Ask a football coach or a softball coach from the same school how they feel about the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association moving to a statewide tournament, and you may get two very different answers.
That is the challenge facing the 380 school representatives slated to vote Friday at Assabet Valley Regional Tech in Marlborough on a statewide tournament versus redistricting the state to create balanced sections ahead of the 2021-22 school year.
For voters who fear a statewide format will create inflexibility and prohibitive travel demands, other states can provide an interesting case study.
For smaller states such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, a statewide format has never been an issue. Larger states such as New York and California use regional sections, but Colorado runs statewide tournaments and Florida is making its football tournament statewide.
In Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, the vast majority of large schools are located in the southern part of the states, making long travel times a necessity.
The problem is more complex in Massachusetts. With approximately 247 of 380 schools located in the eastern part of the state, there’s more of an imbalance in some sports — football in particular. But a sport that plays weekly is clearly better suited to handle more travel.
“Geographically we’re one of the far corners of the state,” said Mashpee AD and football coach Matt Triveri. “But we’re definitely in favor [of statewide].
“You have to make concessions, but in the past we’ve had three or four of the best teams in the state in our division, or even our league. There’s some ambiguity, but in the end, what’s best is to go out and play a real state tournament where everyone is on equal ground.”
New Jersey may serve as the closest comparison for Massachusetts. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, New Jersey ranks ninth nationally with more than 281,000 student-athletes, while Massachusetts ranks 11th with approximately 271,000.
Like Massachusetts, New Jersey has most of its large schools in one half of the state. Coaches from the northern part of New Jersey, such as Chatham boys’ lacrosse coach Tony Calandra, cite an imbalanced path to the state title with most of the top teams knocking each other out in North regionals.
As the coaches’ representative on New Jersey’s state association lacrosse committee, Calandra has twice presented a proposal to remove the sections and create an equal path to the state finals in his sport, but the association twice voted it down.
“To get your best teams the best chance for a championship, it’s worth the travel,” said Calandra.
While the format remains in place for boys’ lacrosse, NJSIAA executive director Larry White points out that the association is “all over the map in terms of our state tournaments and how they’re structured.”
As in New Jersey, MIAA sport committees will be able to determine the number of divisions and recommend alterations to a statewide format. It is possible that sport committees will have the freedom to move schools up or down divisions based on tournament success in addition to enrollment, a practice employed by Connecticut and other states.
A statewide format seemingly would create more flexibility by allowing some sports to create more balanced brackets and some to play regionally in the early rounds, rather than forcing dozens of schools to move west during an arduous realignment phase.
In New Jersey, the answer to an imbalanced boys’ lacrosse state tournament has been “Northering” the sections by forcing many Division 1 schools into the South bracket.
Shifting alignments toward the western half of Massachusetts would create similar logistical issues. And many athletic directors are quick to point out that the current format requires long travel times through the dense Greater Boston area, while the extreme example of two schools from opposite ends of the state playing in the first round is unlikely to happen frequently in the proposed statewide format.
“You essentially have to hit the lottery for Nantucket to play Lee in the first round,” said Burlington athletic director and Tournament Management Committee member Shaun Hart.
“Ultimately the skeleton of what we’re trying to do is move to a statewide tournament. From the time we started work on this [two years ago], I’ve been having conversations with coaches about the aggravations that could come up.
“Are there things that haven’t been thought of that will make it better? Absolutely. I think everything is on the table when it comes to modifying the format to make things better for our kids.”
“This is going to be a basic guideline, and before it goes into effect, there’s time for sport committees to weigh in,” said TMC chair Jim O’Leary. “We know you have to make adjustments as you go. It’s always been the way the [MIAA] runs. This is a living document and anyone who has seen it knows we’ve made changes.”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.