Football coaches weigh in on state championship format

Nov. 12, 2012
By Chris Maza

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Decades in the making, Massachusetts will finally have a state championship in high school football.

Thanks to the member schools of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) approving a proposal for a statewide playoff format by a tally of 161-131, Massachusetts will be broken into six divisions, each of which will have a state champion, eliminating the current sectional championship system.

Under the old system, the MIAA hosted 19 "Super Bowls," which Alex Rotsko, the highly decorated former Longmeadow head coach, once called "glorified league title games," between the two teams that emerged from a four-team playoff.

Under the new formula, four Western Massachusetts teams would still qualify for a regional playoff, but the winner of that regional bracket would play the winner of the Central Massachusetts bracket in a state semifinal, a format similar to that of other MIAA sports.

Reaction to the vote has drawn mixed feelings from coaches across the state, but Central High School's Valdamar Brower is squarely in the camp of those who are enthusiastic about the prospect of competing for a state championship.

"I'm very excited that [the MIAA] is going to provide the opportunity to crown a state champion," Brower said. "It's going to be a great time for eastern, central and western Massachusetts football when they are going to be spreading the love to the entire state of Massachusetts."

The format would shorten the Western Massachusetts regular season to eight games, and would allow traditional Thanksgiving Day rivalries to remain intact, a sticking point that led to the defeat of previous proposals.

"I went to a number of the meetings they originally had, and one of the major holdups was the Thanksgiving Day games," East Longmeadow coach Scott Raymond said. "Once that was ironed out by the committee, it seemed to pave the way for a lot of the discussions."

After the eight-game regular season, the regional playoff would take place, followed by a state semifinal against the Central Massachusetts champion the week prior to Thanksgiving.

The state championship would take place after Thanksgiving at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

Longmeadow head coach Nick St. George, who was with the team as an assistant coach when they won the Division 1 Western Massachusetts Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium, said that hosting the state championships at the stadium augments the allure of the game.

"To be perfectly honest, when I first found out we were going to play there [last season] I wasn't all that excited," he said. "But then we got there and it was amazing. It's a great experience to go through. You're walking through the tunnels that the Patriots walk through and going by the locker rooms and going onto that field. It's something those kids are going to remember for the rest of their lives."

Of the six divisions, Western Massachusetts will compete in Divisions 2, 4, 5 and 6.

East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Central, Minnechaug, Holyoke, Putnam, Westfield and West Springfield will make up Division 2.

Chicopee, Chicopee Comp, Agawam, Amherst, Northampton, Sci-Tech, South Hadley, Belchertown and Wahconah (Dalton) make up a 10-team Division 4 field in Western Massachusetts.

Division 5 will consist of 12 teams – Cathedral, Ludlow, Easthampton, Athol, Drury (North Adams), Frontier (South Deerfield), Lee, Hoosac Valley (Cheshire), Mahar (Orange), Mount Greylock (Williamstown), Taconic (Pittsfield) and Pittsfield – while Division 6 will also contain 12 teams – Dean Tech (Holyoke), Pathfinder (Palmer), Palmer, Ware, Greenfield, Turners Falls, Franklin Tech (Turners Falls), McCann Tech (North Adams), Monument Mountain (Great Barrington), St. Joseph (Pittsfield), Pioneer Valley (Northfield), and Mohawk Trail (Buckland).

"One of the major discussions was about where teams would be placed and the reason for where they're placed," Raymond said. "A lot of the issues right now surround what the comparisons are. Is it based on enrollment? Is it based on parity? The PVIAC [Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference] here believes in parity, so teams are placed not necessarily on size, but on their competitive level."

Minnechaug Regional High School coach Steve Allosso voiced major concerns about that aspect of the playoff system.

"My concern is the delta of school sizes is too great for this to be a fair and equitable system," Allosso said. "Schools like Minnechaug, East Longmeadow and Longmeadow have around 1,000 students. They're about half the size of teams like Central and even smaller than schools in Eastern Massachusetts that might be in the same division. Geography or past records shouldn't decide this. There should be a delta of 150 or 200 students separating the divisions. That's the way other states do it."

Allosso added that in addition to maintaining competitive integrity in the playoffs, the difference in size between schools and teams could be a serious safety issue.

Raymond, however, said he felt the new system would allow his team to have a better opportunity to compete for a state title.

"Right now, we're considered Division 2 in Western Massachusetts, but we play a Division 1 schedule in the AA Conference. We are going to miss the playoffs this year because some other teams in Division 2, like Commerce, are playing easier schedules," he said.

Brower said that there was some level of disappointment for him that his team would not have the opportunity to compete at the state's highest division, but to talk of pursuing moving up would be extremely premature.

"The next move for Western Massachusetts is for schools to fight for Division 1, but that's something to think about down the road," he said. "Before we can talk about Division 1, we have to take care of business in the division we're going to be in."

The new system would also eliminate a format that forced teams to play three games in nine or 10 days.

"I'm excited to get rid of the three games in nine days scenario. I was never a big fan of that for a lot of reasons. I don't think it's healthy for the kids," he said. "I think the new format is going to allow football teams to play one game a week and prepare like they would normally prepare and keep their normal routine."

Teams that don't make the playoffs would play three more games that would be determined by a committee. Any team that is defeated in the playoffs would be added to the pool of teams available for those games.

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