Southwest Wake: Sports

Blake: a better playoff system, part I

J. Mike Blake.
J. Mike Blake.

Editor’s note: this is the first of two columns in which Sports Editor J. Mike Blake shares his ideas for a better NCHSAA playoff system.

Last fall, a soccer coach and I had a conversation about the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s first seeded playoffs. His team was knocked out, and he already had some thoughts about what he liked and didn’t like about the new system.

As I listened, I realized what it was that he really wanted.

And over the next few months, in separate conversations with other coaches who are or will soon be in similar playoff formats, I realized his likes and dislikes were shared across all sports.

So I’ve dedicated my next two columns to use that feedback and lay out a playoff system that can give these coaches what they desire without having to go through another year of trial-and-error. The NCHSAA has been great about welcoming change to its playoff systems, so don’t take this as a knock on what it’s done so far.

In short, the playoff systems need to stop being seeded – I never thought I’d argue for that – but not completely back to the old system. I’ll explain more next week. This week will be on what changes can be made to the qualifying process for the playoffs out of the NCHSAA’s split conferences.

How many teams get in?

There are split conferences in the NCHSAA, though none in the Triangle, that place together teams from two different classifications. Figuring out automatic playoff spots gets complicated. But these leagues are a necessary evil, because without them many schools would have extreme travel.

The NCHSAA has done well to be delicate with these teams’ postseason process.

Where a typical eight-team conference would get four automatic bids, a split conference gets “half (of its teams into the playoffs) plus one” for each side. So if an eight-team split conference had four 3A teams and four 4A teams, then three of each group would have an automatic playoff spot.

If dividing an odd number, it used to be that the “half-plus-one” formula was used after rounding down to the closest number.

But this year the NCHSAA rounded up before adding a one.

So in the Mountain Athletic 4A/3A Conference, six of seven teams have automatic bids to either the 3A or 4A playoffs. In the Big South 3A/2A Conference, seven of eight have automatic bids.

The Mideastern 4A/3A Conference has seven teams – four 4A, three 3A – and all three 3As get automatic bids while three of the four 4As do as well.

In the volleyball playoffs, the extra bid hurt somewhat – allowing teams like Mooresville (3-14), North Buncombe (7-16), West Brunswick (8-13) and Southern Wayne (0-17) in the playoffs instead of a more deserving wild-card team, although a good North Lincoln (14-10) team also benefited.

Rounding down would have stopped these teams from getting in, but the same goes for another rule suggestion brought forward by coaches already this year.

Minimum winning percentage

In the winter, the NCHSAA Board of Directors shot down a proposal that any team in a split conference that made the postseason must win at least 50 percent of its games. I liked the proposal’s idea, but thought 50 percent is too much to ask. And yes, I’m being serious.

If I’m a 3A team and go 0-8 to the 4A teams in my conference, I could very well still have a good team that’s worthy of the postseason even if those losses dipped my winning percentage to the 40s.

Who could argue with a minimum of 33.3 percent, however? If you lose twice as much as you win, let’s just save everyone the time and sit out on the playoffs.

In the boys basketball postseason, these teams would have been eliminated by this rule: South Caldwell (2-22), T.C. Roberson (4-19), South Brunswick (5-19) and Eastern Wayne (3-14). Same goes for these girls teams: Watagua (9-17), Topsail (6-16), Hunter Huss (2-19) and Mitchell (3-21).

These schools all had the chance to opt out of the playoffs but didn’t, and I can be at least somewhat sympathetic. It might be hard to tell your team you chose to not play in the postseason when you had a chance to do so. But a 33 percent rule takes it out of the coaches’ hands.

This, or a rule about rounding down, is a good start to making the NCHSAA playoffs more of what coaches are calling for it to be.