Thursday, April 5, 2012

Expanded Football Playoffs Could Start in 2013

Welcome to the April post of the Gridblog.

We're almost at the halfway point of the offseason with about five months to go until the start of the 2012 season.

The biggest football news of the offseason is coming out of the MIAA where the governing body of Massachusetts High School football is looking at another proposal to expand post season participation. You may remember that a similar proposal was voted down 190-114 in March of 2010.

Just to review, the impetus for expanding participation for football is being driven by the Mass High School Football Coaches Association (MHSFCA) which wants to provide the same type of post season play opportunities for its sport that exists for other high school sports. Most other sports have nearly 50% of its schools qualify for post season play. In football, only the league champions head to the playoffs, which amounts to a much smaller percentage of teams.

The 2010 proposal aimed to rectify that and also to level the playing field by putting teams into divisions that were more equal in terms of enrollment.

One of the biggest problem with the proposal that helped drive its resounding defeat, was that it blew up all the leagues in the state and realigned teams simply into "divisions."

The defeat of the proposal was good for the Pioneers overall since it would have placed Lynnfield in a 16 team division in which it would have been the smallest school. With 337 male students at the time, the Pioneers would have been competing with Melrose (426 male students), Pentucket (412), Saugus (407) and Stoneham (401) among others.

Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman was against that proposal.

"Where Lynnfield fell was not the best thing for us," Weidman told me at the time. "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."

The "eventually" that Weidman referred to, has become "now" as the MHSFCA has put forth another playoff proposal, and this one seems to be gaining traction.

The new proposal, co-authored by Swampscott head coach Steve Dembowski, would ultimately result in state champions in six divisions. Like the original proposal, the first seven weeks of the season would be used to determine the qualifiers for the playoffs which would take place in Weeks 8, 9, 10 and 11. That would be followed by the Thanksgiving Day games and then the State Championships would be played ten days later on the first Saturday of December.

The plan eliminates the "three games in eight days" scenario of the current system that has teams playing on Thanksgiving, the Tuesday following and then on Saturday. It also relieves the pressure that the extended postseason schedule puts on winter sports. This year, 74 teams played after Thanksgiving, according to Bob Holmes of the Boston Globe. Under this new proposal, only 12 teams will be involved after the holiday.

A big difference in the new plan is that all the existing leagues would remain intact, thus ensuring league champions as usual. Leagues with five or more teams would get at least two playoff berths. Leagues could get even more berths as a result of a wild card system that will be used to fill out the rest of the playoff brackets.

After the first seven weeks, teams that don't qualify for the playoffs would have their remain games scheduled by a committee that would use competitive balance and traveling distance as the basis for their decisions.

Another interesting part of the proposal would allow leagues to have teams in more than one division for the postseason, something that happens regularly in other sports tournaments.

The initial proposal would establish Eastern Mass sections for both North and South of Divisions 1 through 3 of 12 teams each. Division 3 would have two 12 team brackets and Division 4 through 6 would have 16 teams in each division.

The divisions would be set up based on male enrollment as follows:

Division 1  - 800+
Division 2  - 625-800
Division 3 - 400-625
Division 4 - 300-400
Division 5 - 200-300
Division 6 - 200 and under

Based on that criteria, and using the MIAA male enrollment numbers from the 2009-10 thru 2012-13 alignment cycle, Lynnfield's 337 male enrollment would likely place them in the North Division 4 with the following schools:

Burke High (Dorchester) - 397
Bedford - 391
Swampscott - 388
Newburyport - 375
Watertown - 364
Hamilton-Wenham - 347
North Reading - 340
Amesbury - 340
Arlington Catholic - 330
Ipswich - 315

That's only 11 schools, so there would be five more to fill out the division, and based on the 2010 proposal, those would likely be:

Stoneham - 401
Saugus - 407
Pentucket - 412
Minuteman Regional (Lexington) - 416
O'Bryant ( Roxbury) - 420

That would place the Pioneers 14th in the 16 team division, not dissimilar from the original 2010 proposal. But there are are a few things to consider.

First the enrollments would likely be updated before the final divisions are set so that could have a big impact. Also, and more importantly, the playoff qualifiers will come from the leagues, so a league champion and perhaps the league runner up will qualify. That would mean the Pioneers would not be competiting with the larger schools in the division for a playoff berth, but instead against the same five teams they compete with now. So a first or second place finish would earn them a spot.

The wild card spots, which would be determined by a power rating similar to the old Super Bowl formula, would fill out the remaining spots, so that would be another way in to get into the postseason.

The proposal was floated in February and the MIAA Football committee voted 19-0 to schedule a meeting on March 12 for a more thorough review and to decide whether to move it along to the Tournament Management Committee (TMC) at its March 19 meeting. The Football Committee voted 13-6 to approve the plan and present it to the TMC.

At the March 19 meeting, the TMC voted 15-0 in favor of the "concept" of the proposal but wanted more details.  The football committee will meet again on May 9th and the TMC will meet the following day where the MHSFCA hopes they will vote approval of the plan.

"We know we have a lot of work to do," Xaverian coach and football committee member Charlie Stevenson told Dan Ventura of the Boston Herald following the March 19 meeting. "I feel that the (TMC) is in support of the general principle of changing the tournament to give kids a better importance to be involved in the playoffs. That gives people like me and Steve Dembowski and others more energy to go back and fix it 100 percent so when we move forward in 2013 that our football tournament will be as good as (any) football tournament in the country."

"I think there's some good in it," Weidman told me recently. "There's a  lot of unanswered things for us as far as our league, where it's going. Are we going to stick with the (Northeast Conference) with Wilmington and North Andover going and if Masco were to leave."

This will be the second year of the 24 team CAL-NEC SuperLeague and with North Andover heading out this year, changes are undoubtedly in store for the 2013 season regardless of the  fate of the new playoff proposal.

"There are a lot of positives to (the playoff proposal) as far as more teams getting involved and more of a playoff atmosphere at the end of the year," Weidman said. "The proposal could be good. There's a chance you're going to have a competitive league and the (existing) way wouldn't be bad for us. But at the same time you pretty much have to go undefeated or close to it to make the playoffs. This new proposal you would have a chance to have two to three teams from your league go."

Weidman also pointed out an interesting scenario that could unfold under the new proposal.

"There's a chance that we could potentially play North Reading three times in a season," Weidman said. "If North Reading were in our league, we could play them the first week (as part of the league schedule) and then again on Thanksgiving.  They would have to be one of our league games."

The Thanksgiving game would then be played after the playoffs already were underway so it would be played just for the rivalry aspect.

"Then we could be in the same pool playoff-wise so you could run into North Reading again in the playoffs," Weidman explained. "People aren't super psyched about that."

More questions to be answered and a final decision will be made in May. We'll know a lot more after that meeting.

That's it for now. Check back on May 4th for my next post.