By Matt Williams
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.
THE PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Football fans aren’t used to looking at their favorite team’s schedule and seeing three open weeks. That’s one of the major changes in the new playoff format.
For teams in the tournament, it’s pretty easy: you play the team that corresponds to your seed (with the higher seed hosting until the sectional finals) and if you win, you play the team that won in your respective bracket.
In other sports like hockey or baseball, the state tournament is at the end of the season and when you lose, you’re done. In football, however, teams need to fill out the rest of their season.
For teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs, or lose during the tournament, there is a predetermined formula to find opponents. Teams will be given games against fellow non-playoff teams within their own division, and then against other teams that are eliminated.
For example, if Peabody doesn’t make the playoffs and neither do Malden or Lawrence in Division 1 North, the Tanners could play their old GBL rivals or the MVC’s Lancers. If Swampscott makes the playoffs in Division 4 but falls in the second round and Triton does the same thing, they could be matched up in Week 10.
“The fact that they’re doing it by record should make for more competitive games,” Peabody first-year coach Mark Bettencourt said. “A lot of schools are playing one-sided games that make you think, why bother playing? Usually it’s because of league requirements and this will even the score a little.
“If you’re having a good year and you’re 6-1 you’re going to have to show how good you are and have to play somebody who’s also 6-1 or 7-0. Or, if you’re having a down year and you’re having trouble getting wins after those seven games, they’ll find a team that doesn’t have many wins and it will be more fun for the kids to compete.”
In Division 1, there is no Central or West section, so the champions of Division 1 North and Division 1 South will play for a state title at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 7. For Divisions 2, 4, 5 and 6, the North champion will play the South champion on November 22-23. The winner will then play the winner of a Central/West state semifinal at Gillette.
In Division 3, the winners of the Northeast and Northwest will play on Nov. 22-23 with the winner facing the Southeast/Southwest winner on Super Bowl Saturday.
One other wrinkle in Division 3 is the crossover between Northeast and Northwest for losing teams. Because there are 11 teams (an odd number), a non-qualifier in Div. 3NE might play a team from Div. 3NW (for example, if Salem didn’t make it, they might face Arlington or Wakefield).
Like any new proposal, there are some North Shore coaches who love it and others who don’t. But this new playoff system is here for at least a two-year trial basis, so everyone is learning how to best cope within its parameters.
“I love it because not just one team from our league is going to make it to the playoffs,” said Fenwick coach Dave Woods. “There’s a chance of having three teams from our league in the playoffs, maybe four.
“I think the people that were against it, once the playoffs start and the excitement of some of the local games and matchups, I think people will realize it’s a lot of fun.”
Danvers’ Sean Rogers remarked on how the new schedule puts more of an emphasis on the preseason for all teams.
“I’m not really trying to press it with my players. We’re trying to get more (done), but we’re not talking like that with the kids. They have enough pressure when the games start,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to keep the same old business. If they put the work in and stay focused, we’ll let the chips fall where they may.
“Our problem has been starting slow. We can’t start the season slow or any games slow. We have a tough schedule and we have to be sharp right away.”
Long an advocate for a revamped playoff system, St. John’s Prep head coach Jim O’Leary said the reality is that the new system will benefit many more schools than they probably realize.
“What’s disappointing is that some of the coaches haven’t embraced it,” said O’Leary. “Some ADs and coaches don’t understand what it’s all about. That really doesn’t make sense, because it will provide more opportunities for teams to make the playoffs. We could wind up facing schools with big enrollments like Lowell, Lexington, Acton-Boxborough and Peabody ... teams we haven’t played in a number of years.”
“This is the fairest way to do it,” added Ipswich’s Brotherton. “I didn’t like the old system because there were so many state champions; I think only Texas had more Super Bowl champions than we do. Now there will only be six — and that means there’s going to be a lot more pride in becoming one of them.”
Marblehead’s Rudloff is admittedly not a fan of the new system, but realizes it’s here for at least the next two years and ready to adapt to what must be done for his team to succeed.
“It actually simplifies things,” said Rudloff. “If anyone asks me ‘What do we need to do to keep playing?’, I can say ‘Just keep winning each week; that’s all.’ If we keep winning every game in November and December, we’ll get shiny new jackets and trophies when it’s all over.
“That’s uncomplicating a complicated system.”
Sports editor Phil Stacey, staff writers Matt Jenkins and Gianna Addario, and correspondent Jean DePlacido also contributed to this report.