Co-operative teams — and their purpose in high school athletics — have been a hot-button topic since they were introduced as an MIAA pilot program nearly three decades ago.
The subject once again was at the forefront of debate Tuesday as the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee weighed a revised proposal for football alignments in conjunction with the statewide tournament scheduled to begin in fall 2021.
After initially voting 8-4 (with two abstentions) to reject the latest proposal that did not include any modifications for co-op programs, the TMC later voted 8-5-1 to approve revised football alignments with a universal adjustment factor included.
The TMC also voted 10-2-1 to accept a revised wrestling proposal of three divisions with four balanced sections each, a model allowed for “hybrid” sports under the statewide plan that was approved by the association’s full membership in February.
Much of the latter part of the 2½-hour meeting was spent discussing various ideas for how the TMC might structure sports in the fall should they be allowed to return during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, the MIAA’s Board of Directors approved the COVID-19 task force’s recommendation of a Sept. 14 target date for the start of fall sports [for the preseason]. But that likely could change again based on an agreement Monday between state education officials and teacher unions that schools could open as late as Sept. 16.
The TMC, which shifted guidelines and set several contingency plans for a 2020 spring season that ultimately never happened, chose Tuesday not to act until more concrete information on school plans comes from the state. Several committee members said individual schools and leagues have discussed ideas for competing in more localized “pods” or “bubbles” without even thinking yet about the possibility of postseason play.
“We’ve got to get over this ‘compete for a state championship’ thing,” said Sandwich superintendent Pamela Gould, noting the priority this fall should be to get kids back and participating. “And that’s if we can even do it.”
At its previous meeting in late June, the TMC rejected proposals from football and hockey, saying those sports had gone outside the alignment guidelines — which begin with a baseline of school enrollment, then apply factors for parochial or co-op teams (up one division), and vocational schools (down two).
Tuesday’s revised proposal kept the parochial factor and dropped vocational schools three divisions, a move that TMC members agreed made sense for a sport with eight divisions. MIAA deputy director Richard Pearson said the football committee also believed applying the co-op factor would be “misplaced.”
However, athletic directors Johanna DiCarlo (Westborough) and John Brown (Wellesley) were among those who questioned the decision to remove the adjustment. Brown said taking out the co-op factor would add subjectivity to the process, something the TMC wants to avoid, although MIAA liaison Sherry Bryant noted sport committees were given some latitude to change criteria as long as it is applied consistently to all teams.
“I’m a much bigger advocate of keeping the factor in, and then letting teams appeal who struggle with it,” said DiCarlo, adding she remains concerned about co-ops that strengthen their teams with players from guest schools.
Football committee members who presented the proposal say that co-ops are a means of survival for most programs. Milton coach Steve Dembowski said that of the 27 co-op programs affected, 64 percent come from Central or Western Mass.
"The key thing for all of us going into the fall is to keep kids engaged," said Grafton principal Jim Pignataro, chair of the MIAA football committee.
Lynn English AD Dick Newton, one of five new TMC members, also voiced concern about urban schools with high enrollments and low participation numbers. English and Lynn Classical, currently Division 3 programs, would be in D1 under the new alignments.
O’Bryant, Latin Academy and Chelsea are among schools that could bump from D7 to D2 under the new plan. There will be a process for schools to appeal their placement to an alignment subcommittee, which Burlington AD Shaun Hart emphasized is a key part of retaining the integrity of the statewide plan.
Aside from concern about geographic placement of individual schools, the wrestling proposal passed without much controversy. There will be a D2 West for the first time since 1993, while D1 Central and West sectionals will be renamed to Central/Metro and West/Central.
The wrestling proposal also moves vocational schools down one division instead of two, which Wakefield AD Brendan Kent said otherwise would have placed all vocational teams in D3.