Jaywalking: Nothing’s perfect
We have finally reached the first-ever Massachusetts Statewide Football Playoffs, ushered in with mixed feelings.
I’ve received phone calls, e-mails and talked with people at games and around town about the new playoff system, which includes a Division VI tournament that features McCann Tech, Mohawk, Franklin Tech and Turners Falls. Some like it, some don’t. The most recent conversation came in the form of a phone call last Friday from a stranger who, while not from Greenfield (he rooted for another local team), was appalled that the Green Wave had been eliminated from Division VI tournament contention. He argued that the Green Wave was better than most of the Tri-County League teams, but because the Wave plays in the Intercounty League, it is therefore playing a tougher schedule and will have more opportunities to lose games. Because of this uneven playing field, he felt like the ranking system was flawed.
Before we go into that, let me first make a few other points. I am a supporter of the statewide playoffs. I believe that the previous format, which crowned a WMass Super Bowl champion, left little excitement in terms of postseason football. Some purists would argue that the current format is flawed because it takes away from individual leagues (which it does, more in a minute), and it may cheapen some of the Turkey Day contests (which I don’t think it does).
The new football playoff just put some excitement in the postseason again. Since the WMass-CMass Super Bowl ended after the 2008 season, the postseason has been much less interesting. There has been little in the way of surprises in the past four years in terms of the WMass Super Bowl champs. Many of the games featured two teams that had already met in the regular season. And while Super Bowl games may have been entertaining at times, they always left me wondering how the champion would fare against other teams from the state. Take the undefeated 2009 Mahar team, or some of the recent Mt. Greylock squads. It would have been great if they could have gone on to play champions from other parts of the state like teams in other sports.
One other thing that those opposed to the new format were arguing about early was how the non-tournament teams would fill out their schedule. Because the regular-season schedule ended on Nov. 1, those teams not making the tournament would need to fill out their schedules with two more games.
The argument I heard was why would anyone want to attend these meaningless games while other teams were playing in tournament games? As I’ve been pointing out since before the start of the season, however, there are meaningless football games played every November between teams with no chance of making the tournament. What I felt like was going to be great about this new system was that now these meaningless games could turn out to be intriguing matchups. And thankfully the tournament committee did exactly that.
I feel like every game featuring local teams is a good matchup. Pioneer taking on Athol, Greenfield hosting Amherst, Mahar against Pathfinder and Frontier against Dean Tech. Each one has the potential to be a great game. Just to be sure, I checked in with Duke of Sports himself, Mike Cadran, who is as knowledgeable as anyone in Franklin County about WMass high school football. He agreed with my assessment, said he would give the committee an “A” for the schedule involving non-tournament teams. The Week 11 schedule will be released Sunday. Those teams that lose in the tournament this weekend will go back in the pool along with the other non-tournament teams, and the committee will again work to put together games for the non-tournament squads, considering records, home and away conflicts and matchups that would be competitive. Those teams playing at home this weekend will go on the road next weekend, and vice-versa.
The biggest flaw regarding the new system is the rankings, and much of that has to do with leagues. Take for example Division VI, which features teams from the TCL (every team in the TCL is Division VI), the IL (Greenfield and Turners Falls) and the Berkshires (Lee). The top three seeds in Division VI are from the TCL, and as the caller pointed out, part of that is because the TCL is so weak at the bottom that many of the top teams are guaranteed four or five wins. This year has been a down year for the IL, but most years the top three or four IL teams would likely beat the top TCL team. Not always, but usually.
The team with the most to complain about this year is Lee, which plays in the Berkshires. The Wildcats are 5-3, with losses to Wahconah, Mt. Greylock and Old Rochester. It’s safe to say that if any of the four teams in the Division VI tournament had played the same schedule as Lee, none would have a better record, and definitely not all four.
As it currently is, most years will be very difficult for Lee, Greenfield and Turners to make the tournament because each will play a more challenging schedule based on the strength of their leagues. It will be typical for three teams from the TCL to make the tournament, with one of those other three filling out the four tournament teams. That leads us back to the issue of the leagues now being meaningless.
There is no longer any upside to winning your league. In the past, it meant an automatic tournament qualification or brought with it some sense of pride. Now, some of the teams are not even playing every team in their division. Take Greenfield, for example, which will not play Cathedral this year. The new system has made the need for leagues moot, and one way to ensure a more even playing field would be to do away with the leagues entirely. Another method would be to realign leagues. It might not help Lee, which will not likely want to travel to play all the other Division VI teams, which would create a lot of lengthy road trips, but it may help even the field for the other teams. Although Turners is the fourth tourney seed, it’s not likely that any of the teams ahead of it would have beaten Cathedral or Easthampton. And if Greenfield was playing in the TCL this year, would it have qualified for the postseason?
There is no perfect answer. There rarely is. It’s possible you open up the tournament to six teams in each division. Eastern and central Mass. all have eight-team tournaments and simply start their postseason one week earlier. In WMass, the top two teams would get Week 1 byes, and the next four would play a quarterfinal game and proceed from there. That way, those teams playing a tougher regular-season schedule would have the chance to make a tournament even with a .500 record. You could also do away with leagues altogether and schedule regular-season games against other teams from equal divisions. It would level the playing field.
The most likely answer is to weigh losses differently. Maybe a Lee loss to a Berkshire opponent doesn’t have as big an impact on its ranking as when McCann loses against a TCL opponent. The only thing you don’t want is for a 3-5 Lee team to get into the tournament over a 6-2 TCL club. All anyone wants is fairness.
Remember, this is the first year of a two-year trial run for this tournament. So far, the tournament directors have done everything right and, while it remains to be seen where we end up in another year, I believe they’ll get it right, or as close to correct as they can.
Friday night’s Division VI semifinal game pitting Franklin Tech at Mohawk (6 p.m. at Pollard Field in Buckland) will mark the 300th broadcast for radio jocks Shawn Hubert and Jeff Tirrell. The two high school football junkies have been bringing local games into our cars and homes since 1991. Coincidentally, the first broadcast the two men did was a game featuring Turners Falls at Mohawk. If Turners had beaten Cathedral Saturday, it would have remained the No. 3 seed and gone back to Mohawk. Well, it didn’t happen. But the Tech at Mohawk rematch should be another great game. And congrats to both men for hitting 300. They do a fantastic job. Tune in to Bear Country (WPVQ-FM, 95.3) for the broadcast.
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.