Saturday, March 16, 2013

Realignment, New Playoff Format Good News for Pioneers

If you read my Villager article last week (and if not, why not?), the Pioneers have some big changes on tap for the upcoming season. Not only are they now in a new league, but they are also in a new division thanks to the implementation of the new playoff system.

We also have a first look at their upcoming schedule, which will force an entirely new approach to the season, with emphasis shifting from the end to the beginning of the schedule.

The bottom line is that the changes bode well for the Pioneers. Yes they have significant holes to fill, but they have a strong sophomore/junior core returning, and winning begets winning. Head coach Neal Weidman also appears to have his coaching staff returning intact which is always the kind of continuity that is huge in high school football.

Let's take things one at a time.

New League
Just to quickly recap, for the past two years the Pioneers played in the CAL/NEC 4, the smallest tier in a two year, four league, 24 team Super League experiment combining the two leagues. The NEC opted not to continue with that format, which forced the 11 Cape Ann League teams to regroup on its own.

In the meantime, Saugus asked to be released from the NEC and admitted to the CAL and both requests were approved giving the CAL 12 teams. With two playoff berths in hand, the obvious choice was to return to a CAL Large and Small alignment of six teams each.

So going from smallest to largest in terms of male enrollment, Georgetown (210), Manchester-Essex (227), Lynnfield (305), Hamilton Wenham (307), Ipswich (314) and Amesbury (328) were put in the CAL Small.

Again going from smallest to biggest, that put North Reading (342), Newburyport (349), Saugus (350), Pentucket (383), Triton (384) and Masconomet (632) in the CAL Large. For those of you good with numbers, you may have noticed one LARGE elephant in the room - literally and figuratively - in Masco.

The other 11 teams shake out pretty evenly, but Masco is the odd school out in terms of size. They really don't belong but they have been left out in the cold and really have nowhere else to go at this time. They have tried to get into the Merrimack Valley Conference (where North Andover went last year) and the NEC, but were not accepted.

"In Masco's defense, they're trying," Weidman told me. "But that's the way it is this year."

This will most likely change next season when Masco finds a more suitably sized league. Also, Winthrop, with a 241 male enrollment, has applied to be accepted into the CAL and that would resolve the issue. Winthrop would go into the Small and either Hamilton-Wenham or Amesbury would likely move up to the Large. Those decisions are a year away however.

Likely the five other teams in the Large aren't thrilled about having to play a school with nearly double their male enrollment, but in one way, it provides an opportunity to get a leg up when it comes to making the playoffs. More on that later.

The Pioneers appear to be perfectly placed in the CAL Small. The league should be quite competitive based on recent seasons and Lynnfield would certainly have to be considered contenders, even with the heavy losses to graduation.

In the past five seasons - the Weidman years - the Pioneers have rolled to an 18-7 record against the other five CAL Small schools - a .720 wining percentage. The results by school are:

Ipswich 5-0
Amesbury 5-1 (including last year's playoff win)
Georgetown 4-1
Manchester Essex 2-2
Hamilton-Wenham 2-3

A couple of interesting notes. One of the losses to H-W was in overtime in 2011 and one came in the last minute of play in 2010. Both years the Generals were league champs. In a quirky twist, the two M/E losses came at home in 2011 and 2008 while the two wins in 2010 and 2012 were up at Hyland Field in Manchester. The schools didn't play in 2009.

If you want to go back 10 years, the combined Lynnfield record against those five teams is 22-21. So there should be no reason to expect it won't be a competitive race for the title in 2013.

The largest impact to the new alignment is that for the first time since 1973, the traditional Thanksgiving Day game with North Reading will not be a league game. It will have no implications on the playoffs (since they will be over except for the championship game by then) and will not mean anything to the league standings (since those will have been decided a month before).

There is concern that this will take some of the luster off the game, but my feeling is that unless one or both of them are going to the Super Bowl, it will be the final game of the year and should retain the intensity that it has always had. The last few years aside, there have been long stretches where the game has been played only for bragging rights. That has always been enough to stoke the competitive fires of each team and there's no reason to think that will change.

New Playoff Format
The second big change is the expansion of the number of teams that will make the playoffs. There are now six statewide divisions and the Pioneers have been placed in the sixteen team Division Four North. The other teams in the division are Arlington Catholic (344), Bedford (398), Triton, Pentucket, Watertown (380), Weston (376), Saugus, Newburyport, Swampscott (346), North Reading, Stoneham (328), Amesbury, Ipswich, Hamilton Wenham and Winthrop.

Eight of those schools will make the playoffs and there are three ways to earn a berth. First, leagues with five or more teams get two automatic berths. So the first way to make the playoffs is to win your league. The second way for most leagues is to finish second. The third is to make it as a wild card team based on your record.

Which brings us to the third big change this year - the change of emphasis on the schedule.

For the last two seasons in the CAL/NEC Super League, the first six weeks of the season were basically non league tuneups. Teams could go winless in their non league games but once they started their league schedule in week seven, they could still win their league and make the playoffs. Newburyport and Beverly actually were able to do this.

That will no longer be the case. Teams are going to have to be ready right out of the gate, since the first seven weeks of the season will determine who continues on into the playoffs. No coasting into the season any more. Those first seven weeks will need to include all league games so that league champs and runners up will be determined by the end of October. The non league games played in the first seven weeks will also have a huge impact on determining wild cards playoff berths as well.

The Pioneers will open the 2013 season with non league games against Newburyport (9/14) and Saugus (9/21) then dive right into their CAL Small schedule facing Amesbury (9/28), Man-Essex (10/5), Georgetown (10/12), Hamilton-Wenham (10/19) and Ipswich (10/26).

So by Halloween, the league races will be decided. League champs and second place finishers will be heading to the playoffs. The excel spreadsheets will then be broken out to determine the wild card teams that will fill out the eight team playoff field.

The teams in each division that do not automatically qualify, will be ranked by a Power Rating system that will bring back memories of the old Super Bowl ratings (for those of us old enough to remember those). I know this will give many of you a headache, but here is how the Power Ratings will work.

Each team will get 12 points for a win over a team in a higher division. They get 10 points for a win over a team in the same division. They get 8 points for a win over a team in a lower division.

Coming back to the Masco situation, this is where the CAL Large teams actually might have an advantage. Yes it will be tough to face the mighty Chieftains, but if one of those team can pull of an upset, they would get 12 points instead of 10.

For four of the CAL Small teams, there is a built in disadvantage. Since Georgetown and Manchester-Essex are in Division Five, a win over them counts as only 8 points for the other teams in the league.

Doing the multiplication and addition for all the wins will give each team its "Own Value."

Then "Opponents Value" has to be determined. Teams get three points for every win by opponent they have beaten. They also get one point for every win by an opponent that they have lost to.  Ties are half the value (1.5/.5).

So again referring to the Masco situation. Even if a team in the Large loses to Masco, and the Chieftains go on to win seven games, losing opponents would still get seven points just for having played them. Teams also get a point for an opponents' open week if they don't play seven games.

That then determines the "Opponents Value."

You then add the "Own Value" and "Opponents Value" and divide by the number of games played to determine the Power Rating.

Any idea how much fun this is going to be trying to determine who needs to do what to make the playoffs as we head into week six and seven?

So to boil it down, the Pioneers have to finish first or second in the Small, or have a high enough power rating to earn a Wild Card berth.

And it looks like there will be a number of wild card berths up for grabs if you look at the division.

For example, if as expected, Masco, which is in Division Three, comes in first or second in the CAL Large, that eliminates an automatic berth from Division Four and creates another wild card berth. If Georgetown or Man Essex comes in first or second in the CAL Small, that would eliminate an auto berth in Division Four since they are in Division Five.

So eight teams in the division will start the playoffs on November 2. What about the other eight teams?

According to Weidman, the teams that don't make the playoffs will be matched up by record for their final three games. Also, each week more teams will be eliminated from the playoffs and they will be dropped into the pool to have games scheduled to fill out their 10 game season. Then everyone plays on Thanksgiving.

Got all that?

It will certainly be interesting and confusing to be sure but as we get into the season, it should all sort itself out.

Offseason Underway

Meanwhile, the Pioneers are diligently working out in preparation for the season.

"We've been doing the workouts," Weidman said. "Those have been going pretty good. We have a good amount of kids showing up in the mornings. We're getting between 35-50 kids every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday morning at 6:30."

That's it for now, but check back next month when I'll take a closer look at the schedule.