Half-baked: Remaking WIAA sports, Part 2

Releasing my inner sports geek, once and for all

Two issues precipitated my whole thought of re-working how the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association administers high school sports leagues and post-season tournaments.

The first was how the classification system works; the second is the execution of the various post-season tournaments and events.

In other words, piecemeal tweaks aren’t going to cut it. It’s time to revamp the whole system.

Most of the comments I’ve received since Part 1 appeared last week have been positive. One area A.D. remarked that there was too much common sense there for it to ever work. That one made my week. But we’ll see if those feelings prevail after people get a load of my vision for the playoffs.

Last week I mentioned that as far as team playoffs go, I advocate for an all-in system rather than the current assignments of allocated state playoff spots to a certain number of finishers in each league or district. So, here we go …

Individually speaking

Holding strictly to classifications – 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A, 2B, 1B – no matter what, makes for a top-heavy system. What I mean by that is that the state playoff fields at lower classifications become too diluted to really be meaningful, especially (though not exclusively) in sports more oriented to the individual such as track, wrestling and tennis.

A couple of examples:

– In state wrestling, all of the state finals brackets feature 16 wrestlers and eight medalists … except the combined 1B/2B class, with just eight finalists and four medalists. Some of the brackets at the regional level are dangerously close to having all participants qualify because the schools (and teams) are so small as not have enough entrants to fill them out.

– Similarly, the state 1B track and field meet only fields eight finalists in most events, while the larger classifications compete with twice as many.

– In state cross country the 1A through 4A fields all included 133-145 runners. But in 1B/2B, there were 125 boys and just 72 girls. In North Central Washington, Bridgeport’s girls made it to the state meet as the only school to field a complete five-person team.

Yes, many of the issues with the small schools happen precisely because they are small. In the past, the lower classifications were often combined, even prior to 2007, which is the first year that the old B classification was split into 1B and 2B.

My problem with this is you end up with playoff fields that are either too small, since the number of schools in a classification is by definition a constant within a season, or too large if they are combined.

That sounds complicated, but it’s not: wrestling provides a good example.

By my count, using the preliminary enrollment numbers released by the WIAA in early December, there would would be 66 4A schools fielding wrestling teams; 68 in 3A; 65 in 2A; 46 in 1A; and 33 in 1B/2B. (Some of those numbers may be off by one or two because the process wasn’t yet complete, but bear with me).

The largest three classifications have proportionately the same number of spots at the state tournament (about 65 schools competing for 16 spots per weight class) as one another. Class 1A has 16 spots for just 46 schools, and the Bs have 33 shooting for eight spots (which is proportionate to the larger schools, but makes for a less compelling competition).

Combining 1A/2B/1B tournament would create a logjam of 79 schools (though many without full teams) competing for 16 spots.

A better solution (in my view) would be to take the 278 wrestling schools and divide them into five equal-sized divisions unique to that sport. That would create pools of 56-57 teams, and five tournament brackets of 16 wrestlers apiece.

So, while not getting into the nitty-gritty of schools deciding to opt up to a larger classification, you end up with a largest school division (we’ll call it Division 1) with 4A schools (enrollment of about 1260 and up); Division 2 with mostly 3A and some 4A (enrollment of about about 1030-1260); Division 3 with a mix of 2A and 3A (640-1030); Division 4 (260-637) and Division 5 (the smallest 60 or so schools). This would create eight additional state tournament spots at the smallest school level while slightly thinning out the field in the upper divisions.

Each division’s schools are then divided into four regions. The current “regional” system uses the existing permanent districts; that means some regions have more schools than others, which in turn means that a certain number of state tournament berths are assigned by committee (For example, in the B tournament, Region 1 currently contains 11 schools from three districts; Region 2 contains 22 schools from four districts. Here’s the full wrestling allocation chart.)

The divisional approach, however, would create four geographic regions with approximately the same number of schools within each; each region would contain two districts.

The “math” on figuring out the “Road to the Tacoma Dome” becomes a lot more simple. Qualify for regionals by earning a top four district tournament finish. Qualify for state by earning a top four regional finish.

Keep in mind, the specifics above apply only to wrestling. Each “individual” sport would go through the same process – creating divisions from the schools that actually participate in the sport; separating them into four regions with an equal number of schools; and setting the same criteria for each region to qualify for the state finals.

Hence, a school in Division 5 in wrestling may end up in Division 4 in track and field. A division, a region, a district are specific to each sport (not permanent) in order to keep the playing field as level as possible in each sport, instead of trying to allocate and negotiate the number of spots.

Rather than sticking a school in a given classification or division for two or four years, this would all be adjusted on a yearly basis to account for the addition or subtraction of programs, as well as shifts in enrollment.

There likely wouldn’t be fewer politics involved in pre-season sessions to set up regions and districts, but the result would be far more straightforward in practice than the current system.

Some sports, like swimming, would require fewer divisions since the number of schools participating is so much smaller. But rather than trying to combine existing classifications, a sport-specific approach is more likely to maintain a true “state experience” for the athletes. Most athletes I’ve been around would rather compete in a full field of other talented athletes than win a medal in an artificially diluted field.

Team sports

Setting football aside for the moment, Washington has a happy situation right now where there are pretty close to 64 teams in each of its six classifications. So, at least as it pertains to volleyball and basketball, which nearly all schools play, the formula is pretty simple.

Take, for example, Class 2B, which in the not-so-final WIAA numbers released in early December included 57 schools that played boys basketball.

That worked pretty easily into eight districts, some with eight teams, a few with seven, and one with six. Double-elimination tournaments that would whittle the field down to 16 teams would not be hard to draw up.

For example, here in Okanogan County, a 2B district could include Okanogan, Oroville, Bridgeport, Liberty Bell, Brewster, Manson, Lake Roosevelt and Waterville (at the time I built the map and tournament brackets, Tonasket was still a Class 1A team; as of now, they will be 2B next year as well as some other changes that might be noted in the brackets).

Here’s a Class 1A district map (for boys basketball; girls would have to be drawn up separately due to single-gender schools):

And a 2B district map (also boys basketball):

Click here to see how the Class 1A eight-team double elimination district tournaments would be bracketed and might play out (assuming here we still use the current regional weekend between districts and state).

Click here to see the next rounds, where teams would play the 1A regional weekend and then be seeded for the state tournament first round.

Districts could be divided into sub-districts, if desired, for the opening round if reducing travel or needing to use multiple facilities are priorities.

Click here to see how it might play out if the districts were split. Check out this scenario in Class 2B here.

Playing such a tournament at a site like Omak and/or Okanogan, or rotating the home court advantage to different sites, or other options would be open. Ideally the girls and boys basketball teams from a given school wouldn’t be separated by the district mapping committee, which would create somewhat of a challenge in areas where there are a few single-gender schools.

The best aspect of this approach is a big cut-down in travel and likely better attendance at tournament games that are closer to home.

The second advantage? Teams at the bottom of league standings have a little more motivation not to pack it in once their post-season chances are done. It might be rare for a team in the midst of a bad season to wake up in the tournament. But if an injured player returns, or a team experiences a coming of age moment … well, the chance is there, at least.

Plus, again, from year to year, even if you don’t know what district you are in, you do know that you will get in and what is required to advance deeper into the tournament. No more of this “three spots this year, four spots next year, re-classify, two spots the year after that” business.

Here’s what a map of a soccer “Division 5” (smallest girls soccer playing schools) might look like if one went with eight districts:

And it won’t fit on this page, but here is a link to the resulting district tournament brackets and a guess as to how the actual tournament would play out.

Computers vs. playoff points

In the above examples, the term “OPR” and a bunch of numbers like 1.98 and 4.23 appear after the names of schools. This is the “Overall Power Rating” used by Scoreczar.org that I used for seeding team tournaments in the various scenarios I ran through. It’s just one of the options available for ranking teams that take some of the guesswork out of the tasks set before committees that are charged with putting district and state tournaments together.

There are two numbers-based options that I’ve seen work successfully: either a “playoff points” system, or a computer ranking system.

With playoff points, a team accumulates points by winning games, and also by having its opponents win games. For example, when Tonasket defeated Kettle Falls (a 1A team) it might get 16 points in its playoff points column; when the Tigers beat Bridgeport (a 2B team), they might get 8 points. And every time an opponent won a game (regardless of whether Tonasket beat them or lost to them), they might pick up, say, 1 point. The top 32 teams as far as accumulating playoff points would advance to the state playoffs (and yes, that number would be averaged since not all teams play the same number of games). Michigan, where I lived for quite a few years, uses such a system to seed its football tournament.

Computer rankings provide another option. Scoreczar.org, developed and operated by Washington’s own Scott Odiorne, has won me over because of its ability to account for offensive and defensive efficiency as well as strength of schedule with its formula. While the human element always adds an element of unpredictability when high school teams take the field or court, Scoreczar comes astonishingly close to cleaning house on predicting state champions and is cited by numerous statewide media outlets because of its accuracy and its blindness to politics. (Full disclosure: I have provided some minimal cash to prop up the finances of the site, though I have no part in running any part of it that has to do with this state or the development of any of its features.)

One concern with such a rating is that it might encourage a team to run up outrageous scores like 82-0 to puff up its computer ranking. Scoreczar’s formula is self-correcting in that regard: a score like that weakens the loser’s rating to the extent that it will also weaken the winner’s overall strength of schedule and, therefore, it’s overall rating.

So, using either playoff points or something like Scoreczar’s OPR, seeding tournaments becomes a process that takes care of itself once the districts and regions are drawn up.

Football, football, football

Finally, the football question. Other than the WIAA’s decision to save money by cutting the state basketball tournaments from 16 down to eight teams, the state football tournaments have been the most consistent cause of angst and debate, at least since I moved back to the state in 2010.

None of what I have to say will make that go away, but I do think there are adjustments that would be beneficial.

Unlike other sports, I don’t advocate for the “everyone qualifies” solution for post-season. There are too few games, and cutting the regular season by two games to expand the tournament doesn’t serve the kids well.

However, I do think that most of the other elements of the “half-baked” team tournaments can be used here.

First off, let the league title races stand on their own, rather than double as a playoff qualification system. It looks good on the surface to say, for instance, that the top three teams in a league advance to state, but you can’t get around the allocation system … and if you read the first part of Part 1 last week, my feelings on that are clear.

It also makes the operation of multi-classification leagues much easier and, perhaps best of all, eliminates the need for those three-way Tuesday mini-playoffs that are practically suicidal for a team that hopes to win again on Friday.

With sports like basketball and soccer, since all teams would head to district tournament competition, the districts and regions can be drawn up during the summer or, at worst, in the final weeks before the season gets started.

Football is different since we’re dealing only with playoff qualifiers. The four regions wouldn’t be drawn up until the regular season ended. Then, the teams within each region would be seeded.

With a 32-team tournament, four regions of eight would compete to go to the final four, where it would be easy to re-seed the teams (best computer ranking vs. no. 4, no. 2 vs. no. 3) for the semifinals.

(Not to mention, the thought of handing out a regional championship trophy to teams that had just won the right to head to the semifinals probably would sit a lot better with those teams than getting handed a third place trophy the following week after having their dreams come to an end.)

Last fall there were only 48 Class 2B teams, so I put together a 24-team bracket rather than 32 teams (guessing as to which teams would be in Class 2B next year using the regionals and last year’s computer OPR ranking as an reference).

I ran multiple scenarios of the tournament in Classes 2B and 3A – the smaller class because of its local relevance, the larger one because a number of those schools have been looking for ways to keep from having Puget Sound area powerhouses knocking each other out of the playoffs in the early rounds.

One suggestion that came down the pipeline was to seed the entire football tournament from top to bottom.

It wouldn’t change things from a travel standpoint in any big way for the larger classifications. In 3A, teams seeded by region in my scenario would travel about 100 miles on the average in the first two (home field advantage) rounds of a 32 team tournament.

There still would be a couple of teams having to make cross-mountain trips in the opening round (and in the above map I admittedly gerrymandered a couple of districts to break up the Puget Sound power teams, though it certainly wouldn’t have to be done that way).

In an “open” tournament, seeded 1-32, the average travel increased to just 110 miles.

Here’s a four page spreadsheet with some of the possibilities.

In Class 2B, the story is quite different. The regional approach resulted in an average road trip of 138 miles through the first two rounds, with eight of 16 games coming in at 100 miles or less and three at 220 miles or more.

Here’s the 2B map:

Comparing apples to apples, the 2013 round of 16 averaged a 175-mile road trip. Breaking the tournament into regions reduced that to 139 miles, or about 40 minutes each way by bus. Check the regional bracket here.

An open tournament markedly changed the equation: 241 mile average trip, the shortest at 118 miles and five trips of 350 miles or more. Check out the open tournament bracket here.

Tell me that wouldn’t affect attendance, schools’ transportation budgets, or, frankly, the overall quality of play.

Nuts and bolts

Facts like those highlight the need to keep representatives of small schools and large ones at the table through the whole process, whether it be changing the system as a whole, or administering whichever system ends up in place.

I’m not anti-large school or anti-suburban league. I grew up on Mercer Island in the middle of the basketball culture there (though never good enough as a player to make the teams). But I’ve lived most of my adult life in rural settings and have spent my career covering schools with enrollments of under 1,000.

Right or wrong, intentionally or not, the perception is that the decisions made in regards to post-season tournaments cater to the larger more affluent schools. At the very least, the burdens of long-distance travel and the expenses involved tend to fall on school districts that have the least wiggle room in terms of finances.

Things like the paring down of state basketball tournaments from 16 to eight teams – creating the “regional round” that cut the state tourney by a day but also created an additional weekend of travel to a distant location – may have saved the WIAA money but is very costly to schools that have to actually live with the results.

I hate to whine about problems without offering solutions. These are complicated issues with many interlocking pieces involving people with different visions of what presumably they all hope is in the best interest of high school athletes statewide.

Hopefully that common goal can result in some changes that would benefit everyone.