By Matt Williams and Phil Stacey Staff Writers
The Salem News
---- — Beginning next November, football playoffs in Massachusetts will become a reality.
Yesterday morning, the state’s high schools voted to enact the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association football committee’s playoff plan for a two-year trial for the 2013-14 seasons.
The entire membership of the MIAA was invited to vote at Assabet Valley High School in Marlborough, and the final tally was in favor, 161 to 131.
“I think this is great,” said Swampscott High head coach Steve Dembowski, one of the leading proponents of the plan developed by the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association. “It’s better for the kids, it’s better for their health and it’s going to be exciting.”
The plan aligns all schools by divisions already approved by the MIAA (though there is an appeal process some schools may pursue to modify divisional placement). After seven weeks the playoffs begin, with eight teams qualifying in North sectionals and playing for a sectional title as in all other MIAA tournaments. The winners will face other sectional winners before a true state champion is determined in six different divisions at Gillette Stadium nine days after Thanksgiving.
The Tuesday playoff semifinal games under the current Super Bowl format are thus eliminated.
Schools that don’t qualify for the postseason or are eliminated under this new format will have their schedule for the final weeks of the season filled out against other non-qualifying or eliminated teams, ensuring that every team plays level, competitive games in the final month.
“I was pleasantly surprised, but not shocked by it,” said Masconomet head coach Jim Pugh, president of the MHSFCA and a strong proponent of the new system. “We were pretty confident going in; it seemed like there was a lot of support in Western and Central Mass. And when Peter Smith (of the MIAA) and the state football committee presented the plan (yesterday), there was only one question afterwards. It’s such a good program.”
Beverly High athletic director James Coffey, whose school voted against the plan, said he felt the vote could go either way.
“(On Thursday) I thought it was going to pass, but from talking to people at Assabet (yesterday) morning it seemed like it had no shot,” said Coffey. “But we heard the majority of Central and Western Mass. teams were all for it, and they were all there (yesterday). And we got a sense that the Southern Mass. teams were about two-thirds in favor for it.
“This was the fairest way to do it. It’s a two-year pilot, so we’ll see what happens.”
Under the new plan, every league with at least five teams will send a minimum of two squads to the playoffs. The fields will be filled out by wild card teams determined by a rating system that is similar to RPI, awarding points for wins based on the division of the opponents, and for wins of opponents a team has beaten.
“Fifty-five percent of teams will make the playoffs,” said Dembowski.
Yesterday’s vote came after the plan had passed the muster of the MIAA’s football and tournament management committees last spring. There was a fair amount of discussion about the plan leading up to the vote, and ultimately the schools decided to give playoffs a chance for the first time in Massachusetts schoolboy football history.
“It was a very well-run meeting. Peter Smith did an awesome job going through all the scenarios and presenting the plan,” said Dembowski. “There was very little discussion. Coming in, we felt most of the objections were from North of Boston, and the South, Central and Western Mass. seemed to be in favor.”
The plan allows conferences to determine how to handle Thanksgiving matchups that are also league games. Some leagues, such as the Catholic Conference and Catholic Central League, have already made inroads to those determinations, but it hasn’t been discussed by the Northeastern Conference (which Dembowski estimated voted 8-4 against the plan) yet.
Coffey said that the NEC athletic directors will likely start discussing how to move forward as far as scheduling and setting up games for 2013 at their next meeting on Nov. 8.
“The biggest question is, how do we do this? Do we play Salem, as a league foe, before the playoffs would begin? Or on Thanksgiving as always? Or both?” Coffey said.
“Probably what we’ll do is put in some type of point system to decide who goes (to the playoffs). But in a point system, we probably wouldn’t play (traditional NEC rivals) Winthrop and Saugus again (because of their smaller enrollments). Same with Marblehead and Gloucester; they’ll be in our same division (playoff-wise), but different tiers (of the NEC).”
Pugh understands one of the major sticking points for schools who were against the proposal: that it will somehow take away from the tradition that is Thanksgiving Day football. But he doesn’t feel that’s the case.
“Overall, it’s the best thing for high school football. It’ll make the whole year so much more exciting,” he said. “All you have to do is look at Marblehead and Beverly right now; there’s a good chance one of those teams could finish 10-1 and be going home for the year. Next season, that won’t happen.”