MARLBOROUGH -- The "what-ifs" that seem to linger at the end of the High School football season in Massachusetts were wiped away with one swift vote.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association voted 161-131 to create a statewide football tournament beginning in 2013, wiping out the current sectional championship format in a special assembly on Friday at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School.
"It's something that needs to happen," said Drury coach Bill Bryce, who voted for the proposal. "You have to have a state champion. Otherwise the story's never finished."
The plan establishes six divisions for football -- four in Western Massachusetts. Like the current format, four teams in each Western Mass. division will make the playoffs. Now, the Western Mass. champions will play on, first facing Central Mass. champions in a semifinal and then possibly advancing to a state championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
"We are in line with all other sports," said James Pignataro, the MIAA football committee chairman. "We have a true state champion -- No. 1. It benefits our student-athletes. That is the key thing here."
Friday's vote was the end of a long road for Pignataro, who said in the 15 years he has spent in football there has always been discussion about tweaking the playoff structure. The format that was adopted Friday had its beginnings in 2008 when a plan was brought to the Tournament Management Committee. That proposal was defeated but it led to the creation of a committee that eventually presented a proposal at the MIAA's annual meeting in 2010.
The plan was defeated, but was later revised and rose through committees last spring before the MIAA's board of directors chose to call only the second special assembly in MIAA history.
"Schools throughout this state wanted to have a direct say in how football either will evolve in the Commonwealth or remain the status quo," said MIAA Board of Directors president Brian McCann. "Almost 300 schools took a good chunk of their day to come and bear witness to history."
Even schools that do not qualify for the new playoffs will be affected by the vote when the two-year pilot program begins in November 2013. Schools left out of the postseason pool after an eight-week regular season in Western Mass. will be matched up by school size and record for two more games -- one home and one away -- in weeks nine and 10. All teams will be allowed to play a Thanksgiving Day game.
Pittsfield Public Schools athletic director Jim Abel, representing Pittsfield and Taconic High Schools, said he liked the "post-qualification" setup, which allows teams left out of the postseason picture to play competitive games. In the west, home teams will retain revenue from those games. Abel said how the money and travel will work out for teams still remains to be seen.
"Ultimately on the field, I like the fact that even if a team has a down year, they can look forward to weeks nine, 10 and know they will be playing a team that they can compete with," Abel said. "The student-athletes and coaches on the team have something to play for and know there will be competitive games late in the season."
Pignataro spent much of the meeting touting the benefits of the new plan. Instead of 19 sectional champions, Massa chusetts will now crown just six state champions. Pignataro called the proposal safer than the current format, eliminating a stretch now where teams reaching sectional finals could play three games in 10 days. He also said it helped schools by getting rid of Tuesday night playoff games.
When the floor was opened for discussion, there was just one question. Somerset Berkley Principal Jahmal Mosley was told the football committee would re-evaluate the system when he asked what would happen after the two-year pilot program ended.
The vote followed, ushering in a new era for Massachusetts High School football. Leaving to prepare for a game against unbeaten Mount Greylock later on Friday, Wahconah Regional coach Gary Campbell Jr. said he had a simple message to bring back to his team.
"Let's compete for a state championship," he said.
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