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MIAA will launch statewide high school tournament system



Staff Writer
Saturday, March 07, 2020

The landscape for postseason high school tournaments just underwent its biggest change in 40 years.

Member schools of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) voted at a special assembly to change the postseason format from regional tournaments to a statewide tournament. Schools voted in favor of the statewide tournament, 193-140, last Friday morning at Assabet Valley Regional in Marlborough. A simple majority of the 380 member schools was needed to pass the change.

Since the 1970s, the high school postseason for most team sports consisted of sectional tournaments: North, South, Central and West. Due to inequities with that format, the MIAA mandated in 2016 that its Tournament Management Committee (TMC) address these issues. The TMC’s response was a statewide tournament format that will start with the 2021-2022 school year.

The new format will create more divisions across the state to better align schools based on enrollment and create equal paths to championships. Currently, there are as many as four divisions depending on the sport. In some divisions, like Division 1 in the West, teams play two games before reaching the state semifinal round. In eastern Massachusetts, those same Division 1 schools might have to play four or five games. The new format will create as many as five divisions.

“I was feeling hopeful that it would pass. I was more concerned with voter turnout and I’m thrilled more than 320 schools showed up and cast their vote and advocated for their school,” said Northampton Interim Associate Principal Kara Sheridan, who is on the Tournament Management Committee. “I’m excited about what’s to come. We have a lot of work to do.”

Seeding solution: MaxPreps

Other inconsistencies and inequality among the state’s four sections were addressed with the passing vote. For example, currently, the North, South and Central regions seed tournament teams by winning percentage and use a series of tiebreakers to seed teams with matching records in most sports. In the West and in some sports in the Central, the Walker system is used. It weighs teams based on winning percentage, strength of schedule and record against teams that qualified for the postseason.

Under the new format, MaxPreps — an online high school sports database that ranks teams and keeps statistics and records, among other things — will seed teams. Its seeding formula is proprietary.

“I think I feel like everyone else, there is a need for a change, and we want to make it fair and equitable, but I don’t think this is it,” Holyoke athletic director Melanie Martin said.

The vote was contentious among schools across the state because different sections value the current format differently. The tournaments started in the 1970s and included three divisions. In 2014, a fourth division was added.

Regionals still possible

Under the new plan, the TMC left open the possibility that sections like the West could still organize their own regional tournaments at the end of the regular season and before the state tournament. Those results would count toward state tournament seeding.

“I hope that they do keep that. It’s important for our kids,” said Granby athletic director Alison Jordan. “I think the kids have more stock in a Western Mass tournament than a state tournament.”

Sheridan has maintained the importance of the Western Mass tournament throughout the process.

“Now we know where we stand and we have to do the work of how to make a Western Mass tournament fit in our regular season because I know we want to honor and move forward with that tradition because we know it’s important to our communities,” Sheridan said.

Starting in the fall of 2021, the top 32 schools as rated by MaxPreps will qualify and be seeded for their respective divisional tournament. The remaining qualifying teams will fill out the bracket from there.

Divisions will be based on enrollment, but teams can appeal to move up or down. Schools will compete against similar size schools under the new plan.

“Dropping to a fifth division we’re more likely to play school of our size, and one would think of our caliber,” Hopkins Academy athletic Director Erik Sudnik said. “A lot of the small schools in the state are located in Central and Western Mass. Travel might not pose as much of an issue.”

In the statewide tournament, higher-seeded teams will host the first two rounds of the tournament and keep all revenue from the games. The Round of 16 will feature revenue-sharing with the MIAA and host schools, while the MIAA will receive all revenue and assume all expenses from the state quarterfinals on. The quarterfinals will be at the higher-seeded teams, while the state semifinals and finals will be at pre-determined sites.

“The cost for a first-round game could be pretty enormous depending on where we have to travel to,” Gateway Regional athletic director Matt Bonenfant said.

Travel could be issue

Travel has been one of the primary concerns since the proposal was released by the MIAA last month. The potential of teams traveling from Berkshire County to Cape Cod — or vice versa — exists. That means that students could have to miss more time in school for longer bus rides, and it could be difficult for parents or fans to leave work to make the journey. Playing games largely on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays has been suggested as a potential solution.

“You can picture the nightmare scenarios,” said Frontier Regional volleyball coach Sean McDonald, who has coached the Red Hawks for 17 years and won 10 state championships. “We’ll play wherever the MIAA tells us to play. I’m not totally opposed to it — I think it does some good things.”

Supporters of the proposal have long touted the benefit of an equal path to a state championship. Eliminating sectional tournaments will allow for more teams from Western Mass to compete in the state tournament. If two teams from the same section are the two best teams in the state, they can now meet with a state title on the line rather than in a sectional championship.

“If they’re the two best teams, that’s an improvement,” McDonald said. “It creates some opportunities if you have some good teams in the same section — you’re not knocking teams out too early.”

With the vote decided, the TMC will turn its attention to MaxPreps, alignments and creating plans for what it calls “hybrid” sports such as golf, wrestling and swimming, where athletes are competing individually and as teams.

The MIAA will use MaxPreps to seed its tournaments next fall. Questions about MaxPreps will be addressed at a March 17 TMC meeting.

Hybrid sports still a question

The proposal schools voted for Friday only applies to team sports. The Tournament Management Committee broke into subcommittees in December to create guiding principles and processes for hybrid sports so there will be consistency. Each sport committee will then review the TMC’s work and make recommendations, Sheridan said.

“We get that there needed to be some equaling out in the tournament,” Bonenfant said. “But we’re putting a lot of things in the air.”

The MIAA board of directors voted to recommend support for adoption of the statewide proposal 15-0-2 at a meeting in December.

“One of the common comments I heard was wanting to know more. There’s only so much work that can be done before a vote’s taken,” Sheridan said. “Now that the vote has been taken, we can really iron out those things and move forward. We were in limbo. There’s only so many definitive answers you can give folks when we don’t know where things stand.”

Recorder sports writer Jeff Lajoie contributed to this report.