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With an eye on reviving Thanksgiving football, MIAA Football Committee reviews new playoff proposal

Latin and English is the longest continuous high school football rivalry in the country. But in the MIAA's current playoff format, Thanksgiving rivalries have lost their prestige. “Thanksgiving needs to relevant again, and for now, it’s not,” said English coach Ryan Conway.
Latin and English is the longest continuous high school football rivalry in the country. But in the MIAA's current playoff format, Thanksgiving rivalries have lost their prestige. “Thanksgiving needs to relevant again, and for now, it’s not,” said English coach Ryan Conway.John Blanding/Globe Staff

Thanksgiving high school football will not be played in 2020, following the postponement of the fall season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the annual holiday tradition does resume, it remains to be seen how it will fit into the big picture of the Massachusetts high school football season and, more importantly, what type of playoff format will be used when the statewide tournament begins next fall.

The MIAA Football Committee spent much of Wednesday’s virtual meeting discussing the positives and negatives of a proposal presented by Milton coach Steve Dembowski, on behalf of the state coaches’ association, which would shift the statewide playoffs to after Thanksgiving and, in the eyes of the plan’s proponents, make the holiday rivalries meaningful once again.

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“This solves our problems forever if we can do this,” said Dembowski, the state coaches' rep on the committee.

The plan would follow the model used in Connecticut for the past decade, and create a regular season of no more than 10 games, played over 12 weeks. Two bye weeks must be taken — one during Weeks 4–6, and the other in Weeks 11–12, which would be either Thanksgiving or the weekend before.

From 2013–19, the regular season ran seven weeks in Eastern Mass. and eight in Central and West, with playoff rounds in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, as well as consolation games for those teams that either did not qualify or lost in earlier rounds.

The MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee unanimously voted in June to continue the current format beginning next fall, with an eight-week regular season and 16-team playoff brackets statewide. Dembowski and Shrewsbury athletic director Jay Costa voiced frustration that the football committee wasn’t given the opportunity to weigh in before that new format was passed.

Either way, Thanksgiving games have had no impact on the postseason since 2012.

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“Thanksgiving needs to be relevant again, and for now, it’s not,” said Boston English coach Ryan Conway, who is first vice president of the Mass. High School Football Coaches Association.

Conway added that while interest remained high in the Thanksgiving game when he was an assistant at East Boston, it was difficult keeping players engaged during the consolation rounds.

Northeast AD and football coach Don Heres agreed, calling the consolation games “the biggest farce that we have in the whole [current] format.”

The new proposal calls for eight-team brackets in each of eight divisions. Dembowski said that with the mandatory bye week on or before Thanksgiving, teams would play a maximum of four games in 17 days. The proposed Tuesday-Sunday-Saturday schedule would be similar to the format from 2001–12, although with an extra round that would extend the football season one more week into December than is currently played.

Grafton principal/committee chair Jim Pignataro pointed out a compacted playoff schedule was a major issue in the old format, particularly with the MIAA’s Sports Medicine Committee. Football committee members also expressed concern with potentially cutting even further into the start of winter sports.

“I like the thought process behind all of this,” said Franklin Tech AD/coach Joe Gamache, while still expressing doubt over the proposed schedule. Gamache and Dembowski also had differing viewpoints on how much the proposal would restore significance to Thanksgiving games.

Stoneham AD David Pignone said one big issue in the current format is teams having to play consolation games after losing early-round playoff games. Nonetheless, he also said he hasn’t received much positive feedback from his District 4 leagues and schools regarding the new proposal.

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Recognizing the challenges of trying to pass a new format in time for next year, the committee agreed to create a survey of member schools by December to gauge their support for the proposal. The committee will meet again in January, with hopes of having a proposal to present to the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee.

The football committee also got a subcommittee update on discussions regarding play during the Fall II season (Feb. 22 to April 25). Millbury athletic director Josh MacCreery said the subcommittee is taking a “methodical approach,” collecting as much data as possible while also observing play and the modifications used in other states — as many as 35 are playing some sort of traditional fall schedule.


Jim Clark can be reached at jim.clark@globe.com.