In the summer of 2011, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High coach Kirk Fredericks had a plan to overhaul the state’s high school baseball playoff format. But he knew that before his idea could ever get off the ground, he would first have to convince one person that it was worthwhile: his father.
A longtime coach, MIAA sectional tournament director, and umpire chief, Don Fredericks didn’t know what to think when his son first called him with the idea of holding a special tournament for the best teams in the state, similar to hockey’s Super 8 format.
From his living room chair, Don told Kirk, “I haven’t given it any thought, but I will,” and hung up.
“I don’t believe he was in favor of it to start,” Kirk said. “Convincing him that it was a good thing, that was the first step. If you don’t have anyone to back you . . .”
Twenty minutes later, Don called back. “I think if we come up with a process that’s good and solid,” he said, “I think it will work.”
With that, the ball was rolling on a process that has formed a Division 1A baseball tournament that will feature the best eight teams in the state, regardless of division or section. Don Fredericks was named the event’s director last fall, and will oversee a two-year pilot program to test the arrangement, which has been adjusted over time and supported by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s baseball tournament committee and board of directors.
The participating teams will be determined by an 11-person committee made up of Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association members, MIAA sectional tournament directors and baseball committee members, and others who will fan across the state this spring to see as many games as possible and make evaluations.
The eight teams will participate in a double-elimination tournament with two four-team brackets. They will not be allowed to participate in their divisional state tournaments, as is the case with the high school hockey Super 8.
When Kirk Fredericks originally proposed the idea, he said, there was a movement to separate Catholic schools into their own postseason tournament because they had been so historically dominant. Over the past 15 seasons, nine of the Division 1 state champions have come from the Catholic Conference, and a Catholic school has been in the championship game all but four times.
With the Super 8 format, elite baseball programs — Catholic and otherwise — will be able to compete for the Division 1A title, while the Division 1 and 2 tourneys will benefit from a more even playing field.
“I thought that was better than the alternative of having a Catholic tournament and a public tournament,” Fredericks said. “Maybe it’s not a perfect situation, but it was something that in my mind it would work for most people and make most people happy.”
The move to the Super 8 has been met with support from a majority of area coaches.
“Big picture for the state — I think it’s a great move,” said Acton-Boxborough Regional coach Patrick Grucela.
“You’re going to see a really strong tournament of eight teams. You’re going to see really good baseball in all of those games. And you’re going to see a true public high school baseball tournament on the other side that will be ultra-competitive and will give you a better sense of where they’re at in a tournament that’s more evenly based. The public schools and Catholic schools are just sort of in different spots. I think you’re taking one good tournament and making two really, really good tournaments,” he said.
“I think it’ll be more fair for the public schools’’ in the Division 1 tournament, said Newton South High coach Ron Jordan. “And the Super 8 will be great baseball. I plan on going to watch it.”
While supporting the move to the Super 8 double-elimination format, St. John’s High coach Charlie Eppinger worried about changes made — and changes not made — to the Division 1 tournament.
He cited the shift for the other tournaments from nine-inning games to seven-inning games, making the Super 8 the only competition with teams playing nine innings.
“The Super 8 is a tremendous step forward for those teams that qualify,” Eppinger said, “but for the other teams left in the Division 1 tournament, playing seven innings in a single-elimination bracket in no way, shape, or form crowns the best team champion.
“The way the MIAA spreads games out, and now that they’re seven-inning games, they’re just saying the team that has a good pitcher can win the tournament. You don’t need to have a good team. You don’t need to develop depth. You can just rely on one kid. If they want to have unpredictability, that’s a great format. But if they truly want the best team to win, then it’s an asinine format.”
Nashoba Regional coach Chuck Schoolcraft, whose team lost in the Division 1 state final last season, also worried that the Division 1 tournament would lose prestige because the state’s best teams will be competing separately.
“I don’t see it working, but that’s all right,” he said. “I’ll be happy to be the ninth-best team in the state. That’d be fine with me. It’ll be a happy occasion, but it’ll be tainted.”
Coaches agree that the Super 8 will make regular-season baseball around the state more competitive. Several area programs vying for one of the top spots have scheduled more challenging nonleague schedules in order to improve their standing in the eyes of the tournament committee.
“We picked up Malden Catholic this year and we’ll play Cambridge and Newton North,” said Waltham High coach Steve LaForest. “We’ll have our hands full in our conference and out of it. I would hope that the committee will look at strength of schedule, and I’m sure they will.
“That’s how it works in hockey; if you play good competition, they tend to recognize you. We’ll see.”
Don Fredericks emphasized that while he doesn’t anticipate many requests for changes to the system, it is a two-year trial run.
“We feel this is the best way for the tournament to develop,” he said. “As with any program that you have, if you don’t like something, the minds will meet and we’ll discuss it and make adjustments if we have to. If we like it and everything’s fine, we’ll continue with it.”
One other change that Kirk Fredericks would like to see is for the Red Sox to partner with the MIAA and allow tournament games to be played at Fenway Park. The 1998 state finals were held at Fenway, but recently, except for 2012, LeLacheur Park in Lowell, home of Boston’s Single A affiliate, has been the host.
Requests over the years to the Red Sox have not yielded results, Fredericks said, but to play at one of baseball’s most recognizable venues would only add to the excitement that he hopes will be a byproduct of the new playoff format.
“For a sport that some people say is dying, or a sport that people say is slowing down,” Fredericks said, “playing the high school state championship at Fenway Park would be unbelievable.”Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.