Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: MIAA making a mistake with proposed statewide playoff format

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The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has been a convenient punching bag for fans of high school sports. It doesn't matter if you live in Lanesborough or Lowell, Great Barrington or Gloucester, the MIAA is there for you to kick.

But on Thursday, the MIAA set itself up with a target on its back the size of Texas. That's what happens when you unveil a new state playoff structure that wipes out sectional tournaments.

Thursday afternoon at the MIAA headquarters in Franklin, members of the Tournament Management Committee met with reporters to discuss the proposed tournament format, one that eliminates sectional tournaments.

When this happens, and I believe it will be approved by the member schools, everything we remembered about high school sports will be in the history books.

If I had a vote, it would be "no."

"We can create something here, an incredible opportunity for the association to change the way we're doing business and create something special for our kids and our communities," is what Westborough High School athletic director Johanna DiCarlo said at Thursday's meeting. Really?

It feels like change for the sake of change. There's nothing inherently wrong with the way teams currently decide state championships. I know at least one Pioneer Valley school committee chairman who is not in favor of this new proposal.

But after Thursday's rollout, I cannot imagine this proposal being voted down.

Under the plan, the top 32 teams in each division — numbers of divisions will depend on sports — will be seeded 1-32 based on a formula used by MaxPreps. Teams that finish .500 will also be included in tournament fields, but will participate in "play in" games. Maybe we can hold them in Dayton, like the NCAA does?

This proposal, which would go into effect for the 2021-22 school year, would effectively wipe out the most exciting postseason tournament involving Western Massachusetts teams — the basketball semifinals and finals at UMass' Curry Hicks Cage.

I'm not certain that Eastern Mass. members of the TMC had ever been to the Cage when it's nearly full and rocking. Under this proposal, games at the Cage are done with.

If you are an Eastern Massachusetts high school basketball player, one of your most cherished memories would have to be playing in a North-South title game at TD Garden. Now, unless state championship games would be played there, no high school player would stand under Paul Pierce's number during the National Anthem.

State championships are wonderful to win. You don't have to ask me. Just ask the Mount Greylock boys soccer team when they won a state title back in 2008, or ask the Hoosac Valley girls when they won a state basketball title last March. Those memories will last a lifetime.

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But winning a Western Mass. title does the same thing.

"In my opinion, you are taking away opportunities from kids, schools, communities to win championships," Hoosac girls hoop coach Ron Wojcik told my colleague Geoff Smith in a story.

There are travel questions. There are cost questions. There are excitement questions.

You can't convince me that if the Hoosac girls travel to the South Shore for a tournament game, there will be a large contingent of Hurricane Nation making a 3-hour ride.

One major discussion point concerns unbalanced tournament brackets.

"I think everybody, no matter whether the statewide proposal goes through or any other tournament goes through," Burlington High School athletic director Shaun Hart said, "what everybody wanted was equal and balanced."

Depending on the sport, some tournament brackets could be pretty unbalanced. Last year in basketball, there were six Western Mass. teams in the Division II tournament and seven from Central Mass. The North had 14 teams and the South had 19.

One could just say to the other Division II hoop teams, just get better.

Or, how about taking the North and South sections and turn them into four sections? That way, the 19-team basketball bracket in the South could be 10 or 12. Then after every sectional tournament, reseed a state playoff with the best teams at the top.

Ultimately, Pittsfield athletic director Jim Abel said something in Sunday's article that is something everyone should think about. This state tournament could be the beginning of the end of leagues in Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts.

"I think we are at a crossroads in the Berkshires," Abel said. "Not just as individual schools, but as a league. The MIAA state championship tournament format proposal just kind of further emphasizes that."

Leagues in Eastern Massachusetts seem to change at the drop of a hat. But in Western Massachusetts, the Valley League or the Valley Wheel League are as well-established as the Berkshire County League. Leagues may not matter anymore.

So expect this change to occur. It will be a brave new world for high school sports. Better, however, remains to be seen.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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