning in Week Eight, the top eight teams in each division would begin three weeks of playoffs. The postseason would break to allow for the traditional Thanksgiving Day games to be played and then resume with true state championships at Gillette the following week.

New schedules for the final three weeks of the season would be made up for the teams that did not make the playoffs or were knocked out in the first two rounds. Murray voiced concern that schools wouldn't know who they would be playing in week eight until that point in time.

Hamilton Wenham also opposed the plan. According to an article in the Ipswich Chronicle, head coach Andrew Morency expressed concerns regarding breaking up the leagues and also the increased costs of extended travel.

On the other side, Ipswich was strongly in favor of the plan, due in no small part to the fact that IHS principal Barry Cahill chairs the MIAA football committee. In that same article, Cahill stated he was in favor since he felt it "created parity for his school's football team."

The fact that the Ipswich, with only 22 less male students in grades 9-12 than Lynnfield, would have been the third largest school in Division Five North, may have also helped determine their final decision.

Manchester-Essex, which will now join the CAL Small in 2011, was also in favor. M-E now plays much larger schools in the Commonwealth Athletic Conference Large but fit much better in the CAL where they have 34 more male students than Lynnfield and only four less than Newburyport.

"The league as a whole was unsure of the plan," Weidman related. He also agreed that the disbanding of the league structure was a concern. "Not having a league champion would not be the same."

Other schools had different reasons for their decisions.

Cambridge, Rindge and Latin, coached by Lynnfield resident Joe Papagni, was strongly in favor of the proposal because of the instability of the Greater Boston League. "Our league is basically non-existent," said Papagni, former Pioneer assistant and current LHS head lacrosse coach. The GBL, once one of the premier leagues in Eastern Mass now consists of Cambridge, Everett, Malden, Medford and Somerville.

Not only is scheduling a problem - "I have to pick up Xaverian, St. John's, Catholic Memorial to fill out our schedule" - but Papagni faces the daunting task of having to upend powerhouse Everett in order to make the postseason.

"We are also a technical school, which drops our enrollment for alignment purposes and we would have been in Division Two North playing teams more in line with us. Overall it would have helped us."

Now that the realignment plan has been defeated, the Cape Ann League faces some choices.

Beginning in 2011, M-E will join the CAL Small while Wilmington is heading out for the Middlesex League. That will leave Masco, North Andover, Pentucket and Triton as the only CAL Large teams while eight teams will then be in the CAL Small.

"The league could go out and get teams to move into the Large which would be good," said Weidman. "Or two teams could move up from the Small to even off the leagues at six and six."

Who exactly would move up would depend on the enrollments of the schools at the time the decision is made. Based on the realignment proposal, the two largest schools in the CAL Small were Newburyport and Manchester Essex (which included Rockport). But that was based on 2007 enrollments and there has been a lot of population volatility in recent years so who would ultimately move up is still very much in the air.

But one thing remains certain. The CAL Small will exist for the foreseeable future and all things considered, that is the best outcome for Lynnfield football.

Check back on May 9th for my next post.