The idea is startling in its simplicity: Replace the confusing, tangled thicket of high school playoff tournaments with a single statewide bracket that ensures the Bay State’s best teams are playing at the end of the season. And apply that NCAA-like bracket to pretty much all high school sports, not just football, basketball and hockey.
After years of work, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association hopes to introduce just such a streamlined playoff plan in 2021. All that’s needed before then is a buy-in vote from the organization’s 380 member schools later this winter.
Here’s hoping the proposal earns the necessary support, because it’s a game-changer for high school athletics.
“We need to create some excitement,” retired St. John’s Prep athletic director Jim O’Leary said.
“One of the Western Massachusetts athletic directors said ‘We’re running the same tournament we ran in 1996,’” said O’Leary, a member of the MIAA committee that came up with the proposed statewide bracket. “How many other things in the world haven’t changed since 1996?”
The 32-team championship bracket would replace the antiquated, unequal system of sectional playoffs, which forces some teams to play more games on their way to the state finals. Under the current system, the champions of the Central, North, South and West divisions often play a differing number of games on their way to the state semifinals.
“There’s no perfect way to do it, but this looks like a step in the right direction,” Masconomet baseball coach T.J. Baril said. “There have been years where there’s 20 teams in a North tournament and a lot fewer in other regions and this eliminates that -- in baseball, with pitching rotations, that’s a really big deal.” Under that scenario, it would take a North team five rounds to win a sectional title, while a West winner would have to play only three times.
Under the MIAA’s proposal, the top 32 teams in a particular sport would be ranked, and sorted into a seeded playoff bracket. In a welcome departure from current practice, teams with a losing record would not be eligible for the playoffs. However, any team with a winning record qualifies at least for a preliminary round of play-in games.
The new arrangement could bring new rivalries. “It’s fun to play a team you’ve been reading about and maybe never play, whether they’re from your area or farther off,” Danvers girls soccer coach Jimmy Hinchion said. It could also lead to local teams playing each other for the state title, an impossibility under the current system.
The number of divisions in each sport would depend on the number of teams in the state, and would ensure competing schools are roughly the same size, even if they have to ride the bus for a couple hours to get to a distant game. Under the current system, a team like Duxbury, with a high school enrollment of 1,000, can find itself playing the much larger Springfield Central, which has 2,000 students, for the Division 3 state football crown.
“We know travel is an issue for some, but most of the feedback we’ve gotten from administrators is ‘If we can play like-sized schools, we’ll find a way to travel,” O’Leary said.
“You may have to travel a long way for a game once and not have it come up in a bracket again for a long time,” he said.
The rare two-hour bus ride is a small price to pay for a system that brings more excitement and parity to the high school game.
“The reason a statewide tournament works so well is that you’re playing like-sized schools and the path to the championship is the same for everybody,” O’Leary said.