After years of debate, heel dragging and old men telling kids to get off their lawn, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and its member schools successfully voted to overhaul its playoff format on Friday, February 28.
Come the fall of 2021, the postseason format for all MIAA schools will have a new look to it. Gone are the sectionals tournaments and, with it, so too the sectional titles. The days of watching South teams cannibalize one another en route to a South Sectional crown, only to be upset by a team from western or central Massachusetts that faced a smaller and perhaps easier sectional bracket, will also soon fall to the wayside.
With a successful vote of 193-140, the MIAA and its member schools have adopted a new statewide tournament format. But what exactly does entail? Essentially, all team sports will qualify the top 32 teams by division with those teams being seeded by a power ranking formula provided by Max Preps (a separate vote that was already approved). The top four seeded teams will be placed atop four brackets with the rest of the bracket positions being filled with the remaining teams by a power ranking system.
After the top 32 teams are power seeded, the remaining teams that qualified for the postseason by winning 50 percent of their games will be seeded from the bottom of each bracket.
“What sold me on it all was treating the tournaments like what the NCAA does with March Madness, with the seeding and holding games from Thursday through Sunday,” Bourne athletic director Scott Ashworth said. “And our school matches up, size-wise, with western and central Mass[achusetts] schools.”
Though the Canalmen may match up well with some of the smaller schools on the other side of the state, the biggest drawback to this statewide tournament may be the travel aspect.
“You might have smaller student sections and family traveling along and more buses,” he added. “That might be the only drawback.”
Under this format, a team from Bourne could potentially match up with a team located two or even three hours away—forcing schools to release teams early to make start times and risk the possibility of late returns leading to next-day tardiness. But for a school like Upper Cape Tech, which competes in the Mayflower Athletic Conference, long travel is part of the game. Not only do the Rams travel to Norfolk Aggie in Walpole, more than an hour’s drive according to Google Maps, but they also travel to Tri-County in Franklin and Blue Hills in Randolph for regular season games. And that’s not including the vocational tournament, which is sandwiched between the MIAA’s regular and postseasons.
“Our baseball team traveled nearly four hours to play McCann Tech in the vocational tournament last year,” said UCT head coach Ben Rabinovitch, who voted in favor of the proposal. “They’re practically in the state of Vermont.”
All games will be at home sites of the higher seeds for the preliminary play-ins, round of 32, round of 16 and round of eight games.
“But my biggest takeaway is this is a wait-and-see situation. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, we’ll find out in short order who is right,” he added. “If we end up going out west because we go 10-10, we might be annoyed to travel four hours. But if we host a game, the system’s great.”
Most from the eastern part of the state, however, agreed the equality of system outweighed any concerns about travel.
“I’m obviously biased towards the South, having played and coached here, but this evens the playing field for everyone, regardless of geographical location,” Ashworth said. “The path to a state title appearance in the North and South is bigger [currently]. This way, everyone has the same number of games to get to the state finals and semifinals.”
The Canalmen AD went on to point out that in boys’ basketball, four of the eight divisions between western and central Massachusetts qualified 12 or fewer postseason teams. Compare that to the four South division brackets where 14 to 19 teams qualified for the playoffs.
For Sandwich High School, where superintendent Pamela Gould was on the Blue Ribbon Panel for the discussion, the switch also made sense.
Sandwich athletic director Neil Murphy said. “I think it was time to freshen things up. I like the switch. I like that you end up facing similar-sized schools in the tournament. And, I know there was a lot of discussion about this leading up, but if you wait around for things to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.”
He added, “You can look at the worst-case scenario in these situations, like Lee High traveling to Nantucket, but that might never occur. And if it does, hopefully the school and district can collaborate to make it manageable.”
Murphy cited his 2019 boys’ golf team having to travel out to Williamstown and worked with the school and boosters to raise funds for an overnight trip.
“When these things occur, schools have to be creative with themselves and other schools to hopefully creatively schedule these long distance trips on weekends,” he said.
There will be five statewide divisions for team sports such as baseball, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ basketball, softball, football and girls’ volleyball. For sports such as tennis, lacrosse and field hockey, there will be four statewide divisions, while boys’ hockey will have three divisions and sports like girls’ hockey and boys’ volleyball will have two statewide divisions.
One thing that will be missed will be crowning a sectional tournament champion — something school’s have taken pride in and hang banners in the rafters for the accomplishment.
“As a basketball player we won the South and Eastern Mass[achusetts] titles and lost in the state finals. I go back to [Fairhaven High School] and those banners are still up there. I coached two baseball teams to a South final appearance and reach the South semifinals in basketball. Those are all great experiences, but the overarching takeaway was having a path that’s equal to a state championship,” Ashworth said. “That’s a big deal.”
The MIAA has stated that schools will have the option of getting “Final Four” banners for reaching the state semifinals in lieu of a sectional title banner.