New Playoff System Hopes To Achieve Balance In All-State Tournament

TMS members in a meeting
TMC members, James O’Leary of St. John’s Prep, MIAA Associate Director Sherry Bryant, Shaun Hart of Burlington, and Johanna DiCarlo of Westborough discuss the new state tournament playoff system that will be set into motion in the fall of 2021. HOWARD HERMAN

On February 28th, 2020, the current MIAA system regarding playoffs and the tournament that comes at the end of each season could change. What we know now as the “Western Mass championship” could very well not exist come Fall of 2021. 

Currently, the state is “broken into four sections: North, South, Central, and West,” says Mr. Capotosto, Athletic Director at LHS. “Every section has a tournament (such as Western Mass) based on how many teams qualify off of their regular season.” However, because of this system, Mr. Capotosto says that “right now what you’re seeing, for example in field hockey, is that there are only four teams that qualified in our section (the West), but there are 20 something teams that qualified in the North Section.” Because there is an abundance of schools out in the East, they also have to play more games in the tournament, or playoffs, than Western/Central Mass teams.

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As such, a group known as the Tournament Management Committee (TMC), spearheaded by Mr. O’Leary, retired Athletic Director at St. John’s Prep, and Ms. DiCarlo, current Athletic Director at Westborough High School, has decided to propose a change. What the TMC has put together is known as the Statewide Tournament Proposal. “In terms of the state, the MIAA will no longer recognize “Central” Mass or “Western” Mass,” says Ms. DiCarlo. This proposal completely eliminates the previous four sections that have divided the state into regions. “The elimination of sections is a drastic change,”says Ms. DiCarlo. “Right now, we are not crowning necessarily the best team in the state. The reason why is that we cannot possibly do that when we are eliminating teams at the regional level.” 

Mr. O’Leary adds, “The path to the championship is much more difficult in some sections than it is in others. For example, because there are not that many Division 1 size schools out in Western Mass, you might only have to play 2 games, whereas if you’re from the North and the South sections you might have to play 5 games until you get to the state finals.” Essentially, this proposal would eliminate the unbalanced amount of games teams will play in order to get to the state semi-finals or finals. 

“In certain sports, this proposal will increase the number of playoff games that Western Mass teams will have to play,” says Mr. Capotosto. While it may seem like it will be harder for Western and Central Mass teams to battle their way to the top, this proposal actually benefits small schools which predominantly exist throughout the Western/Central parts of the state. “I think it’s going to be fairer to teams like ourselves because we’ll be competing teams that have the same enrollment as us, so now we don’t have to face off against schools with double the amount of girls we have,” says Coach Simons, coach of the girls field hockey team at LHS. “We won’t have to compete against the larger schools; we’ll play against the smaller schools now which are still very good. However, with the proposal going through, we will have a better chance of winning.”

“Right now, we are forcing schools to be in a division that they shouldn’t be in because you need to have some Division 1 schools in every section, enough to run a tournament at least,” says Ms. DiCarlo. “Westborough high school is a Division 1 school in most sports and we have an enrollment of about 1150 kids. A Division 1 school out in Eastern mass could be as many as 4000-5000 students.” 

The new statewide tournament would allow for a reassignment of divisions since sections no longer exist within the state. Schools would no longer have to be forced into upper divisions for the sake of filling up the space in those divisions. “I like the idea of the Statewide Tournament because come playoff time, you are going to be put on a level playing field as far as enrollment goes,” explains Mr. Capotosto. “In certain sports, there could be a 600-700 difference in student enrollment between schools in the same division. Now, you are only going to have about a difference of 200-250 difference in student enrollment.” 

How would teams qualify for this statewide tournament? “For team sports, they will take 32 teams to the statewide tournament although it depends on the sport,” says Mr. Capotosto. “You will qualify based on your Max Prep ranking. The Max Prep ranking is kind of like an algorithm but they do not give out specifics because they don’t want people trying to manipulate the system. It is kind of similar to what we use right now for Western Mass with the Walker System, where it takes into consideration the strengths of the teams you are playing, how well you do against them, etc.” 

Currently, one of the biggest concerns among the people out West is about “losing the Western Mass Tournament,” says Mr. Capotosto. However, Ms. Dicarlo explains how “Western Mass could still use the last week of the regular season to run some sort of Western Mass tournament.” This way, a Western Mass champion can still be crowned all while achieving balance on the state level. 

A major issue concerning the proposal is about transportation, and the costs that come with traveling. With the elimination of sections and the reassignment of divisions, teams will be on the road a lot more come playoffs time; Eastern teams might have to travel West on long bus rides, and vice versa. However, “we are a very small state, and we have the Mass Pike that goes right down the middle of the state,” says Mr. O’Leary. “Some superintendents have said that travel is an issue, the money for travel could be an issue, but to play like-size schools in a fair tournament is more important for the educational value. It’s not about money but it’s about what’s right and what’s fair.” Ms. DiCarlo adds, “We are saying that we don’t think that transportation costs should deter us from doing what is in the best interest of the students of our schools. The state is not so big that we can’t do this.” Coach Simons agrees and says that the team “already travel out of state as it is. I don’t see transportation as a deterrent at all.”  

The TMC has dedicated a large amount of time over the past two years trying to perfect the plan and resolve any problems that might arise from these changes. “For the last two years, we have been out gathering information and putting this together,” says Mr. O’Leary. “We have been out to every district twice. We’ve gone to Athletic Director conferences, to leagues meetings, roundtables, and various Athletic Director meetings. We put the information out on the website and held a press conference for the media to ask questions. On February 28th, we are going to have a vote and if the majority votes for it, then it goes through.” 

If this proposal is not approved, there will still be significant alterations to the current sections. Mr. O’Leary says, “we will still have to enforce equal and balanced divisions and sections. That might mean that a whole lot of teams will be moving West.” Mr. O’Leary explains that while moving teams around can definitely be accomplished, “it doesn’t solve the problem of the small schools in the West having to play in larger/upper divisions. So, that’s why we feel that the state tournament is the best.” 

If the proposal is approved, then “the new state tournament format would start in the Fall of 2021,” says Ms. DiCarlo. “It would give us a full year and a half to work out some of the kinks and get everything into place.” 

“This is going to impact every sport and you have to hear from the 360 schools in the association and take into consideration what they really feel about the change,” Mr. O’Leary concludes. “Change is hard, but I think we have communicated the best we could have, and we are doing the best we can to have this proposal approved.”

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