If anyone had the right to be a bit dumbfounded by the Heal point system that seeds teams for postseason play in nine different Maine high school sports, it might be Gordon Faulkingham.
The Jonesport-Beals boys basketball coach led his team to a No. 1 seeding in Eastern Maine Class D during the 2011-12 season, and the Royals went on to win the state championship in a finish that was true to Heal point form.
But the last two years were quite at odds with the unique numerical formula that has served the state’s high school sporting interests for more than six decades.
Jonesport-Beals entered the 2012-13 basketball tournament again ranked tops in its division, only to be upset by No. 8 Easton in the Eastern D quarterfinals.
Then last winter the Royals salvaged the 16th and final preliminary-round berth in their heavily populated division, then headed to Aroostook County and pulled off a shocking upset of top-ranked Washburn to earn a return trip to the quarterfinals in Bangor.
But Faulkingham, who also played on four state championship teams at Jonesport-Beals during the early 1970s, sees his team’s recent experiences with the Heal points as exceptions to the system’s overall results.
“If a team is good enough with the schedule they have and can get to the playoffs, anything can happen at that point,” said Faulkingham. “But the Heal points over the years have proven themselves. In my opinion, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Point system proves resilient
Every Maine high school tournament seeded by application of the Heal point system is virtually guaranteed some upsets, because in many cases those playoffs match teams from different conferences that did not meet during the regular season, and the varying quality of those leagues from year to year provides a great unknown entering postseason play.
“I think that’s outstanding for the sport,” said Mike Burnham, an assistant executive director with the Maine Principals’ Association. “We don’t determine champions by rankings. We determine champions by playing the games. All that the Heal points do is really give you the order in which teams finish. You still have to play the games.”
Yet the Heal point system has proven itself remarkably resilient in its depiction of the top teams.
During the recently completed 2013-14 school year, for example, 28 of the 42 boys and girls state champions crowned — 67 percent — were No. 1 seeds in their regions, while 39 of those 42 champions — 93 percent — were top-three seeds in either Eastern or Western Maine.
As for regional champions, 21 of the 39 Eastern Maine titlists — girls ice hockey and the two classes of volleyball aren’t divided into geographic regions — were No. 1 seeds while 36 of the 39 EM winners were top-four finishers in the Heal point rankings.
In Western Maine, 19 No. 1 seeds emerged as regional champions while 35 of the 39 title winners were top-four seeds.
The results were similar during the 2009-2010 academic year, when 30 of the 42 state champions were top-ranked in their regions while 39 titlists were top-three seeds.
At the regional level that year, 21 No. 1 seeds won Eastern Maine crowns while top-three seeds produced 37 of the 39 champions. Western Maine also had 37 top-three teams winning regional titles, with 26 of those WM champions No. 1 seeds.
“The Heal points by and large over the years have proven that they are a good way of ranking the teams,” said Burnham. “The system we have in place works so that in the end the top teams will be at the top and the teams that barely qualify will be down in the order.”
An alternative to subjectivity
There was a time when earning a top seed and the chance to travel to one of the state’s larger basketball venues come tournament time was a much more subjective process.
County playdowns were the norm for much of the 20th century, with only the winner of those single-elimination events advancing to regional tournament sites, where seeding committees then ranked those county qualifiers in each class.
“Back in the day they crowned a Washington County champion, and that was the only team from there that moved on,” said Faulkingham. “If you had one bad night, you wouldn’t get to go to Bangor.”
But Durward Heal had a different idea, and in 1947 the Schenck High School of East Millinocket principal developed a point-based ranking system designed to project the seedings of teams based not only on their success throughout the season but on the strength of the opponents they defeated.
His system was implemented during the 1949-50 season and drew the immediate backing of former BDN sportswriter John McKernan — father of the former Maine governor of the same name.
“Just a few years back, the biggest explosion each and every year in Maine came when the (Maine Principals’ Association) basketball committee announced its selections and pairings for the Class L tournament,” McKernan opined in Feb. 17, 1950, editions of the BDN.
“The Brinkʼs robbers who made off with a million and a half dollars were pikers compared to the principals, to hear the disappointed fan tell it. And the odd thing was that almost every fan had a gripe, whether his team had been selected or not. …”
“By the time the tournament itself was run off, everyone was so emotionally spent that half the people didnʼt care who won or who lost,” McKernan added. “But thatʼs all over now. Itʼs basketball thatʼs emphasized now instead of the principals. And thatʼs the way it should be.
“The change came after (Heal) spent hour upon hour figuring out a point system that would reward a team for the type of opposition it defeated, would eliminate any advantage in padded schedules and would keep the rabid fans quiet.
“The system he worked out has just about accomplished its purpose. Itʼs been even more successful than hoped for in the matter of keeping the fans quiet, because the system is so complicated that the average fan is completely baffled.”
Six decades later many of those words still ring true, including the fact that fans sometimes remain baffled by the computations involved, but Heal points are determined by a two-step process.
In the first step, the preliminary index for each team is determined by adding points accrued for each victory (currently 40 points for a Class A win, 35 for Class B, 30 for Class C and 25 for Class D) and dividing that total by the number of scheduled games.
A team’s tournament index — the number that ultimately represents a team’s ranking — then is determined by adding the preliminary indexes of the opponent in all victories achieved by the team, dividing that total by the number of games on the regular-season schedule and multiplying that number by 10.
“We get regular questions about it because sometimes it’s a difficult system to understand,” said Burnham. “If you could educate people as to how the Heal points work, I think that would answer most of those questions.
“It’s not real complicated, but it takes into consideration so many factors that it’s a time-consuming process.”
The process has been fine-tuned several times since Heal devised his original formula.
One effort to simplify the system for the masses made during the 1980s was to change the divisor for the indexes from the number of games played at the time of a particular computation to the number of games a team plays in its complete schedule.
“Before they did that the points fluctuated more,” said Jamie Russell, the boys varsity basketball coach at Piscataquis Community High School of Guilford and a Maine high school basketball historian. “You could actually lose points.”
Another change reduced the difference in points available by defeating teams in the different divisions from 10 points to five points. Under the original formula, Class A wins were worth 40 points each, compared to Class B (30), Class C (20) and Class D (10).
“I think the only problem with the Heal points is that the majority of people don’t understand how they work,” said Gerry Durgin, a longtime coach and athletic administrator in southern Maine who now serves as an MPA assistant executive director. “If you understand how it works, I think it’s a great system because it puts the teams that should be in the tournament in the tournament.”
No additional adjustments to the Heal point ratings are anticipated in the near term, though the MPA’s classification committee revisited the formula earlier this year during discussions about how to classify schools in the future given current enrollment trends that have decreased the number of large-sized schools statewide and swelled the small-school ranks, particularly in Eastern Maine.
One suggestion was to reduce the point differential between classes from five points to two points to encourage schools to play nearby schools in lower classes in order to address ever-increasing transportation costs.
“We took the [2013-14] basketball season and looked at all the games and all the wins and losses in Classes A, B, C and D in East and West and found that with a two-point differential there was little to no difference in the placement of teams in the standings from a five-point differential,” said Durgin, the MPA’s liaison to the classification committee.
“The whole idea of looking at smaller differentials was to promote schools not driving by somebody just to play somebody else worth more points, but the consensus of the committee really was to leave it the way it is because they don’t think that changing the differential will change things. Leagues control who plays who, not the Heal points.”
One more recent technological advance that has proven beneficial to the process is the availability of updated Heal point ratings on the MPA website — www.mpa.cc.
For generations Heal points have been published weekly by many of the state’s daily newspapers, and they typically were at least two days old by the date of publication.
Now players, coaches and fans alike may access Heal point standings through the MPA website, and they are re-tabulated automatically once a coach or administrator from a host school submits a score for that day’s sporting event.
“Back when we played there was always a mysterious part to it because you’d only get updated points once a week,” said Russell. “But now you can go online and see the points whenever you want to, and they’re all updated almost immediately or at least within 24 hours.”
Addressing the geographic challenge
As for possible alternatives to the Heal point system, some states place a greater emphasis on a team’s winning percentage and-or overall record, something not dissimilar to the pre-Heal point days in Maine.
But in many of those other states the individual conferences involved are much smaller than those in Maine, allowing for teams to play identical schedules that make win-loss records or winning percentage more comparable.
Maine has just eight conferences statewide for most high school sports — Aroostook League, Downeast Athletic Conference, East-West Conference, Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Mountain Valley Conference, Penobscot Valley Conference/Big East, Southwestern Maine Activities Association and Western Maine Conference.
And with the size of some of those leagues — the PVC includes more than 30 schools from Classes B, C and D while the KVAC has nearly that many schools representing all of Eastern A as well as Eastern and Western B — providing uniform schedules for member teams within each class would be difficult.
“If you went by records here it would encourage more teams to play weaker opponents to build up their records, perhaps above their true level of strength,” Faulkingham said.
And some of those leagues not only include teams from multiple classes but cover vast areas of the state — the PVC extends from northern Aroostook County to the midcoast region, for example, while the East-West runs from Jackman in northernmost Somerset County east to the island communities of Vinalhaven and North Haven and south to Richmond and Buckfield.
That serves as an additional impediment to developing uniform scheduling.
“The Heal points work for Maine because we’re so geographically challenged,” said Russell. “I could see maybe doing it differently if you had conferences where everyone had the same schedules, but with what we have in Maine the Heal points are the fairest way to do it.”