So, what did you think?
When the first scores of the winter sports season rolled in earlier in the week, that put a lid on the fall season for high school sports. With it, the end came for the first series of statewide tournaments.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Board of Directors had approved this plan to, after decades in one playoff plan, eliminate sectional tournaments and then go with statewide brackets to determine champions.
What that meant is that no Berkshire County or Pioneer Valley team in a number of sports would play for a sectional trophy for the case. Instead, in the sports of volleyball, football and soccer — which are competed here — teams would be slotted in based on a new seeding mechanism from Pittsfield to Nantucket and from Lowell to Southwick.
The state tournament system was talked about during Wednesday’s MIAA Board of Directors meeting. Assistant director Sherry Bryant told the board that, by and large, things had gone well.
“I think overall, we feel that it was a really positive first year of the statewide tournament,” she said. “As we articulated when we went forward with it, we knew it wasn’t going to be perfect and that we were going to learn from our first time through, and debrief afterwards, and then look to address any particular items that need to be addressed as we go forward.”
Bryant said the number of teams that competed were up as were the number of athletes competing.
“The hope in constructing this is that, like-sized schools playing like-sized schools were going to get better competition,” Bryant said, “and that’s what we saw. There were some exciting and competitive games.”
I was one of those skeptics regarding the statewide tournament structure when the MIAA’s Board of Directors voted back in 2020 to approve this idea. Why fix something that wasn’t broken, I asked? I can’t say anything about the other regions in Massachusetts, but in my three-plus decades covering high school sports in Western Massachusetts, it had always been about winning a Western Mass. championship.
Travel was something often described as being at best problematic and at worst a real issue. In the fall, the number of truly crazy commutes appeared to be at a minimum. Two of the “awful” ones weren’t so bad, at least not for the student-athletes.
Monument Mountain had to travel to Nantucket for a first-round volleyball match. It turned out that if those players don’t do anything else in their high school athletics careers, that will be a memory they’ll long carry with them. Win, lose or draw, the Spartan volleyball players had a most memorable 24 hours.
The same could be said for the Bourne volleyball team that had to come from Cape Cod to Lee for a match against the Wildcats. I remember speaking before the match with Bourne coach David Brown, and he said his athletes were all in on the trip and thought it was great.
And while getting Final Four trophies aren’t quite the same as winning a sectional title, going to a Final Four symbolizes an accomplishment.
Is this new system perfect? Far from it. Sport equality might just be first and foremost.
The football teams had their annual state championship breakfast at Gillette Stadium in the days leading up to the championship games. The breakfast used to be important because it was where home teams and locker rooms would be determined with a coin flip. In 2021, it was determined by tournament seeding. That was why, even without a coin toss, Wahconah was the home team in the Division VII championship game and was on the Patriots’ sideline.
Pete Rittenberg, Board of Directors member and athletic director at Brookline High School, brought up the lack of breakfasts or similar pre-championship celebrations for the other fall sports.
In the past, there had been championship breakfasts for some sports like basketball and baseball. Maybe the MIAA needs to investigate having similar festivities for other sports, and the organization could start investigating it for the winter and spring seasons that are ahead. There’s no need to wait until next fall.
Board member Mike Schultz, the principal of Carver High School, had another concern.
“There is an equity piece with the venues for football versus some other sports, specifically soccer,” he said. “I know that some of the [girls soccer] state championship games were held at high schools. I just think it’s important that there’s an equity piece that we should discuss. I’ve asked this question before in open forums and not on the Board of Directors, but has anybody discussed hosting soccer games at Gillette for the finals?”
Bryant said that has been discussed, but those other contests have not been able to be fit into the Gillette schedule.
“But to your broader point of equity in sites. We internally have been speaking about this, and Tournament Management Committee did talk about this quite a bit [Tuesday],” Bryant said. “We’ll continue to strategize about what we want to look at.”
The answer is complex but simple, and everyone should look to the Kraft Family for the answer.
The answer is not necessarily using Gillette Stadium for everything, but rather for our major colleges and other professional organizations to offer up facilities for use.
That’s right Fenway Sports Group, baseball championship games should be played at Fenway Park. I’m looking at you Delaware North to offer up TD Garden for basketball and hockey championship games. Yes, Boston College and UMass, the BC soccer/lacrosse and UMass softball facilities should host state championships. And like the Krafts and Gillette for football, you all should step up and donate the sites.
If that can happen, then the statewide playoff system might have a longterm future in Massachusetts.
For the fall, I’d give it a pretty good “B” grade.