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Column: Let's improve the high school sports playoff system

Tuesday , June 05, 2018 - 5:15 AM

There was plenty of chatter on social media the two weeks leading up to the state track and field championships last month. A lot of it concerned state records that were about to be shattered. Rightly so, because some were indeed pulverized.

Others were discussing a topic that ramped up in popularity a year-and-a-half ago: Are there too many classifications in Utah high school sports?

Ever since the Utah High School Activities Association introduced the sixth classification — effective this past school year — a common complaint has been that six is too many and the competition is watered down, that teams qualify for the state tournament that shouldn’t be there and wouldn’t even be close in other states.

Yes, it is too much, but let us consider that the UHSAA probably isn’t going to slam the brakes on six classifications when it considers the latest realignment proposals this fall.

So let’s instead focus on what we have — which is the current playoff system — and how we can improve it. 

Generally speaking, the classifications are broken up into four regions and the top four finishers from those regions qualify for the state playoffs. An overwhelming majority of the time, No. 4 seeds are woefully outmatched against a top-seeded team (there are a handful of local basketball teams that can attest to the other side of this argument).

The first idea: Get rid of No. 4 seeds.

The agony! Cinderella is dead! Well, hear me out for a minute (I address the weirdness of 3A and 2A, which have three regions and not four, below).

Instead, all four region champions in 6A-4A and 1A (non-football) get a bye into the state tournament and the remaining No. 2 and No. 3 seeds play each other as they do under the current format at the home of the No. 2 seeds.

The winners of those games go to an eight-team state tournament. It’s not top four seeds: It would be top four qualifying seeds. This would be great for a lot of the major sports — football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, baseball and softball. 

In 3A and 2A where there are three regions, go to two regions/divisions and an eight-team bracket featuring the top four seeds from each division. Both classifications have 20 schools and, currently, a 16-team playoff system.

That sets up a situation where a team makes the playoffs along with a few other four-win teams simply for the reason that there are playoff spaces to fill.

The eight-school 1A football classification needs to be folded into 2A because at this point it’s a glorified round robin. Small-school coaches will complain that they can’t win state championships because they’re competing with bigger schools.

That’s why they’re a state championship: Not everyone is supposed to win them on a rotating basis. One counter-argument has to do with cross-country, swimming, track and tennis.

The qualifying standards and procedures for all of those sports except tennis are different since those sports are races between several competitors at once.

Tennis has a 16-player tournament that’s seeded just like football, basketball, etc. Unlike say a volleyball, soccer or softball, a 1 vs. 4 matchup in tennis takes hardly any energy from the top seed most of the time, and for that, tennis’s postseason format doesn’t need to change (the regular-season match format is broken, but that’s a whole other diatribe).

How about another suggestion that doesn’t involve axing a Cinderella scenario which we all love to see?

Keep the 16-team brackets, but introduce some qualifying factors so that a team automatically doesn’t go to the playoffs just for finishing in fourth place out of a five-team region (looking at you, Regions 2-5 and 13).

A process that’s used in some sections of California is that teams need to have at least one of the following: At or above a .500 overall record, at or above a .500 record in region games or at least a .500 record against schools in the same classification (i.e. a 5A baseball team possessing a 12-10 record against other 5A schools and qualifying for the playoffs that way).

So a team would have to finish within the top four AND be at/above a .500 record in at least one of those categories.

That way, this silly notion of coaches calling non-region games “preseason games” is thrown out, since really the only things that non-region games matter for right now is team/player development.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with team and player development because those are important factors of sports, but how about introducing some stakes to it?

With that idea, there’s potential that there aren’t 16 playoff-eligible teams. That’s not the end of the world.

For winning your region, you might get a first-round bye, a just reward. Had that system been in place this past fall, 18 of the 80 football teams that qualified for the state playoffs wouldn’t have qualified.

These are just ideas, but a lot can be done to make the playoffs better, more competitive and not an “everybody wins” scenario, which is sadly popular these days and doesn’t always teach the lessons that sports are supposed to teach.

Do you have a format or idea for high school sports playoffs that you think would work well? I’m positive there are better ideas out there. Send me an email.

You can reach prep sports reporter Patrick Carr at pcarr@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickcarr_ or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/patrickcarr17.

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