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High school football committee debates postseason proposals and how to make Thanksgiving games relevant again

Swampscott's Nick Reiser (left) and Caden Dubiel clutched the Agganis Trophy at Gillette Stadium after the Big Blue defeated Amherst-Pelham for the MIAA Division 5 title in 2019.
Swampscott's Nick Reiser (left) and Caden Dubiel clutched the Agganis Trophy at Gillette Stadium after the Big Blue defeated Amherst-Pelham for the MIAA Division 5 title in 2019.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

With a statewide high school sports playoff format scheduled to begin next fall, the debate continued on Tuesday about the structure of postseason football and how to make traditional Thanksgiving games relevant again.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Football Committee reviewed three proposals in a 90-minute conference call and developed a plan to survey member schools on key topics before formally voting on the options in January.

The first proposal, presented by Milton coach Steve Dembowski on behalf of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association, is based on the model used in Connecticut since 2010. It calls for a maximum of 10 games per team with the regular season ending on Thanksgiving, followed by three rounds of playoffs — on a Tuesday-Sunday-Saturday schedule timeline — in which eight teams qualify per division.


Since this proposal would extend the football playoffs into mid-December and create a conflict with winter sports — notably for the 16 teams that advance to the Super Bowl — the MHSFCA also offered an amended plan that calls for two rounds of playoffs before Thanksgiving, followed by bowls the first weekend in December.

“This plan is going to allow the cream of the crop to rise to the top,” said Dembowski, noting that 90 percent of coaches responded to an MHSFCA survey and more than 70 percent were in favor of the proposal.

“The number one thing [the MHSFCA] wanted is to eliminate consolation games . . . This proposal is going to make Thanksgiving games relevant. Now you can be in contention and competing for seedings and if you’re not in contention, you might have the possibility to eliminate a rival from the tournament.”

Either option would address the issue of non-competitive consolation games by eliminating them altogether, or offering programs the choice to play in Week 10 or take a bye week before Thanksgiving.


Another proposal from representatives from the Middlesex League, Merrimack Valley Conference, Dual County League, and Boston City League, also offered a bye week for non-qualifiers in Week 10 when the playoffs begin with 16 teams qualifying per division.

The Super Bowls would conclude the weekend before Thanksgiving, and holiday rivalry games would cap the season.

The final proposal, crafted by Mount Greylock Regional School, calls for eight teams per division, two rounds of playoffs with no consolation games, and also would have the Super Bowls played before Thanksgiving.

Key points of discussion from the Football Committee included the possibility of extending the playoffs into December, and the benefits and drawbacks of 16 vs. eight teams making the playoffs in each division.

Stoneham athletic director David Pignone pointed out that under the old regional tournament model, approximately 67 percent of teams (usually 8 out of 12) were qualifying per division. That led to lopsided first-round matchups with an average margin of victory greater than 30 points when top-seeded teams faced eighth-seeded opponents.

But if 16 teams qualify in a statewide model, which has an average field of 35 teams per division, that would translate to about 44 percent of teams making the playoffs. Chop that number down to eight, and only 22.8 percent would qualify, creating concern that good teams would be left out.

“I’d like to see maybe two years of data to see what [16 teams per division] looks like,” said Pignone, noting that in every other sport at least 50 percent of teams qualify in the statewide format.


“Fixing [the format] from 16 down to 8 [teams] is an easy problem to solve, but I’m afraid once we go to eight teams we’ll never go back.”

Fewer teams in the postseason might assuage ADs who are concerned about football season overlapping into the winter.

According to MIAA Tournament Management Committee chair Jim O’Leary, ADs in the MVC and Boston City League have expressed concern about extending the fall season. But only a handful of programs may be affected.

A potential solution brought forth by Shrewsbury AD Jay Costa is to petition the MIAA Board of Directors to make structural changes to the athletic calendar, pushing the start and end date of winter sports back and starting spring sports in April when the weather is usually better.

“This COVID thing is a perfect opportunity to step back and figure out what works best for our kids,” Costa said. “And one of those things is shifting spring season . . . if we came up with an alternative that doesn’t shorten [the winter] season, just shifts it, could that be the best of both worlds?”

Football Committee chair Jim Pignataro said that proposal might have to come from a source other than the committee. So instead of inundating MIAA member schools with information on structural changes, Pignataro asked for a subcommittee to craft a straightforward survey with questions immediately relevant to the football postseason structure.


The subcommittee plans to survey schools in the first week of January and bring the data collected back to the Football Committee before it votes on the proposals at its next meeting.

There will be another subcommittee meeting in January that is tasked with creating modifications for football ahead of the Fall II season (Feb. 22 to April 25).