Going to seed: Time to overhaul state ranking system

Nov. 12, 2009, midnight | By Eli Okun | 10 years, 11 months ago

Incomplete playoff seedings unjustly harm Montgomery County teams

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a professional soccer star. Your team does well throughout the season, but you end up with the fifth-best record in your division. The top four teams are guaranteed the top four playoff spots, but everyone else is randomly seeded. So you draw last place, you play the best team in the first round of the playoffs and your season ends there. It seems unfair because it is. And that is the problem with the state's current playoff seeding system for high school teams.

To uncover the dilemma's roots, let's take a look at some state sporting competition history. Maryland's high schools are split into four classes based on population, from 1A for the smallest schools to 4A for the largest. Each class is made up of schools from four geographic regions (North, South, East and West) that each have nine to 13 teams. Back in the early 1990s, only the top four teams in each region of each class made the state playoffs; in the mid-'90s, the state switched to a system where all teams made the playoffs, but none were ranked.

Finally, in 2003, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) decided to rank the top four teams within each region, while arbitrary playoff spots were assigned to the other teams. The implementation was an insufficient improvement, and the seeding system remains a frustrating inadequacy in the state's high school sports championships record. "You work hard all season, and everybody gets kind of just thrown into a hat," said varsity field hockey coach Brook Franceschini.

It's unlikely that incomplete seeding will often cause major sporting coups. Most of the time, the eventual winner will deserve the trophy, according to varsity softball coach Louis Hoelman III. But injustice can slip through the cracks, as last year's softball debacle in 3A West evidenced – some of the best teams were knocked out early because they were forced to play each other.

The culprit behind the current mess is a familiar one: state sports politics. Complete seeding would help Blair's region, 4A West, but most regions would not benefit, so their opposition to complete seeding dominates the MPSSAA's decisions. The rigid bureaucracy that governs state sports rules does not help, either – coaches must send their input through a long hierarchy of representatives, diluting the power of individual schools to make their voices heard.

This year, draws for many fall sports occurred in late October and early November. Blair's varsity field hockey, boys' soccer and girls' soccer teams all placed third or fourth in their regions, so they will compete in the playoff slots they deserve. But their opponents and some other Blair teams drew random spots, weakening the championship system's stability.

This unfairness dampens the competitive spirit of high school sports, particularly for 4A West, which consists of Blair and other large Montgomery County schools. Unlike schools in most other regions, MCPS schools play against each other. Since most 4A West teams play similar schedules, they could easily be ranked from first to last. In 3A West, on the other hand, schools come from four counties and have different regular season schedules, and it is illogical to seed teams that cannot be easily compared.

Meanwhile, arguments for maintaining competitiveness in sports abound. The desire to succeed is the most basic driving force to make an effort in sports. Likewise, rewards for success and punishment for failure are central tenets of sports and key incentives to push athletes to perform their best. When the state eliminates the use of regular season achievement to determine playoff placement, some players may lose motivation to compete throughout the season.

The issue is nuanced and difficult to resolve, but the athletes should be the most important consideration. And the current system particularly disadvantages Blair teams and those from other large schools in large counties that would benefit from complete seeding. It may not be easy, but a solution – allowing each region to determine its own playoff seeding system – is essential.

The MPSSAA should relax its iron grip on statewide policy and decentralize the ranking systems for individual regions. Only then we can truthfully say, "May the best team win."

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