Who says Massachusetts high school sports are slow as molasses when it comes to adapting to the times?
This year, the Bay State beat major college football to the punch in implementing a true playoff system. The state will crown six true state champions at Gillette Stadium this December, and there are plenty of local teams hoping to be there hoisting trophies.
So how do they qualify for the playoffs?
Who do they play once they get there — and when and where?
And what happens to teams that are eliminated?
QUALIFYING FOR THE PLAYOFFS
The goal of the football playoffs is to crown a state champion in six divisions representing all of Massachusetts, eliminating the Eastern, Western and Central breakdown that anointed 19 different state champs a year ago.
Supported and developed by the Mass. High School Football Coaches Association, the playoffs were approved by a vote of the entire MIAA last fall (every school in the state had the opportunity to vote yes or no and the yeahs won out, 161-131).
“It’s going to be different this year with the split schedule, but at the end of the day you’re still playing football and have to win,” said star St. John’s Prep running back John Thomas. “I’m not worried about any changes because you still have to win the games.”
Teams will use the first eight weeks of the football season to try and qualify for these playoffs, playing seven games each (with one bye week). The state is divided into sectionals and, as in sports like soccer and basketball, teams on the North Shore will compete in the North.
“The excitement that you saw in years past in weeks 7, 8 9 and 10 will now be in weeks 1-through-7 because every game is going to matter (towards) the playoffs,” said Jim Pugh, the veteran coach at Masconomet and, as president of the MHSFCA, was a major proponent of the new playoff system. “I think it’s really going to be terrific and produce some great drama.”
Peabody and St. John’s Prep are among the 12 teams vying for eight spots in Division 1 North. Division 3 is divided into two sections, Northeast and Northwest. The 11-team Northeast is heavily populated by area clubs with Beverly, Masconomet, Danvers, Salem, Marblehead and Gloucester looking to qualify.
In Division 4, the road is a bit tougher with eight of 16 qualifying for the postseason. Swampscott and the bulk of the Cape Ann League, including Ipswich and Hamilton-Wenham, are in this bracket. Division 5, which includes Bishop Fenwick, has eight of 14 teams in its field, and eight of 20 teams make it in Division 6, which includes North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie.
The teams that qualify for the playoffs are seeded, then follow the brackets to an eventual final, i.e., the top ranked team plays the No. 8 team, 2 plays 7, etc. Seeds and tiebreakers for qualifying are determined by the power rating system.
A team receives 12 points for beating a team in a higher division (for instance, if Div. 5 Bishop Fenwick defeated Div. 4 Swampscott), 10 points for a win over a team in the same division (i.e., if Danvers beat Marblehead) and eight points for a team in a lower division (if Peabody bested Salem).
There is also a component that considers opponent records. Teams get three points for every win an opponent it beat has, and one point for wins by a team it lost to. As an example, if Peabody lost to Salem and the Witches finished 5-3, the Tanners would get five points; if the Tanners beat a 6-2 Danvers team, however, they would get 18 points.
That process is repeated for each opponent, and the final power rating is your own points plus your opponent points divided by games played. The formula is meant to be a combination of the Super Bowl rating system the state used in the early 1980s and early 90s, and the RPI used in college sports.
Recently, leagues with as few as five teams played all their conference games late in the season. Moving those meaningful games to September and October is both a blessing and a potential curse: the start of the season may be more exciting, but it also means coaches have to install more of offense and defense earlier and have less time to experiment.
“In the past, you didn’t have to have everything solved in Week 1; you gave your team enough to hopefully win, but not so much that it was confusing or gave away too much (information) to the rest of your league,” said Marblehead’s Jim Rudloff. “Now you really don’t have that luxury. Every game is that much more important.”
It also presented leagues with challenges in terms of scheduling. Many Thanksgiving opponents are league rivals, and every league in the state had to choose how to handle that situation. In the Northeastern Conference, only Swampscott/Marblehead and Winthrop/Revere will play each other twice, once in league play and again on Thanksgiving. The other rivalries avoided that pitfall because many Turkey Day rivalries are now in separate divisions (such as Beverly vs. Salem and Danvers vs. Gloucester).
In the Cape Ann League, however, rivals Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich will meet once during the regular season and again on the last Thursday in November — and yes, could also meet for a third time in the playoffs.
“It does break my heart that the Thanksgiving game won’t be what it used to be, although I do still think the community will come out to support it,” said new Ipswich head coach Greg Brotherton, a former star for the Tigers. “No system they could have put in would be perfect, especially since Thanksgiving is such an important part of high school football in this state and always used to determine who made the playoffs in many cases.”
The area’s privates schools, St. John’s Prep and Bishop Fenwick, are not playing their Thanksgiving opponents twice, either. The Eagles will only play Xaverian on the holiday — that is, unless the traditional state powerhouses happen to play in the Division 1 state final at Gillette Stadium.
The Catholic Central League that Fenwick calls home opted to move all its games to the front part of the schedule because many of their teams are in Division 5, so they could have potentially played three times. Many CCL teams don’t have half-century traditions, making swapping easier, though the Crusaders are now playing Western Mass. foe Minnechaug on Thanksgiving because Pope John had to drop its varsity program this season.