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Mass. school football playoffs set for review

Central Catholic’s long road to the Division 1 championship ended at Gillette Stadium, where Nicholas Boes lifted Mike Milano after the win.

barry chin/globe staff

Central Catholic’s long road to the Division 1 championship ended at Gillette Stadium, where Nicholas Boes lifted Mike Milano after the win.

Year 1 of the MIAA’s new football playoff system is in the books, with six state champions crowned during a 15-hour marathon at Gillette Stadium in December. And with the MIAA Football Committee set to meet on Wednesday for the first time since the Super Bowls, the discussion will be centered on what worked and what needs to be tweaked.

Regardless of the answers, the 2014 season will be played with the same playoff structure. In 2012, member schools voted, 161-131, in favor of the new system, with a two-year trial basis. The MIAA recognizes it must honor the original proposal, but a tweak here or there . . .

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And it’s not just about the playoffs. The new format had a dramatic effect in some communities on Thanksgiving, when some schools met for the third time. And although the tournament generated excitement, what impact did the new system have on schools that didn’t qualify?

And, arguably the most important question: Is any of this making money?

The playoffs

One of the top selling points of the new format was establishing a true state championship per division, as opposed to 19 Super Bowl champions, separated by region, in the old format.

“I think our state was long overdue for a one state champion from coast to coast,” said Mansfield coach Mike Redding, whose team won the Division 2 state title. “I think that’s a big bonus that finally, in a state that’s not very big, came up with a way to crown a true state champion like every other sport we play in the state.”

In the expanded playoff format, 160 teams qualified. That created a heightened level of excitement and enthusiasm as coaches, players, and fans followed each section’s bracket.

“It really kept everybody in tune to what everybody else was doing each week,” Attleboro coach Mike Strachan said.

Massachusetts high school football essentially had its own version of college basketball’s March Madness, and Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson said the Division 1 Super Bowl between his Hawks and Central Catholic had “the largest Xaverian football crowd I had ever seen” in his 22 years, thanks to the momentum built by the playoff run.

The new format benefited schools such as Attleboro, which finished behind Mansfield in the Hockomock League and lost to the Hornets in their regular-season meeting. A year ago, that loss would have kept Attleboro out of the postseason. Under the new format, the Blue Bombardiers received the league’s second automatic qualifying spot and went on to make the Division 1 South final.

“It would’ve been a shame if that team didn’t have a chance to be in the playoffs,” Stevenson said of Attleboro.

Others agreed.

“I like the fact that teams get an opportunity to overcome some injuries or even an off day earlier in the season, to be able to put it together and be firing on all cylinders and be able to compete in the playoffs,” said Tewksbury coach Brian Aylward, whose team won the Division 3 title.

The new playoff format wasn’t perfect. One complaint concerned the point value a team got for beating a league opponent from a lower division. Under the current format, the state’s power-rating system awarded schools 8 points for beating a team in a lower division, 10 for a team in its own division, and 12 for a team in a higher division. Those values held in nonleague games.

But some schools felt they weren’t getting full value for winning league games against teams in lower divisions. “That would be a big fix we could make,” said Stevenson.

Other proposed changes include the day of the state semifinals. In 2013, two semifinals were Friday and eight were on Saturday. Many felt the turnaround between Saturday and Thanksgiving was too short. The Football Committee could hear other suggestions.

There are two major threats to the future of the current playoff system. Member schools could say no thanks to the continuation of the format after 2014. The other threat is money. With 75 percent of MIAA revenues coming from tournaments, the Franklin-based organization can’t afford a playoff system that loses money. The 2012 football season generated a combined playoff and Super Bowl attendance of 49,939 and a gross revenue of $490,508. The 2013 figures will be announced on Wednesday.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the figures compared to previous years,” said Central Mass. tournament director Jim Bergenholtz.

Bergenholtz, along with Western Mass. director Joe Doyle and EMass directors Barry Haley (North) and Jim O’Connor (South), all felt the new format was a success, both in terms of the excitement it generated as well as attendance and revenue. And all four said a tweak here or there will make it even better.

Thanksgiving

Even after schools voted in favor of the new playoff system, there was still concern about its potential effect on Thanksgiving. The annual holiday game not only carries historical significance, it also produces the biggest payday of the fall for schools. A big crowd can pay a lot of bills.

In the fall, many longtime rivals played twice, some even three times. Thanksgiving also presented a challenge for teams that were eliminated from playoff contention a week earlier.

Holliston lost to Tri-Valley Large rival Westwood early in the season but then upset the league champion Wolverines in the Division 4 South semifinals. Holliston was eliminated in the sectional final, and then played Westwood a third time on Thanksgiving.

“I’d say there was definitely less of a crowd there on Turkey Day,” Holliston coach Todd Kiley said. “I think the Holliston-Westwood rivalry is a spoiled rivalry because [under the old format], the game meant something 90 percent of the time. In my 11 years coaching, I can maybe think of one or two games where it didn’t mean anything.

“I think playing three times, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take away from the rivalry.”

After losing to Dual County League rival Concord-Carlisle in September, Bedford won four straight games to win the Division 4 North and a spot in the state semis.

With a trip to Gillette Stadium just a win away, Bedford lost to South champion Dennis-Yarmouth, 21-14.

Five days later, on Thanksgiving, the Bucs lost at Concord-Carlisle, 18-0, the only time Bedford was shut out last season. The attendance for the game, played at Concord-Carlisle, was significantly down from what it normally was, according to Haley, the Concord-Carlisle AD.

“If you went to the state semifinals and lose, now you’re going home and have to play another game five days later. It did have an impact on Thanksgiving,” Haley said.

Bedford coach Jack Belcher said it was not difficult to motivate his players for the Thanksgiving game, but said, “playing five days after losing the game to get to the Super Bowl definitely caused Thanksgiving Day to have a very different feel than it usually does.”

Schools probably won’t tamper with Thanksgiving rivalries, but teams may adjust their schedules to avoid playing three times in a season.

In the Catholic Conference, Xaverian did not play St. John’s Prep until Thanksgiving, same for Catholic Memorial and BC High. The league title was still up for the taking on Thanksgiving, even though Xaverian was headed to the Super Bowl and St. John’s Prep was eliminated from the playoffs.

“We did it because it guaranteed you will not play somebody three times in a season, which was something we wanted to make sure of,” Xaverian’s Stevenson said. “We didn’t mind playing twice, but wanted to eliminate three.”

Stevenson also raised an interesting point. Under the old format, an early conference loss could eliminate a team well before the holiday game, but playing on Thanksgiving was still a big deal.

So, is it that much different to lose in the playoffs and then have to play on Thanksgiving?

“Would we have been down? Absolutely,” Stevenson said. “But beating the Prep on Thanksgiving will always be a big thing.”

Non-playoff teams

For the 83 teams that failed to qualify for postseason play, the first year of the new playoff format didn’t go as planned.

But the disappointment didn’t change many opinions of the system. Ten athletic directors from non-qualifying schools said they would stick with their original vote — six in favor, four against — after seeing the format in action.

Athletic directors on both sides of the vote, however, agreed that some adjustments are needed, particularly in the scheduling of non-playoff games during Weeks 8 through 10. Those games are determined by a committee.

Tim Woods, athletic director at Dracut and a member of the committee that determined non-playoff games in North sections, pointed to non-traditional matchups as one of the system’s biggest downfalls.

The lack of buzz surrounding games against unfamiliar opponents led to drastic drops in attendance during the final three weeks of the season.

“Our last three games, we played schools that we had little or nothing in common with,” said Woods. “The attendance was way down, the excitement was way down. It hurt participation overall.

“Financially, it was a disaster for us. [We lost] thousands. The number of people at the games — there was nobody in the visitors’ stands. It just wasn’t good. It was worse than expected.”

Longer-than-normal travel also hurt schools such as Amesbury, which had to make a 50-minute trip to Weston during the first week of the non-qualifiers schedule.

“We have no ties to Weston, we don’t know anything about it,” said Amesbury AD Glen Gearin, who voted against the original proposal. “It cost me almost $1,500 in buses and you don’t get any share of the gate because we didn’t have a crowd and they didn’t have a crowd.

“We expected [attendance] to be tough, but the numbers were staggering.”

Medway AD Rob Pearl, who voted for the new system, is still in favor even though his school suffered financially because of low attendance.

“I think they’re going in the right direction,” Pearl said. “There were some bumps in the road and we hit the bumps, so we’re hoping those things get worked out.

“We went 3-0 in those [non-playoff] games. But unfortunately, the matchups weren’t all that great. That’s why people weren’t that excited about it.”

Some non-qualifiers weren’t as negatively affected by the new system.

“I don’t think it was a big financial hit,” said Norwood AD Brian McDonough, who acknowledged some tweaking is needed. “We had two homes games and I would say the gate was probably similar to other games we had during the year, slightly down but not excessively.”

“The headaches and hassles that everybody worried about really didn’t happen for us,” said Pembroke AD Dana Battista, whose school hosted two non-playoff games.

“The transition was very, very smooth.”

Globe high school editor Bob Holmes contributed to this report.
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