Dana Parello’s pass was perfect. From 10 yards away, the Waltham High senior quarterback hit his target, junior Aidan Stanowicz, who leaped in the end zone to snare the ball, and juggled it briefly before pulling it in for a touchdown.
The explosion of cheers from Hawks players on the sideline sounded like those of a cold Friday night in November, not a Wednesday afternoon in August.
Even during last week’s preseason scrimmage against Lexington, there was a heightened sense of urgency for Waltham to raise its performance. The new playoff system for high school football rewards teams that start strong, and the Hawks hoped to be in midseason form two weeks before hosting their opener with Newton North.
“We put up goals on a board before the season,” said Waltham High player Brendan Bonadio, one of 20 returning seniors. “One of them was to win a playoff game. We’re looking to make it to the playoffs, and then win that playoff game and accomplish that goal.”
For teams across the state, making the playoffs is a more realistic objective this year. Under the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s new format, league champions and the second-place finishers from conferences with five or more teams will qualify for the postseason; in smaller leagues, only the champ will earn an automatic berth. The remaining slots will be filled by teams with the highest power rating — based on the strength of opponents — in each division. The regular season will end on Oct. 27, after each team has played seven games. The playoffs will kick off the following week.
For Waltham, which placed second in the Dual County League’s Large Division last season with a record of 7-3 but did not earn a playoff berth, the new format is cause for excitement. The Hawks haven’t been to the postseason since 2000.
“In our league, it could be any of the five teams that could get in,” said Waltham’s coach, John Bourque. “Every year, it’s a very competitive league, and every team legitimately has a shot, especially now that there’s two teams going per league. There’s opportunity there, certainly.”
Watertown High senior captain Eric Tirrell was optimistic when considering his team’s intention of making the postseason one season after finishing fifth in the Middlesex League’s Freedom Division.
“It’s more attainable than the playoff system was last year,” Tirrell said. “Obviously it’s not going to be easy, but it’s more attainable. That’s for sure.”
The Raiders are a team that could benefit from the new format’s emphasis on strength of schedule. As a Division 4 program that will play its league games against mostly Division 3 competition, its power rating would be enhanced with wins over the larger schools.
If Watertown does not earn one of the Middlesex Freedom’s two automatic playoff bids, it could be a wild-card playoff team in Division 4.
“I think it’s terrific,” Watertown coach John Cacace said of the new format. “It gives a lot of teams something to strive for. I really think we can compete in Division 4 North if we can qualify. We have a brutal schedule — probably the hardest in all of Division 4, and qualifying will be a difficult task for us. But it gives us something to shoot for. Watertown has never played a playoff game in the history of the program, and that’s one of our goals for this year.”
Similarly, Needham could be helped by the power rating system. Coach David Duffy’s team went to the Division 1 Super Bowl two seasons ago, but he has just six returning starters from last season to play in the always-competitive Bay State Conference’s Carey Division.
As a Division 2 team in a league with Division 1 squads like Weymouth, Framingham, and Newton North, Needham would gain credit for wins against Carey rivals, and the Rockets could make the playoffs without finishing in the top two of the league.
But Duffy, entering his 18th season as head coach, had his concerns about the new format.
“Sure, it could help you,” Duffy said. “But if you finish third in the Carey, do you really deserve to go to the playoffs?”
Newton North coach Peter Capodilupo said he is wary of the new system because of the effect it may have on Thanksgiving Day rivalries.
The Tigers have traditional Turkey Day foe Brookline on their schedule in October as well, since league games must be played in the first seven weeks of the season.
If both teams make the Division 1 playoffs, they could play a third time.
“The Thanksgiving game is really its own experience, its own special moment,” said Capodilupo, whose team has played Brookline on the last Thursday in November each year for over a century.
“For us, that game has transcended every change and every league that we’ve gone through. The chance to play them twice — and maybe, God forbid, three times, depending on how the playoff draw goes, if you’re lucky enough to make the playoffs — it seems like a very odd kind of thing. We’ll have to get used to it.”
Belmont saw the new playoff format as a chance to reenergize its program, which has had a lower participation rate than its fellow Division 3 schools in recent years.
Athletic director Jim Davis applied to move the team from Division 3 to Division 4 in December. With a roster size in the 30s, Davis and football coach Kevin Gildea decided Division 4 would be a better fit.
After being granted the switch, Belmont was later bumped back to Division 3 by the MIAA, Davis was told, in order to balance the number of teams in each division.
As a Division 4 program, Belmont’s power rating would have benefited. Plus, after seven weeks of regular-season play against larger programs in Middlesex’s Liberty Division, if the Marauders did not make the playoffs, they would have been scheduled to play other Division 4 teams with similar roster sizes in weeks 8, 9 and 10.
Instead, in those weeks, they will continue to play Division 3 teams; the last three years, Belmont has won just 20 percent of its games against larger schools.
“If this new system is to match programs more equitably,” Gildea said, “I thought we were on the smaller end of our division. With any program, I don’t care what league or division, the smaller programs struggle. Period. I’d rather be the larger of the smaller programs, rather than the smaller of the larger programs.
“Those decisions are out of our hands,” he added. “You make your case. I thought it was a good case, decisions were made, you just move forward. It’s really not going to impact us on Friday nights. We just have to execute and play our games.”
Lexington also made a bid to drop in class, from Division 1 to Division 2. Though its participation rate is lower than other schools of its size, according to coach George Peterson, its request was denied by the MIAA.
The Minutemen’s power rating will be hurt by playing against Middlesex Liberty competition made up of teams from lower divisions. But Peterson and his players were encouraged that the new playoff format guarantees that two teams from their league will have a chance to compete for a Super Bowl.
This season and next — since the format has been implemented as a two-year pilot — Lexington will not have to outperform Middlesex powerhouse Reading Memorial to keep its postseason hopes alive.
Still, senior Rhett Adley understands that a spot in the postseason is anything but a given.
“Yeah, it’s exciting to have a better chance at the playoffs,” Adley said, “but our team motto is ‘Win the day.’ We have to win every day, one day at a time, if that’s going to be a realistic goal for us.”