Upon further review, the MIAA’s Football Committee will not adopt the previously recommended format for a nine-week regular season with eight teams per division qualifying for the debut of the statewide tournament for the 2021 fall season.
In an hour-plus virtual meeting Thursday morning, punctuated with passionate debate, committee members voiced concerns that the format — which was approved by a 17-2-1 vote on Jan. 19 – would exclude too many worthy teams by only qualifying roughly 22 percent of teams in each of the state’s eight divisions.
After discussion, a motion to vote against the nine-week regular season passed narrowly, 11-9-1, with one member abstaining and two members absent from the call at that point.
Thus, the committee moves forward with the original plan for a statewide tournament that was approved last May — an eight-week regular season with 16 teams qualifying per division for the statewide tournament.
A shorter regular season and increase in consolation games is exactly what the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association hoped to avoid by crafting the proposal, said Milton coach Steve Dembowski.
“I think we’re putting the tournament before the regular season,” said Dembowski. “We believe that the cream should rise to the top.”
“It’s nice to reward kids for making the tournament, but penalizing the other teams with consolation games . . . that’s been a major problem for the football world,” added Dembowski, noting that 33 schools have dropped football or co-opted in recent years. He remains a proponent of the format in play in Connecticut, where playoffs are scheduled after Thanksgiving.
In a recent MIAA survey of member schools, 60.49 percent of the 162 responders were not in favor of consolation games, but a few committee members asserted that their district has no issues with adding those games for non-playoff teams, or those eliminated from tourney play.
With athletic competitions limited significantly during the ongoing pandemic, Plymouth South coach Scott Fry pointed to the enthusiasm student-athletes are currently demonstrating despite not being able to compete for a state title.
“When I see what has happened over the last seven months, I have a hard time imagining kids aren’t going to be excited to play for the love of the game,” said Fry, who along with Xaverian principal Jake Conca, provided one of two dissenting votes against the proposal in January.
“The way these kids are competing with no state title up for grabs, and no fans in the stands, they’re still playing their hearts out.”
Millbury athletic director Josh MacCreery asserted that the cream of the crop will rise to the top regardless in a 16-team bracket, and said that he hasn’t heard much blowback about consolation games in District 2.
Dedham AD Steve Traister added, “there is no such thing as a consolation game when the scoreboard is on.”
But other members pointed to safety concerns when smaller schools get lined up against top-seeded schools with higher enrollment in the first round of a larger bracket. Dembowski pointed to data showing that matchups have already been consistently lopsided between No. 1 and No. 8 seeds in the first round of sectional brackets.
While a plan is now in place for next fall, Tournament Management Committee chair Jim O’Leary left the door open for amendments to the format ahead of the fall 2022 season.
This fall will mark the first statewide tournament and the first season under a new power ratings system to determine seeding. So the committee plans to see how the brackets shape up before addressing concerns that a 16-team bracket would create too many non-competitive matchups.
Shrewsbury AD Jay Costa brought up a potential compromise that could create more emphasis on the regular season, maintain competitive eight-team brackets, and address issues with inconsequential consolation games.
Costa proposed a concept (derived from a discussion with Leominster AD and football coach Dave Palazzi) of two brackets per division, with the top eight seeds competing for a state title and the next eight (No. 9 through No. 16 seeds) competing in a separate tournament. While similar to a consolation bracket, the proposal would give non-qualifying teams more of a tangible goal by allowing them to navigate a competitive field and potentially win a consolation trophy.
Any amendments to the current format can be discussed when the Football Committee meets again on March 16.