Berkshire County coaches, athletic directors react to MIAA statewide playoff proposal
When the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association decided to propose a modification to the current high school playoff format to try and create a statewide bracket system starting in 2021-22, reaction was expected.
In the Berkshires, those initial thoughts range broadly across the spectrum.
"I do think in the long run, this is the best route for us to go," said Wahconah athletic director Jared Shannon, who is on the Tournament Management Committee that drafted the proposal.
"The history behind [Western Massachusetts tournaments], I just think it's the wrong thing to do to eliminate it," counters Hoosac Valley girls basketball coach Ron Wojcik, who has been to six state finals at the helm of the Hurricanes. "In my opinion, you are taking away opportunities from kids, schools, communities to win championships."
At issue is one simple idea: who benefits from a re-modeled system?
"My take on it, in a nutshell, athletically I think we are at a crossroads in the Berkshires," Pittsfield Public Schools athletic director Jim Abel said. "Not just as individual schools, but as a league. The MIAA state championship tournament format proposal just kind of further emphasizes that."
The proposed system, which was created by the MIAA's Tournament Management Committee, would eliminate the current postseason format. Instead of trying to qualify for Western Massachusetts tournament action and then the state semifinals, teams would now vie for a spot in a statewide bracket, with a minimum of 32 teams in each division. The top 32 teams will be power seeded by MaxPreps.com, and any other team that reaches a .500 record would qualify unseeded.
In addition to the statewide tournament proposal, there are three other key factors to what the TMC has been doing, and those are going into effect no matter what happens with the tournament vote. First, MaxPreps will seed tournaments, regardless of whether there is a new statewide format, or a modified version of the current system, starting in the 2020-21 school year. Second, there will also be realignments in divisions for the 2021-22 school year, which will increase the amount of divisions in most sports to try and create equitable divisions based on total school populations. Third, the current districts in the MIAA are changing, and the Berkshires (formerly District G) and the Pioneer Valley (formerly District F) will combine into one district (District 1). That also starts with the 2020-21 school year.
"One of the challenges that we've run into, is that obviously there's been a lot of changes ... [and] all the changes seem to be rolled together, but they weren't intentionally meant to be rolled together," Shannon said. "I think they do intentionally fit better if it's all one package, I think everything works better with a statewide playoff, for example, but it's a lot of big change in a short period of time, so I think people have a hard time separating which ones are permanent and which ones are up in the air."
The divisions will be matched based on enrollment and split as evenly as possible, which should help to level the playing field across the board. Going back to basketball as an example, there are currently four divisions. The new system will add another.
For many schools in the Berkshires, their division will remain the lowest the state allows. At Pittsfield, the adding of a division removes the school even further from the level the rest of the schools in the Berkshires are at.
"There's a lot of different circumstances that need to be taken into consideration," Abel said. "One of them ... is the travel situation. As a bigger school, if we were to join say, for example, the Pioneer Valley league, or play more of an independent, statewide schedule, that has some impact financially for transportation, but also logistically and academically."
Up in Williamstown, Mount Greylock athletic director Lindsey von Holtz, who also serves as vice president of the board of directors of the MIAA, said she saw both sides of the discussion.
"There are definitely some positives," von Holtz said. "One of the things I like about it, is that the schools in a division will be the same size across the state.
"I am worried about the travel possibilities, but at the same time, boys and girls lacrosse has already started [to travel further] and it's not terrible. Sometimes you get a tough one, but what they are aiming to do is to have more games available to play on a weekend."
One subject that came up again and again was what would happen to Western Mass. tournaments. The proposal would do away with the traditional tournament, but there would be opportunities for leagues or conferences to schedule end-of-season tournaments. One current example of that is in basketball with The Clark Tournament in Central Mass., which will have its 81st anniversary this year.
"I can tell you that we are still going to be able to run a regional tournament," said Shannon. "The look of it might be a little different. I have some ideas about what I will propose if this does go through."
"We still have the possibility, we have a new district, District 1 now, we'll have the opportunity, if we feel like it, to make our own tournaments," von Holtz said.
Von Holtz also offered a unique spin on the state tournament. Because the top four seeds in each division will all be in their own quadrant of the overall bracket, each semifinalist will have won a "section" to advance to the state Final Four.
One thing those asked did agree on, was that the MIAA did its leg work to get input from the Berkshires. Having Shannon and Wahconah principal Aaron Robb on the TMC certainly helped in that regard.
"Although our representation is smaller in comparison to other sections of the state, we were involved with the committee," Abel said, "and over the last couple of years, as the TMC began to formulate plans, they did do a nice job. Whether people agree or disagree with the format, they did go out of their way to be as transparent as possible."
"I think they made, especially because [Shannon] is one of the main people on that committee right now, he was able to bring back our opinions," von Holtz said. "I definitely think they are hearing the concerns and trying to make changes based on those."
"I don't share the view that [the playoff proposal] is an Eastern Mass. thing that's been shoved down our throats, because I've been to a dozen-plus meetings over the last two years or more on this particular topic," said Shannon. "I know I've spoken, and I feel like I've been heard. I think that there are obviously going to be, I mean you start throwing out the projections of where teams are going to be, that's where people start to freak out.
"That has nothing to do with the statewide playoff."
Another point of contention is the MaxPreps ratings formula. The proprietary system hasn't been fully disclosed by the organization, meaning that no one really knows what goes into putting together a good schedule for a new tournament format. For some teams in the Berkshires, that could cause problems.
"It's going to be really challenging to beef up your schedule," said Wojcik, whose team currently plays some much bigger schools from out east in the regular season. "We don't have any D-Is in the county. We'd play the Taconics and Pittsfields, whatever they are ranked, but we really wouldn't get the opportunity to play the D-I schools across the state."
"From my perspective, I think the tournament format proposal certainly has pros and cons," Abel said. "For Pittsfield High School and Taconic High School, I think we are impacted a little heavier in comparison to the other Berkshire County schools based on our enrollment numbers, but at the same time the dynamics at PHS, at Taconic and the Berkshires as a whole that's where I'd say we are at a little bit of a crossroads."
Shannon, though, offered a differing take. To him, MaxPreps' formula means teams will be more willing to play each other, because there will be less "gaming" of the system.
"The best way that I can explain how it accounts for strength of schedule is this: MaxPreps has a pretty complicated algorithm that assesses your schedule strength six levels against everyone we play," Shannon said.
He referenced football. This past season, Wahconah played Longmeadow. Longmeadow, in turn, played Springfield Central, which in turn plays powerhouse teams from the Boston area. Wahconah football, because Central plays such a tough schedule, would get lineage credit for that.
Also, while the MaxPreps system would do away with the Walker Ratings that fans in Western Mass. are familiar with, the eastern part of the state is also changing how it seeds.
"There's pros and cons to everything," Shannon said. "When I say there was compromise on both sides, the rest of the state is really changing how they are seeding, as well."
The changing of divisional alignments, plus the potential for a statewide playoff format, could also impact the Berkshire League itself. The battle for parity in the county is something that ADs have been working on for years.
Mount Everett AD Josh King referenced the new District 1, and how it will change scheduling regardless of a state tournament format.
"It's one of those things, where we are trying to find a balance and find those schools that will play us," King said, "or will be competitive with."
And while some have taken stances one way or the other, Monument Mountain AD Karl Zigmand is one of those that still wants to hear more.
"My honest opinion right now, is that I need to find out more on what it's going to look like," Zigmand said. "My worry is, I would hate to lose the great things that we do here in Berkshire County, the way we play each other all the time and all the great rivalries.
"I hope it doesn't take away from that."
Then, there is the question that's almost an elephant in the room: The cost — financially, timely, or emotionally.
"If you're asking about the state structure, specifically, could it be a budget concern? Yes," von Holtz said. "However, it might not be, because so many of the games are going to be played at higher seeds, we might still be around here."
"One of the challenges with this state championship tournament proposal, philosophically I don't know if we are in the business of changing everything based on state championships," Abel said.
"Philosophically, the philosophy behind educational athletics is to provide the best experiences possible for our student-athletes," Abel added, "provide them opportunities to compete and have unique experiences, and my personal feeling is that a lot of people and student-athletes and schools in Western Mass. view a Western Mass. championship as a goal, and anything beyond that ... is icing on the cake."
But there are others in the county that think this change will be, in the end, a good thing.
"I think it's going to be beneficial for all of us," King said, then added later that there will be "more value to the kids, too, because they know they have a chance to compete."
The next step in the process is a full vote by the MIAA member schools, which the TMC said could be as early as late February. Shannon explained that the MIAA Board of Directors has to schedule the vote, and they could go against the TMC's recommendation for the vote date.
Once a date is set, there will be the special assembly of schools. Shannon said that at this vote, the TMC is going to take a roll call to see which schools showed up to vote. Results of each individual school's vote, however, will remain confidential.
The call by the TMC to take a vote on the proposal would seem to indicate that the votes are there to make it pass. Shannon cautioned, though, that if the no votes do carry the day, the status quo as we know it isn't going to stay.
"I do think if this statewide playoff doesn't go through, the other thing that is going to happen is the traditional sense of Western Mass. tournaments are going to go away," Shannon said. "We are going to move the lines, that's what is going to happen, and it's going to look a little bit more like lacrosse [which plays a Central/West tournament]. They are going to make sure that we have equitable tournaments."
Geoff Smith can be reached at email@example.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.
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