RonMorris

Morris: Class A playoff system needs fixing

rmorris@ thestate.comNovember 7, 2013 

IN THE ever-expanding world of playoffs in all sports, this had to happen sooner or later. “Sooner” came this football season when only two teams in the SCHSL Class A Division II playoffs boast of a winning record.

You read that correctly. Wagener-Salley at 8-2 and Hunter-Kinard-Tyler at 7-3 are the only teams that carry better-than-.500 records into the 16-team playoffs that begin Friday night. The combined record of the other 14 playoff teams is — hold your breath — 49 wins and 91 losses.

Worse still, Wagener-Salley and Hunter-Kinard-Tyler will compete in the Upper State bracket. No team in the Lower State has a winning record, although Cross is that bracket’s top seed with a 5-5 record.

The problem with the current system of determining playoff teams is that 73 percent of participating teams in Class A Div. II reached the postseason.

What is this, college football and its overgrown bowl system? Let’s hope the SCHSL does not present awards to all playoff participating teams, making high school football equivalent to Little League baseball, where every player gets a trophy.

At least there is recognition on the part of the SCHSL’s president of Class A athletics that the system might need fixing.

“If you really look at it, those could be questionable,” admits Joey Haney, the Class A president in his spare time and principal of Whitmire High full-time, when asked about teams with 1-9 and 2-8 records reaching the playoffs.

“That’s one thing that’s going to be looked at in the revisions,” Haney said of the playoff system, which has been in place for two years and comes up for review before next season.

“Do we need to continue with this many teams being in the playoffs because we know it’s going to bring in those types of records?” Haney continued. “With this many teams in the playoffs and this many championships, does this bring us the best level of competition? That’s a question we have to answer.”

This playoff largess came about when the SCHSL, at the request of its members, expanded its championship competition from four divisions in 1981 to seven divisions today. Class 4A was split into two divisions for the 1982 season, then Class A went to two divisions in 2007 and Class 2A to two divisions in 2012.

South Carolina awards seven championship trophies in football, comparable to larger states such as Florida with eight classifications and California and Texas with six classifications each.

The additional divisions were deemed necessary to better deal with a wide range of student enrollments. It did not seem fair for Lincoln High, with the smallest enrollment among Class A schools at 107, to be competing for a championship against C.A. Johnson, with the highest Class A enrollment of 438.

By splitting Class A into two divisions, the lowest Division I enrollment is the 304 of Lamar, and the highest Division II enrollment is 302 of Dixie. The thinking was that creating another division would give every school, regardless of size, a more equitable chance at winning a championship.

The additional classifications also created more playoff spots. Of the 200 SCHSL member schools that play football, 132 (66 percent) qualify for the playoffs, which are determined on a complicated point system.

The flaw to that point system is most noticeable at the Class A level. Teams are rewarded for playing higher-classification teams. Thus, a Class A team enhances its chances of reaching the playoffs by playing — not necessarily winning — most of its non-region games against Class 2A or Class 3A teams.

“Just with geography, sometimes, it’s not convenient for a 1A school to always put another (non-region) 1A school on their schedule,” Haney said. “Geographically, sometimes it means playing a school that is classified higher than you.”

While it is difficult to justify, it does help explain how a 1-9 Lincoln team sneaked into the Class A Div. II playoffs. This Lincoln team was outscored 222-14 in its four region games and 502-156 in 10 regular-season games.

Lincoln’s one win came against Class A Creek Bridge. Besides gaining points for that win, Lincoln garnered playoff points by losing a pair of games to Class 2A opponents, and another to a SCISA opponent.

In the end, it is not Lincoln’s fault that it will play Cross, to which it lost 56-8 a month ago, in the first round of the playoffs. It is the fault of a system that allows too many teams into the postseason.

Yet Jerome Singleton, the SCHSL commissioner, makes a compelling case for allowing as many teams as possible into the playoffs. In his view, it has to do with extending the high school football season for as many athletes as possible.

“I love to watch my kids play sports,” Singleton says. “Any time I get a chance to see them play, I am elated. If you gave them one more game, I get to see them one more time. That’s looking at it as a parent.”

Of course, that line of thinking does not allow for a system that rewards success on the field, instead giving way to what seems like a growing trend in athletics whereby mediocrity is viewed as excellence.

That is what happens when a system allows teams with 2-8 and 1-9 records into the playoffs, and what happens when two of 16 playoff teams in a classification enter the postseason with winning records.

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