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MIAA committee approves new power ratings system for 2021 statewide tournaments

The Andover High girls' basketball team earned a share of the Division 1 title last March.
The Andover High girls' basketball team earned a share of the Division 1 title last March.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

As the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association pushes forward in launching statewide tournaments for the fall 2021 season, a pivotal piece in the transition has been finalized.

In a virtual meeting Wednesday, the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee approved a new power ratings system, by a 17-1 vote, to determine tourney seedings that focuses on transparency, simplicity, and accuracy.

Last February, when the TMC received approval from the association’s 377 member schools to introduce statewide tournaments, it was based on a power ratings formula developed by MaxPreps to determine seedings. But that proprietary system came under wide scrutiny for its lack of transparency and consistency. And with no postseason tournaments conducted last spring or this fall because of the pandemic, there has been no opportunity to test the formula.

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The alternative formula, created by Globe correspondent Jim Clark, combines strength of schedule with margin of victory or defeat, as determined by point differential. The exact nature of that point differential is still up for debate.

A subcommittee will incorporate feedback from individual sport committees before proposing specific standards for point differential at the next TMC meeting Feb. 24. There also are preliminary plans to educate districts in virtual town hall meetings.

Because of differences between scoring in sports, the sport committees will have a wide range of opinions on point differential, and some could vote against point differential entirely.

“Consistency across the board on this topic is important but ultimately impossible,” said St. Mary’s athletic director Jeff Newhall. “So I think throwing it back to the sport committees is absolutely the way to go.”

Point differential has been a sticking point for many districts since the MIAA decided to use MaxPreps’s power ratings system for seeding. There are concerns about sportsmanship and playing time for bench players if coaches are focused on reaching a certain margin of victory.

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But some athletic directors on the TMC pointed out that it will fall on individual schools to set the standards for competition and encourage sportsmanship from their coaches.

“[Point differential] isn’t going away if you want to have a transparent and fair system,” said Burlington athletic director Shaun Hart, who proposed the motion for the vote.

“We’re really trying to get it down to decimal changes [between ratings] so we don’t have a coin flip, because nobody thinks that’s fair. It’s not a perfect system, but it can be tweaked, and we’re going to keep working.”

Rockport field hockey coach Mary Ryan voiced approval of the new system, but represented the lone dissenting vote because the Cape Ann League is against using point differential.

Concerns also were voiced that the proposed system would incentivize playing programs in higher divisions, preventing programs in the lower divisions from securing challenging games.

But Westborough athletic director Johanna DiCarlo asserted that the new system helps smaller schools that play in difficult leagues, because it rewards the league as a whole.

“With regards to transparency, we want people to be able to look at a team’s schedule and see how the numbers add up, even if the math is done in the background,” said Clark, who has been working on ratings for high school hockey and other sports for more than a decade.

“It can be tweaked, starting with scoring margins, but If you’re looking for a true power rating, scores need to be a part of it.”

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Prior to the discussion on power ratings, the TMC voted unanimously against holding MIAA-sponsored postseason tournaments for the Fall II season (Feb. 22-April 25).

In addition to indoor track, football, and unified basketball, that season will play host to a number of fall sports that were postponed by individual districts. The lack of consistency between leagues and the short time period made it unfeasible to host any postseason tournaments, multiple TMC members concurred.

However, the TMC largely agreed that postseason tournaments need to be a priority for spring sports after student-athletes had their entire spring season canceled in 2020. The spring season this year is scheduled to run from April 25 to July 3, according to the adjusted athletic calendar.

“Because of what was lost in the spring of 2020, these kids deserve to have some type of tournament this year,” said Hart.

Debate ensued on whether to address the possibility of spring tournaments sooner or later, with some members advocating to revisit the idea in March once more data are available regarding the pandemic.