The high school sports postseason could look quite different in the near future.
On Feb. 28, MIAA-affiliated schools voted to approve a new model for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association state tournament. The body voted, 193-140, to pass the resolution, which includes key changes to the postseason structure, including:
● The elimination of the current sectional tournament structure, which will be replaced with a statewide tournament structure. Currently, Manchester Essex Regional High School sports teams that qualify compete in the North bracket against other teams in the region, with the winner of the North bracket going on to face winners from other regional brackets, eventually leading to one state champion for each division.
● Instead of teams being seeded by region, teams across the state will be ranked by high school sports website MaxPreps.
● Using that MaxPreps power ranking, the top 32 teams in each division will qualify for one larger-scale, statewide tournament. Additionally, teams that fall outside of the top 32 but still finish above .500 will also qualify for the tourney.
Coaches, student athletes and athletic directors have a couple of years before the new system will be implemented in full. The 32-team, statewide tourney won’t go into effect until the fall of 2021, while MaxPreps will begin power ranking MIAA teams later this fall.
Even with some time before they are implemented, local coaches are already weighing some of the advantages and disadvantages that the tournament structure changes could bring. Travel and scheduling is obviously one of the top concerns with the switch from multiple regional tournaments to one statewide tourney.
“The real issue is travel,” says girls tennis coach Ken Rawson. “We travel a lot because it’s difficult to find challenging opponents nearby. But I’m thinking Longmeadow in the first round, or a trek to the south shore, early dismissal may make for problems.”
“Traveling shouldn't necessarily hurt teams, however traveling far distances is out of any team's comfort zone, and can definitely be a disadvantage,” says ME boys lacrosse coach Jon Siderewicz. “The Cape Ann League caters to teams within a very small radius, where our farthest away game is just over 30 minutes. Any longer bus ride or away trip can easily tire a team out, but how the team responds getting off the bus after a long trip is what makes a team win or lose. Mental focus has to be heightened with greater game preparation.”
For spring coaches, lengthy bus rides across the state could potentially conflict with senior events occurring on different dates at different schools.
“I have a lot of concerns about the travel,” explains ME softball coach Frank Sarro. “What if we have to travel to the Western part of the state, more than two hours away? Last year we played on the road in the first round and beat Greater Lowell, 3-1. The seniors had their Baccalaureate that night. Under the changed system, they would have had a tough choice to make. I may have been short on players and they could have been robbed of the opportunity to play. It may have affected the outcome. So, the MIAA should extend the time of the tourney to allow more teams flexibility around senior days. It’s the fair thing to do under these circumstances.”
Another key change is that there will no longer be a sectional champion crowned in favor of a larger-scale tournament that leads to one, final state champion.
“I’m not crazy about the change,” says Sarro. “I like having the sectional playoff and champion.”
Rawson laments the loss of potential playoff rivalries, explaining, “It’s too bad to lose the sectional championship. It was a spot for traditional rivalries, such as our team and Lynnfield.”
However, Rawson allows that something could be gained with the change as well.
“The new format will make it less likely that underdogs will have a surprise run, but the power rankings, if accurate, will make it less advantageous to load your schedule with weak opponents,” says the girls tennis coach. “It will also seed teams from strong leagues higher, a benefit.”
Siderewicz is on board with the change to the statewide format, arguing that it eliminates any question as to who the top team in the division is.
“I think that by eliminating the sectional tournament format brings more realism back to Massachusetts High School lacrosse,” says Siderewicz. “There should only be one outright winner as the state champions and runner up. That was the format when I played Massachusetts high school lacrosse from 2007-2010.”
The change in format could also help balance things out for teams that play in highly competitive conferences.
“I do like the change because the seedings will be better because of the rankings,” says ME baseball coach BJ Weed. “Four years straight, we had the toughest teams [in the] first or second round because the system was based on record. Some divisions are harder than others. The power rankings will make it right.”