Massachusetts high school sports are on the verge of the biggest change in decades in their championship formats, altering the way every team from field hockey to football would compete in postseason play.
The 380 member schools of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association are scheduled to vote on Friday on whether to accept a new, statewide tournament proposal for all sports or transition to a less dramatic alternative that would create “balanced sections and divisions” from East Boston to Lee.
Either way, the current tournament format will cease to exist beginning in 2021.
The decision is the “biggest vote” in the 41-year history of the organization that governs high school sports in Massachusetts, said Westborough High athletic director Johanna DiCarlo.
It comes after a three-year process that began when the member schools asked for consistency in the seeding, direction, and championship formats for postseason play.
According to Jim O’Leary, chair of the MIAA Tournament Management Committee, which is driving the push for the statewide tournament, the key word is “fairness.”
“Whether it’s [the] path to a championship, large schools vs. small schools, it’s all about fairness,” said O’Leary, the former athletic director at St. John’s Prep.
For Eastern Massachusetts, where approximately 65 percent of the schools are located (247 of the 380), “fairness” means not having to play more games to reach a state final than teams would in other parts of the state.
For example, this postseason’s Division 3 West boys’ hockey bracket has just four teams, and the winner would need to play just four games to capture a state championship. On the flip side, in the 17-team D3 South bracket, teams need to win four games — or even five, in the case of No. 17 seed Silver Lake — just to get out of the section.
O’Leary said when the TMC was given a mandate by the MIAA Board of Directors in 2016 to overhaul the system that largely has been in place since 1978, a statewide tournament was not part of the original plan.
“But the more we looked at this, it looked like statewide was the most fair and equitable way to run a tournament,” he said.
The statewide tournament proposal would do away with the current four-section format — North, South, Central, and West, with some exceptions in sports such as lacrosse and girls’ volleyball — and throw the entire state into one pool. Sports would be split into divisions based on how many schools participate — the proposal calls for any sport with 275 or more teams to have five divisions, 200-274 teams would be four divisions, etc. — with individual MIAA sports committees able to make recommendations to the TMC if they believe a different number of divisions would work better for that sport.
Divisional alignments in each sport would be broken down by combined school enrollment, with exceptions for parochial, vocational, and possibly urban schools, as well as cooperative programs. Enrollment of single-gender schools would be doubled to satisfy gender-equity requirements.
Each divisional tournament would feature at least 32 teams, though the potential exists for 16-team brackets for divisions with a smaller number of teams, should an individual sport committee deem that would make more sense.
Seeding — an inconsistent process in different parts of the state and even within individual sports — would be done by a power ratings formula via MaxPreps.com, a national website founded in 2002 and used by many other states.
The TMC also allowed that any team outside of the top 32 in a division that finishes with a .500 record or better also would qualify, with preliminary-round games added to the bracket as necessary.
“We heard loud and clear from ADs, that they still want [.500] teams in the tournament,” said DiCarlo, another TMC member.
Rankings and travel
The MaxPreps part of the equation — which has been approved for use beginning in the fall regardless of whether the statewide tournament proposal passes — has been a hot topic at TMC informational meetings held throughout the state in recent weeks. Among the biggest concerns is the inclusion of “scoring margin” as part of the formula, potentially encouraging teams to run up scores.
“If I’m up, 7-0, at the end of a game, and I’m on the 10-yard line, should I score again instead of taking a knee?” South Hadley football coach Scott Taylor asked at a TMC forum Monday night at Chicopee Comprehensive High School.
TMC members allowed that while the MaxPreps formula is complex and proprietary, individual sport committees would have the opportunity to request a specific cap on scoring margin. Also, they believe it is more likely that schools will be able to improve a rating by keeping a game close vs. a higher-rated team, rather than the other way around.
Coaches also expressed concerns about scheduling, particularly for smaller schools, believing stronger teams might avoid playing them for fear of affecting its rating.
Perhaps the biggest MaxPreps flaw is that it does not account for ties. This season, ice hockey introduced a two-year “pilot program” for overtime that is being used in some leagues and could be expanded. Potential overtime formats in sports such as soccer and field hockey are still unresolved, a concern noted by Notre Dame Academy of Worcester athletic director Patty Provost at a recent TMC forum at Algonquin Regional in Northborough.
But with MaxPreps a done deal, those issues will exist whether or not the statewide proposal passes.
Once the brackets are done, higher seeds will host games, or find suitable neutral sites, all the way through the Round of 8. O’Leary noted that the TMC still is working with the MIAA Finance and Personnel Committee on financial models, including all money remaining with host schools, or revenue sharing to help visiting teams offset travel costs — a concern shared by many athletic directors.
Travel is perhaps the biggest sticking point for those either opposed to the plan or still on the fence.
Western Massachusetts coaches in particular are concerned about the possibility of traveling hours across the state on a weekday, affecting students who may have to leave school early or arrive home late, as well as the impact on fans wishing to travel to games.
The same issue exists for EMass schools, particularly those on Cape Cod that will have to travel west or even to a school in the northeastern part of the state.
“That’s just too far if we have to go to Western Mass. on a Tuesday night or something,” said Nantucket boys’ basketball coach Willis Ferreira. “I think the idea is good, I just think it needs to be tweaked a little bit more.”
There is no standard practice for statewide tournaments across the US. Large states such as California, Texas, and New York use regional tournaments to determine qualifiers for the state championships, while the other New England states all have statewide postseasons. Some states, including New Jersey, mix and match based on the makeup of individual sports.
The TMC may have to address concerns about the loss of opportunity to play for sectional championships, an issue even some EMass coaches and officials share with their colleagues across the state.
“I still think there’s something positive and so great about having the local camaraderie,” said Norwood boys’ basketball coach Kristen McDonnell, who won seven Division 1 South and four state championships in girls’ basketball at Braintree. “Having it be regionalized brings a certain competitiveness and community-building piece that I think you’re losing if you’re going to do it statewide.”
Both O’Leary and DiCarlo said the possibility still exists for regions of the state to continue to hold in-season district tournaments similar to the Clark Tournament for boys’ basketball in Central Mass.
Overall, the TMC’s stance is that, in keeping with the fairness theme, a statewide tournament would allow schools a better opportunity to compete with like-sized schools regardless of geography. The belief is that, based on school populations, it is likely some divisions in particular sports would be heavily tilted to one side of the state or the other, making travel minimal. Middle divisions in a particular sport alignment project to be the ones with the greatest potential for travel impact.
The alternative — should the MIAA membership vote “no” on Friday — would be a dramatic shift of more teams toward the Central and West as the MIAA looks to create “equal and balanced” sections.
“There’s an impact on people in this room no matter what,” O’Leary said Monday at Chicopee Comp.
O’Leary noted that, per MIAA bylaws, the TMC had the power to push through its proposal without a statewide vote. But the committee believed, much as with the 2013 vote for the football tournament format, that it was important for every member school to have a say in such a potential turning point in MIAA history.
Even with a “yes” vote, it’s likely that several factors such as alignment and seeding — whether by MaxPreps or an alternative system — will continue to be revisited and explored.
“Do I think it will look the same five years from now? Absolutely not,” O’Leary said.
Craig Larson of the Globe staff and correspondents Brandon Chase, John Hand, Brad Joyal, Greg Levinsky, and Nate Weitzer contributed to this report.