Revamped football alignment proposal makes sense

November 11, 2009
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Two very short words of advice for Bay State high schools: Do it.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is considering massive changes to the high school football season, including the elimination of leagues and the creation of a very large and inclusive playoff system. The proposal was put together by people who know more about Massachusetts high school athletics than Bill Belichick knows about zone blitzes (we speak of guys like Xaverian football coach and athletic director Charlie Stevenson). So, while there are detractors to be appeased and hoops to jump through, we feel safe in jumping on this bandwagon right now. The pros outweigh the cons. Let’s approve this thing and stir things up.

We could use it. The current league/playoff format is stale and tired. How many times do we need to see the Catholic Conference champion play Brockton in the Division 1A playoffs before we realize that the system needs a shake-up? How many consecutive Greater Boston League games does Everett need to win before we say, “Gee, these football conferences don’t make a lot of sense.”

This plan addresses these issues. First of all, it obliterates leagues as we know them. Instead, the MIAA would form six, 16-team divisions. Schools would be divided into North and South sectionals, and 50 percent of the teams would qualify for the playoffs after an initial seven-game regular season. The system allows for all schools to play a full 10-game schedule, and it aims to maintain Thanksgiving rivalries. A commissioner or committee would be put in place to help non-playoff and eliminated playoff teams complete their schedules.

Dividing teams into sectionals makes perfect sense. It will preserve many traditional rivalries while creating ones we haven’t seen before. (Raise your hand if you’d love to see Gloucester host Everett on a Friday night on the tip of Cape Ann?). It will generate more competitive regular-season games. It will make sense from a travel standpoint.

Even better, teams won’t be punished for suffering a loss or two. Presently, only league champions compete in the playoffs, so really good second- and third-place teams get left off of the postseason invitation list. Under the new format, if you’re in the top 50 percentile, you’ll go to the playoffs, period.

Right now, there are more than two dozen leagues in Eastern Mass, many of which are on the small side (five or six teams). That means the master high school football schedule is loaded with nonleague games that don’t determine league champs. In that light, it makes perfect sense that the MIAA wants to step in and slot teams into divisions, using geographic and competitive considerations. The good programs will continue to thrive because, well, that’s what they are. Middling to solid teams will go to the playoffs and perhaps pull off an upset or two. And struggling teams can set a realistic goal of qualifying for an inclusive playoff system.

If it works the way we think it will, the revamped system will lead to a better regular season and a bigger and better postseason.

Now, you are bound to ask, What about my team? Well, a quick assessment of some of the teams in our corner of the world further bolsters our belief that these changes should be embraced.

Chelsea — Chelsea’s program is taking off under Mike Stellato (6-1 after seven weeks), so if there are changes to be made it appears the Red Devils are equipped to handle them. A varied schedule doesn’t figure to intimidate this team. This year, Chelsea’s schedule includes teams from Boston (Brighton, Charlestown), Lexington (Minuteman), Billerica (Shawsheen), Middleton (North Shore) and Haverhill (Whittier).

East Boston — The most consistent Boston City League team over the past decade, it would be nice to see the Jets expand their wings against a different collection of teams. So far this season, East Boston has defeated O’Bryant, Charlestown, West Roxbury and Brighton by an aggregate score of 158-8.

Everett — The premier Division 1 program in the state, Everett stands to benefit from a higher profile postseason. This would be like asking a movie producer if he wants his movies to play in more theaters, bigger theaters and better theaters.

Lynn English and Lynn Classical — If I’m a Bulldogs or Rams fan, I’m pitching a tent at MIAA headquarters until these changes are put into affect. How many solid English and Classical teams have been left out of the playoffs over the years? Lynn is a great sports town whose high school football teams deserve to be rewarded with playoff games.

Lynn Tech — Tech prefers to play other vocational schools, and this set-up wouldn’t likely help them meet that standard. That doesn’t mean that a new alignment would adversely affect this program, especially if it holds firm in Div. 4 or 5.

Revere — The Patriots have long struggled in football, so it remains to be seen if this would lead to immediate positive results. But it gives coach Lou Cicatelli an attainable goal to put before his players, namely a playoff berth. That’s no small consideration for Revere, and the countless other schools who presently have little or no realistic expectations of making the postseason.

Winthrop — If you put Winthrop into a division with similarly sized schools, it will do very well more years than not, with the occasional bust-out team. That’s the way it’s always been with Winthrop, and it’s hard to envision that changing.

Pope John and St. Mary’s of Lynn — These two schools currently compete in the Catholic Central, a two-tier league that has teams all over the place. So, this system would certainly make some sense from a scheduling standpoint. As for competitiveness, one would certainly expect these two teams to regularly qualify for the postseason in a theoretical Div. 5 or 6.

This thing is hardly a done deal. The committee that is putting this plan together won’t finalize its plan until later this month, and the MIAA Board of Directors will hear the matter on Dec. 2. The debating isn’t done. Schools committed to preserving the status quo are sure to be heard, and the status quo can be as powerful as a 245-pound fullback.

But from this view, the system has run aground. It’s time to change the playbook.

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