Opinion: New Jersey HS Football has outgrown a one-size-fits-all solution

by Mike Pavlichko

The big to-do over the high school playoff mess created by a major overhaul of the qualification and seeding system isn't likely to go away easily this winter.  It will be a hot topic of conversation once the season is over and coaches, athletic directors and the NJSIAA meet to discuss what changes, if any, they will make for 2019.

But could the answer to all our problems in the Garden State be as close as our neighbors in Pennsylvania and New York?

I called each of their high school athletic associations to see how they seed their tournaments.

To begin with, both are very different from places from New Jersey.  We're a compact state with a lot of variation in school size, and quality, and quality tends to vary at times by geography and demographics.  Home rule has left New Jersey with many, many small schools that other states don't have, or at least don't have as many of.

The first person I talked to was Mark Beyers, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.  He told me that Pennsy does not have a set formula for playoff qualification and seeding.

What now?

Robert Zayas said the same thing.  He's the Executive Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which does not include parochial schools, nor those in New York City.  He said he couldn't even tell you the procedures because he doesn't know them.

What gives?

Well, here's the trick.  Pennsylvania has six classifications of schools, 1A through 6A (like baseball, which has AA through AAA).  Then there are 12 districts.  Each of those districts (not leagues) has their own rules for playoff qualification, and seeding (if they choose to seed).  Their champs then go on to the inter-district champion to come up with six overall champions ... 1A through 6A.  Beyers says their qualifications depend on some type of ranking system, generally based on wins and losses, as well as the wins and losses of opponents.

I took a look at District III, which includes schools in the Lehigh Valley right across the state line.  They give a team varying points for a win against schools of varying size (1.25 for a win against a 6A, .75 for a win against a 1A), and on another scale for a loss.  They then find a weighted winning percentage, then do the same thing for opponents, blah blah blah.

The point is, Beyers says he knows of no district that factors points into the equation.

Zayas said he didn't know of any who do that under his auspices, but just like Pennsylvania, New York State and Long Island schools all play by different rules in different districts.  "They could pick teams out of a hat," said Zayas.

Interesting concept.

So here's something maybe New Jersey could try.

I don't really think there's anything wrong with power points that can't be fixed.  But in almost 20 years of covering high school football, I've come up with this:

For many years, the NJSIAA has tried to appeal to everybody when it comes to finding a state playoff power ranking system that works.  Some years it does well, some years it doesn't.  In some, like 2018, it's disastrous.  (Others will disagree with that statement.)

Tyranny of the majority has ruled for too long in high school football in New Jersey.

So maybe it's time to let the various factions choose their own playoff qualification and seeding method.  We're already on the path to group championships.  So do it like our buddies across the Hudson and Delaware do:  leave it up to each section to choose their playoff format.

If South Jersey Group 5 wants to go on power points and count 8 games, let them do it.

If North Jersey Section 2 Group 5 wants to add multipliers because some of their teams play Don Bosco Prep and Bergen Catholic, let them do it.

If Central Jersey Group 5 wants to pick teams based on the coolest mascot, live it up.

The reason we're in this mess is that New Jersey is such a varied state, with teams of wide-ranging size and quality, and often the two don't equate.  So let each section choose how it wants to seed its playoff, then go on to the group finals.  It would behoove each group to send the best team right?

Let them do it as they see fit.

Think of it like conference basketball tournaments.  Some qualify all their teams, some have byes, some have different tiebreakers.  But all the winners get an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

And remember, it isn't about North versus South, large conferences vs. small, or the haves vs. the have-nots.

It's about the kids, folks.