You can set your clock by it. It’s as woven into the fabric of the Commonwealth of Virginia as Northern Virginia traffic, and Senator Tim Kaine complaining about something. It begins on Thursday where all across the Commonwealth guys like my buddy Chris Jones in Covington and Jeff Williams in Giles will blow the whistle on the beginning of High School Football Practice. From the time the teams take the field on Thursday, they’ll have just 4 weeks to get ready to play and before you know it what begins in the heat of July will end for the fortunate in the cold December wind two weeks shy of Christmas.
The Virginia High School League is in charge of running high school sports in Virginia. If only, they actually did so. The VHSL is nothing if not a spineless organization. Typically what a state organization says, goes, but the VHSL is a little different. Power is largely given back to the schools who form various regions and districts across the state. The result is a non-uniform system of state football playoffs that is once again being overhauled until, of course, they decide to change it again.
From 1970 to 1985, the State Playoffs were an what they should be – an exclusive club. There were 3 Classifications (AAA, AA, A), with just 16 teams in each class making the post-season. Teams were divided into Four Regions by either letter, number or name and the winners of the 4 Regions advanced to the State Semi-Finals. State Championship games were largely played on home fields not based on merit, but rather on a rotation system that made little sense. In a large state like Virginia, that meant just 48 teams had a chance at a State Championship. Now, that’s probably too few teams, but it also meant that the best teams were playing for the championship. It also meant some 9-1 teams did miss the post-season. What’s the message to your kids there? Don’t lose a game.
In 1986, at the urging of some smaller schools in far Southwest Virginia, the Classifications were divided into two divisions. Group A had Divisions 1 and 2, Group AA had Divisions 3 and 4, and Group AAA, had Divisions 5 and 6. Anyone with half a brain can see that looks a lot like 6 classifications. Only it really wasn’t. Instead of dividing the state into 6 classes, the split came at the regional level. The schools in the top 50% of their region in Group A for example played in Division 2, with the bottom 50% playing in Division 1. The same was true for Group AA and AAA. The Four regions remained intact some with more teams that the others.
This format gave more teams an opportunity as the playoffs now included 96 teams, more trophies (for the soccer moms of course), and was largely workable. It’s downside though was that there were annually teams with losing records in the post-season where they didn’t belong. Under no circumstances should a 1-9 football team play in the post-season and I’m sure at the post-season banquet little Timmy got a trophy for being on a playoff team that wasn’t worth a crap, but hey mom was proud. Losing teams often made it into the playoffs because they were the best of a group of crappy teams in their districts and they beat the other crappier teams and district champions were automatically included. Also, there were occasions like James River High School in Botetourt County which went 9-1 one season and missed the playoffs because their region included 4 district champions, one with a 5-5 record.
That system remained unchanged until 2011 when the Group A schools decided to experiment with a new system. Notice, the marshmallow VHSL didn’t do it, the Group A schools did it. Instead of 4 regions, the State would be divided into two grand regions, East and West. 16 teams would make the post-season in both regions based on their power rankings. District Champions would no longer automatically qualify. Now a playoff system that in the 80s included just 48 teams total had 64 teams in just Group A, Division 1 and Division 2. It looked like more trophy opportunities, but it really wasn’t. Almost from the beginning the smaller schools in Southwest Virginia began complaining that their teams could now longer win a region championship and its corresponding trophy so the solution was to start handing out a trophy if you just made it to the state semi-finals. They could do this because the new system included a bizarre format for the semi-finals. The regions were “cross-bracketed” meaning that the lowest seed from the West would meet the highest seed from the East, and vice-versa. The result was that the 2nd seed in a particular region had to go on the road for a semi-final game against a 7th seed from the other region. Again, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this penalizes a team for being really good, but not good enough to be their region’s number 1 seed.
In 2013, all three groups decided to adopt this system, only they didn’t exactly adopt it. The state was divided into 6 classes (Group 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A and 6A) with two grand regions in each group. For some dumb reason though the Regions were called East and West for the 3 lower classifications and North and South for the three upper classes. Then VHSL Executive Director Ken Tilley (a fine man by the way) hailed it as the first true state playoff system in VHSL history. Uh, Wrong. Instead we got a mixture of whatever each class wanted to do.
In Group 1A, 2A, and 3A 16 teams made the regional playoffs with the semi-finals cross-bracketed. In Group 4A, 16 teams made the regional playoffs and the semi-finals were not cross bracketed. The champion of 4A North met the champion of 4A South in the State Championship game. In Group 5A , the North Region took 16 teams, but the South Region subdivided its 16 teams into two 8 team sub-regions. In 6A, the North again took 16 teams and the South divided itself into two 8 team sub-regions, and then because some guy thought that wasn’t confusing enough re-seeded the final 4 teams to play semi-finals and determine a region champion. All total there were 192 teams participating in the post-season, and yes more than one with a losing record. Group 4A North figured out quickly that this was a flawed system that for example sent a team from Metro D.C. to Salem on a Friday night for a second round game and tried to mitigate it but cutting it’s field to just 12 teams. The result was predictable. Travel was an issue and the VHSL reportedly lost $240,000.00 in the 2013-14 fiscal year. There goes the old Christmas bonus boys.
Since that system didn’t work, and wasn’t ever going to work, it’s been throw out. Starting this year the VHSL returns to its original 4 region set up. There are still 6 classifications, but instead of two grand regions there are now Regions A, B, C and D in each of the 6 groups. Once again, teams will play for a Region title and the winners of the respective regions advance to the State Semi-Finals. The only real question is how many teams from each Region. As you might guess, the folks at the VHSL’s headquarters in Charlottesville are leaving that up to someone else. The VHSL is giving regions three weeks from the end of the Regular Season to produce Regional Champions for the State Semi-Finals, That means they can take a week off and have just 4 teams in the post-season or play all three weeks with 6 or 8 teams. In one Region, Class 2A Region B there are only 6 football playing schools so if they go with 6, then when a team begins its season it will know its in the post-season even if they don’t win a game. Soccer moms wouldn’t have it any other way. The total teams participating in the post-season can still be as high as 192.
There is no perfect playoff system. No matter what you do, there will be flaws. However, while it would never work in Virginia, consider that West Virginia has the VHSL beaten on deciding a “true” state champion. There are no districts and no regions. each team schedules its own 10 game schedule with the only requirement being that it play 50% of its games in its class or higher. At the end of the year the top 16 teams in each class by power ranking make the playoffs. The result can send a team from Mingo County which is on the Kentucky border all the way to Wheeling to play a playoff game, but in 7 years working there, I never heard 1 coach complain. It’s what happens when you have a state organization like the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission that is in charge and makes the rules for the post-season. VHSL officials have called the “new” playoff system a “little out of the box”. If they’d just check their history books they might discover that it’s actually making what was old school, new school again.