You want to know why I love the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Because it is still one of the rare events in sports where you actually have to earn your way into the field. There are 320 + teams playing Division I College Basketball and just 68 make the NCAA Field. Of course, you are going to get an occasional team with a losing record, but almost always that team has earned it’s way in by winning its conference tournament.
Beginning tonight in Virginia, the Commonwealth hosts its annual “No Team Left Behind Tournament” also known as the High School Football Playoffs. In all fairness, it is all but guaranteed that the best teams will be playing in the State Finals on December 9th. However, to get there means a lot of mediocre and flat undeserving teams playing in the post-season, and some really quality teams having to fight through stacked regions just to make the semi-finals even they even made the tournament at all.
I’ve railed on the Virginia High School League before, I’m doing it again and I’ll do it in the future because it’s a spineless organization that either refuses to or cannot take control of High School Sports in the Commonwealth. The basketball tournament, for example is a mess and has been for years and the cheap suits in Charlottesville are clueless about how to fix it.
The VHSL is solely responsible for its members cannibalizing the organization. They give all of the control to the schools who form districts to assert more control, who then form Regions to assert more control, and then each Class composed of those Regions tells the VHSL what they are going to do. The VHSL’s approach to the football playoffs is pretty simple: We will have the State Semi-Finals on December 2nd, you guys figure out how your teams are going to get there. Sounds like a well-oiled machine doesn’t it?
The result is this. In 1985, there were just 48 teams statewide who made the post-season in three classifications. This year there are 186 teams in six classifications. So what do you get? Nearly 30% of the teams playing in the post-season are 5-5 or worse. There are two teams in the playoffs that haven’t won a game, and Class 3 is a disaster where 15 of the 32 teams in the post-season have losing records.
The solution is pretty simple. Don’t let everyone in the post-season. Make them earn it which is apparently a lesson we no longer teach kids. This is the everyone gets a trophy generation and so it matters little if your team really sucks, just let them play in the post-season with a theoretical chance at a State Championship.
By giving the Regions all the control, you also get a non-uniform playoff system that makes a great state like Virginia look like a clown show at times. For example, in Class 4, Region C decided to take just 6 teams to the post-season unless an outright district champion wasn’t among the top 6 in power points and then the field would expand to no more than 8 teams for the regional playoffs. Huh? Fortunately, all district champs were in the top 6 and the combined record of teams in that region is 47-13 so they did earn their way into the field.
In Class 6, Region B has just 8 football playing schools. So, these clowns decided to make it look like you actually earned your way into the field by deciding to only take 7 teams to the Regional playoffs. Huh? Why not all 8? The result is that the only good team Colonial Forge gets a bye at 10-0 (and if I’m the Head Coach at Colonial Forget, I’d rather play in the first round than sit and watch), while 4-6 Franklin County, 2-8 Clover Hill and 3-7 Riverbend all play first round games on Friday night.
There is no bigger joke than Class 1, Region B. That region has just 6 eligible teams to play in the post-season because the 7th team that could potentially be eligible, Rappahannock County, doesn’t play the required 8 VHSL games to be eligible to play the post-season. That game against Northern Virginia Home School isn’t cutting it. The result here are first round match-ups between 4-6 Central-Lunenburg (SE of Richmond) and 0-10 Cumberland (I’m not sure where Cumberland is located), and 2-8 Altavista (Lynchburg area) versus 0-10 Stonewall-Jackson of Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley north of Harrisonburg. The only two teams with winning records, Riverheads (Staunton) and William Campbell (Lynchburg area) are 8-2 with first round byes.
While in a completely different classification, you can’t help but feel bad for Class 4 school Pulaski County. The Cougars – long one of Virginia’s powerhouse programs – went 6-4 and didn’t win enough to make the playoffs. One of the teams Pulaski beat – Cave Spring – is in the Class 3 tournament at 2-8. Speaking of Class 3, Region C primarily concentrated around the Lynchburg area has 5 teams in the field with winning records led by Lynchburg’s Heritage High School at 9-1 and neighboring Brookville High School at 8-2. But, both of those teams are joined in the field by Seminole District rivals Liberty 2-8 and Rustburg 3-7. While the VHSL was fumbling around trying to figure out tie-breakers on Sunday for the playoff field, Liberty Coach Chris Watts was putting up his team’s equipment because he’d been told his school was left out of the post-season. Oops. Just a few hours later, the morons in Charlottesville figured out they made a mistake and Liberty was in, and Turner Ashby was out. Watts wisely figured out that his team doesn’t belong in the post-season, and so as not to prolong the agony, he requested to play Heritage tonight instead of waiting until Saturday. Heritage has to share Lynchburg’s City Stadium with Class 4 E.C. Glass, who has the stadium option for Friday night.
Class 3, Region D has two really good teams in 10-0 Staunton River and 8-2 Lord Botetourt. The rest of the field is a flaming cow pie. Four teams have losing records including 4 seed and 4-6 Northside who amazingly hosts a first round game against 5th seed Abingdon who is 6-4. In addition to Cave Spring and it’s 2-8 record, Tunstall (from the Danville area in Virginia’s Southside) made the post-season at 3-7. Six teams in Class 3, Region B have losing records and there’s only one undefeated team in Class 3, Hampton-based Phoebus at 10-0.
Converse all of that with certain regions who are stacked. The most obvious is Region B in Class 4. There are just 4 undefeated teams in Class 4 and guess where all of them are? You got it Region B. Dinwiddie (last year’s state runner-up) is the top seed, followed by Monacan (Richmond area), Louisa County (near Charlottesville), and Eastern View (Northern Virginia) all of whom are 10-0. That might make a nice Final 4 in the State Playoffs, but it can’t happen because only one can advance out of the Regional playoffs. Boy there are going to be some pissed off soccer moms there.
Overall, the Class 4 field is probably the deepest with the aforementioned 4 unbeatens, and in Region D, the top 3 seeds are defending 3A champion Blacksburg at 9-1, George Washington of Danville at 9-1 and defending state champion Salem at 8-2. The field is so deep that 9-1 William Byrd from Vinton is the 5th seed. The Terriers lost just one game to 10-0 Staunton River on a night their best player was suspended, but are on the road at E.C. Glass in Round one. For a while, it appeared if Byrd lost one more game they might miss the post-season entirely due to a weak schedule that included Class 2 4-6 Richlands, and winless William Fleming twice.
My favorite is the Class 2 Tournament. Region A has 10-0 Goochland as the top seed and seeds 1 – 5 all have winning records. Class 2 Region B has a top three sees of Central-Woodstock at 10-0, Clarke County, Luray and R.E. Lee of Staunton all 9-1. Class 2 Region C is also stacked with 9-1 Glenvar the top seed, 9-1 Appomattox the two time defending champion seeded 2nd, and long-time power Giles seeded 3rd at 8-2, the only team to beat Glenvar in the regular season. If the cards fall the right way, you could be looking at a Thanksgiving re-match between Giles and Glenvar for the Regional Championship. In Region D, 7 of the 8 teams have winning records led by 10-0 Union (a consolidation of far Southwest Virginia powerhouses Appalachia and Powell Valley), 9-1 Graham returning to its former status for the first time since the death of coach Glynn Carlock 12 years ago, and 9-1 Ridgeview, another Consolidated school in far Southwest Virginia.
I understand there is no perfect playoff system. There are flaws in anything you design, but if the VHSL would stand up and take control you wouldn’t have 0-10 teams in the post-season and a more uniform system. While a much larger state, Illinois won’t consider a team for the playoffs unless they have 6 regular season wins, and they only play 9 regular season games. Then again, it has a central entity – the IHSA – controlling the post-season. As long as Virginia gives the power back to the Regions, the trophy generation will continue and the VHSL won’t care because more teams, equals more money and that’s one thing they will control at the VHSL office in Charlottesville.