Imagine a first round state tournament game that has Bishop Fenwick traveling to Agawam, or Belchertown heading up to Gloucester.
That's one possible outcome of the statewide playoff structure being proposed by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. Under the new plan, existing sectional tournaments would be replaced by one big bracket stretching across all of Massachusetts.
The result of several years of work by the MIAA's Tournament Management Committee, the statewide playoffs would apply to every sport and would take effect in the fall of 2021. The plan will be put to an up-or-down vote with each school in the Commonwealth getting one vote at a special assembly in the coming months, most likely in mid-to-late February.
"What we want is consistency across all sports and divisions," said retired St. John's Prep athletic director Jim O'Leary, a veteran member who still serves on the TMC.
A disparity in the size of some sectional tournaments — for instance, it might take five rounds to win a North title and only three to win a West title — served as the catalyst for exploring changes.
As the TMC looked to balance the state's various sections, trying to ensure each had a like number of potential qualifiers and thus an equal path to their respective finals, the idea of a statewide bracket became more and more logical.
"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.
This fall, a power seeding formula (administered by MaxPreps) will replace having a .500 or better winning percentage for state tournament seeding. In the statewide proposal, the top 32 teams by power rating in each division will qualify and be arranged in a bracket by seed, just like the popular NCAA basketball tournaments.
Any team with a winning record that is not in the top 32 will also qualify, taking part in play-in games akin to the current preliminary round (it should be noted that a team with a losing record ranked No. 33 would not qualify, even if a team with a winning record below it in the power ratings does). The controversial 'Sullivan Rule' which automatically qualifies certain sub-.500 teams if they win enough games in their own division is also eliminated.
"There's no perfect way to do it, but this looks like a step in the right direction," said Masconomet baseball coach T.J. Baril. "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."
The number of divisions in each sport would depend on the number of teams in the state. Baseball, softball, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, girls volleyball and football would be slated for five divisions. Tennis, lacrosse and field hockey would have four divisions; boys hockey would have three; and girls hockey and boys volleyball two. Alignment would be driven by enrollment (school size), but teams would be able to appeal to move up or down.
Eliminating regional brackets would allow large schools from the central and western parts of the state to compete in Division 1, alleviating one of the issues in football where the Division 3 Super Bowl is frequently contested between an Eastern Mass. team exponentially smaller than its opponent.
"I always like the idea of something that looks like the NCAA tournament. I think it makes sense," said Bishop Fenwick athletic director Dave Woods. "I do like the idea of having a sectional component, but I think evening out the brackets, especially for basketball, and evening out the size differences we sometimes see in football is the biggest thing."
"Pluses and Minuses"
Naturally, travel is the biggest concern. The higher seed is slated to host games up through the state semifinals under the statewide plan, creating more home games and potentially bigger crowds. Data shows that more fans tend to go to games at school sites rather than predetermined ones as currently seen in sectional semis and finals.
If teams are from opposite corners of Massachusetts, though, they could be taking long bus rides.
The MIAA ran a sample tournament with last year's softball results (available to read at MIAA.net under the Tournament Management Committee tab), and that's where the aforementioned Fenwick/Agawam and Belchertown/Gloucester matchups came from. Out of close to 100 potential first round games, though, those two heavy mileage bouts are outliers.
"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 and level that playing field, we'll find a way to travel.' 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," O'Leary said.
Each sport will have the option to ask for a 'Division 1A' tournament: i.e., the Super 8 we see in boys hockey and baseball. The MIAA believes that a statewide tournament would bring the Commonwealth together, allowing athletic directors and coaches from different regions to meet, develop relationships and potentially rivalries. Kids that may meet at MIAA Sportsmanship Summits or college orientation trips that may never have played against one another, for instance, might get the chance to do so.
Another plus: teams from the same league or region could face each other for the state title. If the Danvers and Beverly girls soccer teams were the best in the state and won their playoff games, they could meet in the state final — and impossibility in a sectional format. That same goes for the Peabody and St. John's Prep baseball teams, or countless other examples where the state's two best teams are in the same sectional bracket.
In theory, that format should make for much more interesting and competitive state Final Fours and championship games.
"We need to create some excitement," said O'Leary. "One of the Western Mass. AD's said, 'We're running the same tournament we ran in 1996. How many other things in the world haven't changed since 1996?"
Changes coming regardless
If the statewide proposal doesn't pass the full vote next month, there will still be sweeping changes as the state realigns to even out the sectional brackets. The majority of the current central Mass. teams would move West and many current North schools would slide to the Central, with about a third of the schools in the state being realigned.
Across the greater North Shore area, many athletic departments are still learning about the statewide proposal. A straw poll indicated most haven't decided whether they're for or against the plan, and the MIAA plans to hold regional informational meetings before the vote.
"I love the idea of the power seeding. Doing away with winning percentage for seeding is a very good thing," said long-time Danvers High girls soccer coach Jimmy Hinchion. "Sectional tournaments are a good thing too, so I'm hoping that doesn't get totally left behind.
"Any kind of change is exciting. It's fun to play a team that you've been reading about and maybe never play, whether they're from your area or further off."
"There will certainly be a learning curve," Baril added. "I'm interested to see how it works out. I'm optimistic."
The yeoman's work on the plan was done by the Tournament Management Committee, which includes representatives from across the state. Locally, O'Leary and St. Mary's Lynn AD Jeff Newhall are joined by Rockport's Mary Ryan; the Northeastern Conference's district is represented by the principal of Westford Academy and Lowell High's athletic director.
"It's a great committee with some really great people," said O'Leary. "It's really easy to do what's best for one team. We've tried to step back and say, 'What's best for the entire state?'"