By Matt Jenkins Staff Writer
The Salem News
---- — The waiting will soon come to an end.
By the time high school teams hit the gridiron tomorrow night, the future of Bay State schoolboy football will have already been decided.
School representatives from across the state will be meeting at Assabet Valley Regional Vocational School to vote on the playoff proposal presented by the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association (MHSFCA).
The proposal offers a comprehensive plan that will award one state champion in six divisions while keeping league and Thanksgiving Day games in tact. The plan also increases postseason opportunities for student/athletes and eliminates the current playoff system that calls for three games in 10 days, including the holiday game.
This idea of altering the current playoff format has not been met with complete support, however. Many athletic directors, football coaches and principals are expecting an extremely close vote.
“For me, it’s a no-brainer,” Masconomet coach and MHSFCA President Jim Pugh said. “It’s a great opportunity to increase enthusiasm on the North Shore. I’m not saying games 1-6 were not important this year for us, but we played Lowell, Catholic Memorial, Wilmington, Salem, Beverly and Gloucester. It’s nice to play North Shore teams and NEC teams, but the other three games had hardly any significance.”
Currently, schedules are back-loaded with league games, which carry all the weight for postseason qualification. Under the new plan, teams would have their first seven games carrying the most importance with playoff games beginning in week 8, before Thanksgiving. Therein lies the problem for many detractors.
The Thanksgiving tradition in Massachusetts is built on many old-time rivalries, and some fear that this format would spoil some of the history.
The proposal also leaves open the possibility that two teams could meet twice, once on Thanksgiving and once in the playoffs. There’s also the slight chance that teams could play three times if they played a regular season league game, then continued a rivalry on Thanksgiving in addition to a playoff encounter.
Of course, that last scenario could be avoided by each individual league. Teams and leagues could choose to keep meetings between holiday rivals on Thanksgiving with only a league title at stake.
“A lot of the arguments against say, ‘What about Thanksgiving?,’” Pugh said. “You can go to Thanksgiving with each league having a formula to determine the two playoff teams. In that case, Hamilton-Wenham for example doesn’t play Ipswich until Thanksgiving and by then it could be to determine the league trophy but not the playoffs.”
Some programs would rather avoid playing a team twice.
“There’s no situation where we want to play a team twice or even three times,” Beverly Athletic Director James Coffey said, speaking specifically about Thanksgiving rival Salem. “There are certain teams that have played an opponent twice and they say the second time creates a bigger gate. Our (Thanksgiving) game is too big and means too much to mess around with.”
Other schools that intend to vote against the proposal cited the late-season uncertainty for non-qualifying teams as a turn-off.
Teams that do not qualify for the postseason will fill out the remainder of their schedules with teams from their division with similar records.
Some say that could be a logistical nightmare.
“The possibility of not knowing your opponent at the end of the year is difficult,” Hamilton-Wenham coach Andrew Morency said. “We do a lot of planning ahead with our schedule and having a portion of the year unsettled before the season starts, as a program, would be tougher for us.”
Nineteen teams are considered Super Bowl champions in the current format, and while many people like the idea of naming a “true” state champion, others feel it’s unnecessary.
“I guess the big question is do we need a true state champ or not,” Coffey said. “We don’t fundamentally believe that we do. Look at two years ago, we went to the Super Bowl and won an Eastern Mass. championship. No one left that field thinking that we weren’t state champs. I don’t think you need a true state champ.”
Still, the opportunity for more teams to get involved in postseason play has many coaches, athletic directors and entire leagues highly intrigued.
Bishop Fenwick coach Dave Woods believe 11 of the 14 Catholic Central League coaches will be voting for the new plan.
“Personally, I think the system is so much better than the current one. The points that I like is that it eliminates the three games in nine or 10 days. There were years we were involved in the Tuesday playoff game. The kids worked so hard, some for four years, just to get into the playoffs and the reward is to play Thanksgiving and then play Tuesday night in Bellingham,” Woods said. “That’s not very much time to prepare for the biggest game.
“When we were in Super Bowls in previous years, you’d play Thanksgiving and then have a week and a half to prepare. This system would go back to that. The other part is that last year 74 teams were involved after Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of kids missing winter sports. This system would knock it down to 12 teams across the state.”
Geographically, the new system makes sense for the CCL. Cardinal Spellman and Archbishop Williams would be playing in the South, while the other teams are situated in the North. That could result in the league getting three or four postseason berths.
“It would be great for the league. How much excitement would there be around the league?,” Woods wondered. “In all the other sports there are so many opportunities to get into the tournament. I know football is a little different, but it’s tough to have one loss and say you’re out. It would be nice if you didn’t have to do that. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get to the Super Bowl, but it gives them more to play for.”
It seems as though most the North Shore teams are opposed to the new plan, but most agree change is coming.
“The winter coaches would probably have an issue with this but if we could get one more week it would help. It seems like there is a huge gap between winter and spring sports as it is,” Morency said. “If we pushed it back a week and maybe added a wild card at all levels, something like that would open it up. I feel like change is coming, but I like having the leagues and the usual teams on our schedule. I like playing Amesbury and Newburyport and having the consistency of our schedule.”