By Dan Guttenplan and Matt Williams
---- — Who says Massachusetts high school sports are slow as molasses when it comes to adapting to the times?
This year, the Bay State beat major college football to the punch in implementing a true playoff system. The state will crown six true state champions at Gillette Stadium this December, and there are plenty of local teams hoping to be there hoisting trophies.
So how do they qualify for the playoffs?
Who do they play once they get there — and when and where?
And what happens to teams that are eliminated?
QUALIFYING FOR THE PLAYOFFS
The goal of the football playoffs is to crown a state champion in six divisions representing all of Massachusetts, eliminating the Eastern, Western and Central breakdown that anointed 19 different state champs a year ago.
Supported and developed by the Mass. High School Football Coaches Association, the playoffs were approved by a vote of the entire MIAA last fall (every school in the state had the opportunity to vote yes or no and the yeahs won out, 161-131).
Teams will use the first eight weeks of the football season to try and qualify for these playoffs, playing seven games each (with one bye week). The state is divided into sectionals and, as in sports like soccer and basketball, teams on the North Shore will compete in the North.
“We supported it,” Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano said. “It’s a two-year trial, and I think there are still some bugs to iron out. But we had to do something with the way things were getting out of whack with the leagues. I say let’s give it a chance.”
In Division 4, which includes Newburyport, Amesbury, Pentucket and Triton, eight of 16 qualifying for the postseason. The bulk of the teams from the Cape Ann League are in this bracket. The teams that qualify for the playoffs are seeded, then follow the brackets to an eventual final, i.e., the top ranked team plays the No. 8 team, 2 plays 7, etc. Seeds and tiebreakers for qualifying are determined by the power rating system.
A team receives 12 points for beating a team in a higher division (for instance, if Div. 5 Georgetown defeats Div. 4 Amesbury), 10 points for a win over a team in the same division (i.e., if Amesbury beats Triton) and eight points for a team in a lower division (if Amesbury beats Georgetown).
There is also a component that considers opponent records. The winning team in each matchup will then garner three points for each win the losing team posts for the remainder of the season. The losing team in a matchup will earn one point for wins by the team it lost to. As an example, if Amesbury loses to Triton and the Vikings finished 5-3, the Indians would get five points; if the Indians beat a 6-2 Triton team, however, they would get 18 points.
That process is repeated for each opponent, and the final power rating is your own points plus your opponent points divided by games played. The formula is meant to be a combination of the Super Bowl rating system the state used in the early 1980s and early 90s, and the RPI used in college sports.
“With the whole complexion of the league changing do to the new playoff system and the loss of many non-league games on the front end of the season, it is imperative for teams to get off to a good start,” said Amesbury coach Thom Connors. “This year we begin the season with two huge rivals with Triton and Pentucket before we start our league games. We must prepare for these two rival games, as it could set the tone on the season in the CAL Large and Small as well as create points in the power ranking playoff system. It should be exciting.”
Recently, leagues with as few as five teams played all their conference games late in the season. Moving those meaningful games to September and October is both a blessing and a potential curse: the start of the season may be more exciting, but it also means coaches have to install more of offense and defense earlier and have less time to experiment.
“Before, it was a playoff atmosphere when you started your league schedule four or five weeks into the season, and the non-leagues really meant nothing,” Triton coach Pat Sheehan said. “Now, every game from September 7 until Week 7 can and will have postseason implications. Whether it’s seedings and homefield advantage for the playoffs or the same for the consolation games.”
It also presented leagues with challenges in terms of scheduling. Many Thanksgiving opponents are league rivals, and every league in the state had to choose how to handle that situation. In the Cape Ann League, rivals such as Pentucket and Triton will meet once during the regular season and again on the last Thursday in November — and yes, could also meet for a third time in the playoffs.
“The big knock is that Thanksgiving doesn’t mean anything any more,” Sheehan said. “Well, the past three years our games against Pentucket have meant nothing as far as league titles or playoffs go, but those games meant everything to those seniors playing in their last game.”
Gaudiano doesn’t feel as if the new playoff format will take any luster from the longstanding Newburyport-Amesbury rivalry.
“For us, Thanksgiving will always be just as important,” Gaudiano said. “I know everybody’s fears on that. Some rivalries go back decades and decades, and this is certainly one of those. To us, Amesbury is always a playoff game no matter how you look at it.”
THE PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Football fans aren’t used to looking at their favorite team’s schedule and seeing three open weeks. That’s one of the major changes in the new playoff format.
For teams in the tournament, it’s pretty easy: you play the team that corresponds to your seed (with the higher seed hosting until the sectional finals) and if you win, you play the team that won in your respective bracket.
In other sports like hockey or baseball, the state tournament is at the end of the season and when you lose, you’re done. In football, however, teams need to fill out the rest of their season.
For teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs, or lose during the tournament, there is a predetermined formula to find opponents. Teams will be given games against fellow non-playoff teams within their own division, and then against other teams that are eliminated.
For example, if Peabody doesn’t make the playoffs and neither do Malden or Lawrence in Division 1 North, the Tanners could play their old GBL rivals or the MVC’s Lancers. If Swampscott makes the playoffs in Division 4 but falls in the second round and Triton does the same thing, they could be matched up in Week 10.
“Preparing for the season is a little different, especially defensively,” Sheehan said. “When you go into a season, you put together a defense that fits your personnel and one that has ‘answers’ for all the offenses you will face on your schedule. With our last three opponents being unknown, we obviously can’t prepare for them.
“On a weekly basis, it doesn’t change a thing,” Sheehan said. “We never look ahead, and treat each week like its own season, so that will be nothing new to the players or coaches.”
For Divisions 4, the North champion will play the South champion on November 22-23. The winner will then play the winner of a Central/West state semifinal at Gillette.
The Divisions (North Sectionals Only) DIVISION 1 NORTH: Acton-Boxboro, Andover, Central Catholic, Chelmsford, Everett, Lawrence, Lexington, Lowell, Malden, Methuen, Peabody, St. John's Prep. DIVISION 2 NORTH: Billerica, Cambridge, Haverhill, Lincoln-Sudbury, Lynn Classical, Lynn English, Malden Catholic, Newton South, North Andover, Reading, Waltham, Westford. DIVISION 3 NORTHEAST: Beverly, Danvers, Dracut, Gloucester, Marblehead, Masconomet, Revere, Salem, Somerville, Tewksbury, Wilmington. DIVISION 3 NORTHWEST: Arlington, Belmont, Boston Latin, Burlington, Concord-Carlisle, Medford, Melrose, Wakefield, Wayland, Winchester, Woburn. DIVISION 4 NORTH: Amesbury, Arlington Catholic, Bedford, Hamilton-Wenham, Ipswich, Lynnfield, Newburyport, North Reading, Pentucket, Saugus, Stoneham, Swampscott, Triton, Watertown, Weston, Winthrop. DIVISION 5 NORTH: Austin Prep, Bishop Fenwick, Brighton, East Boston, Georgetown, Greater Lawrence, Greater Lowell, Lowell Catholic, Madison Park, Manchester Essex, Northeast, Shawsheen, St. Mary's Lynn, Whittier. DIVISION 6 NORTH: Boston English, Burke, Cathedral, Charlestown, Chelsea, Dorchester, Latin Academy, Lynn Tech, Marian, Matignon, Minuteman, Mystic Valley, New Mission, North Shore Tech, O'Bryant, (Pope John), St. Clement, St. Jospeh's Prep, St. Clement, South Boston.