May 23, 2018
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Fifty percent rule is best way to determine high school playoff teams

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

Some behind-the-scenes work putting together tournament scoreboard tables for high school soccer and field hockey during the last week rekindled a debate I’ve had within from time to time.

Just how many varsity teams should qualify for postseason play?

The Maine Principals’ Association has fluctuated between 50 percent and 67 percent of its teams advancing beyond the regular season in most sports during recent years — in fact, the number was switched from one-half to two-thirds again beginning this fall.

In football, each conference gets to make the call, and currently it ranges from 40 percent in the Pine Tree Conference Class A (four of 10 teams) to 67 percent in the LTC Class C and Campbell Conference Class B (eight of 12 teams). The other three divisions, the Southwestern Maine Activities Association Class A, PTC Class B and Campbell Conference Class C, qualify 57 percent, or eight of 14 teams.

There’s a case to be made for being either more or less inclusive.

Allowing fewer teams to participate places greater value on the regular season, and while it eliminates the cellar dwellers sooner it also makes many games late in the regular season de facto playoff games, because to get in you’ve first got to win.

Such is the case in PTC Class A football, where the loss of Mt. Blue of Farmington and Brewer to Class B after last season due to declining enrollments left the Eastern Maine large-school league with just 10 teams.Rather than continue to send eight teams to postseason — or 80 percent of the remaining membership — school officials opted to reduce their postseason field to four teams.

What’s resulted is an exciting regular season with decent teams being forced to earn their way into the playoffs by beating their peers.

One or two teams with a 5-4 record may not make this year’s postseason tournament, but not because they didn’t have a chance to earn a berth on the field.

Contrast that to field hockey and soccer, where the 67 percent rule means several teams with records as low as 2-10-2 or 3-10-1 have earned the right to advance.

And when such teams advance, the prize usually is a road trip to face a top-ranked team — which usually results in a lopsided loss.

Some coaches, while they’ll rarely admit it publicly, believe there’s more momentum to be gained for the future of their programs by ending the regular season with a win than there is by qualifying for the playoffs as a sub.-500 team only to get humbled 52-6 in football or 6-0 in field hockey or soccer.

There are exceptions. Just last fall, No. 8 Brunswick, 5-3 at the time, traveled to top-ranked Lawrence of Fairfield for a PTC Class A football quarterfinal and upset the undefeated Bulldogs.

There won’t be a similar scenario this year, at least in that division where the playoff field has been halved. But the opportunity to shock the world still exists in other divisions and in other sports where the playoff fields are larger, another part of the sporting dream, I suppose.

In my world there would be a 50 percent ceiling on playoff qualification, believing that earning a postseason berth should be a reward for on-field success rather than a moment in the sun for the mediocre.

It is a competitive world, after all.

And who knows? One year’s narrow miss can become the fuel for next year’s championship run.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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