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VOL. 36 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 02, 2012

TSSAA playoff puzzle actually makes sense

Postseason math: 3=6

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To paraphrase Forrest Gump, the TSSAA playoffs are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

And that also, apparently, goes for the way the teams are selected and seeded.

For those who haven’t followed the way the TSSAA, the governing body overseeing high school athletics in Tennessee, handles its selection of teams for the postseason, here’s a crash course:

In 2009, the TSSAA overhauled its playoff format, going from five classes in the public school format to three classes, which were in actuality six classes. And that doesn’t even count the Division II private schools, which play in their own separate bracket.

Confused yet? Just imagine how the schools feel playing under this system.

The system is supposed to work this way:

n Schools are divided by enrollment in to Class A, Class AA and Class AAA, and then divided into districts under that umbrella.

n Teams play that way all through the regular season, but are split further for the playoffs. Class A, the smallest schools, is further cut into Class 1A and 2A by enrollment. The same thing is done for Class AA (3A, 4A) and Class AAA (5A, 6A).

n Teams that are in the same district for the 10-game regular season, therefore, go their separate ways for the postseason.

Here’s an example: District 9-AAA consists of the bigger schools in Sumner and Wilson counties – Gallatin, Hendersonville, Beech, Portland, Station Camp, Mt. Juliet, Lebanon and Wilson Central. They all play each other during the regular season to try and win the district and qualify for the postseason.

But when it comes time to sort playoff teams, Gallatin, Hendersonville, Beech, Portland and Station Camp are in Class 5A for postseason consideration, while Mt. Juliet, Lebanon and Wilson Central compete in 6A due to larger enrollments.

To keep some sanctity in the district, any team that finishes first or second in the district automatically qualifies for the postseason. In our 9-AAA example, Beech won the district and is a top seed in Class 5A. Mt. Juliet finished runner-up and is a four seed in one of the 6A quadrants.

To make up the rest of the field, the TSSAA selects wild-cards. Using our 9-AAA example, this year Wilson Central is a 6A wild-card, while Portland and Station Camp are 5A wild-cards. But this is where things really get tricky. So let’s let Matthew Gillespie of the TSSAA try and explain it.

“You automatically qualify if you finish first or second in your district. That takes up X amount of spots in the 32-team bracket in each class,” Gillespie says. “Then you start filling in the other spots with wild-card teams, based on records.

“And when you get down to that 30th, 31st or 32nd spot, a lot of times you’re looking at a lot of 5-5 teams and you have to go through the tiebreakers that have been set up.”

That tiebreaker system failed over the weekend when the TSSAA mistakenly notified Cleveland High School in East Tennessee that it had made the playoffs in Class 5A, only to have to go back a few hours later and let Cleveland know it had been beaten out by Sullivan (County) South.

So what happened? First of all, TSSAA director Bernard Childress had to make a tough phone call to Cleveland coach Ron Crawford, formerly of Brentwood High.

“Mr. Childress called (Crawford), and he took it very well,” Gillespie says. “His statement to Mr. Childress was that he told his team Friday night they needed to win to get in the playoffs, and they got beat. But then they started hearing that they were in. It was early to mid-afternoon (Saturday) when we had to start looking at it, so it was only a handful of hours that they thought they were in, and I think they handled it about as well as could be expected.”

The snafu occurred because one of the tiebreakers is most wins vs. teams with a .500 record or better. Cleveland owned that tiebreaker until it was discovered that one of Sullivan’s wins was against Enka, N.C., which finished 5-6.

But according to TSSAA rules, only their first 10 games apply when a team plays 11 games. Enka’s 11th game was a loss, which meant it was 5-5 for TSSAA tiebreaker purposes. That 5-5 pushed Sullivan South past Cleveland and into the playoffs under the formula.

Given that, it’s easy to see why coaches and many school administrators were overwhelmingly in favor of returning to the simple five-class format and just taking the top four teams from each district to the playoffs. Yet the Board of Control voted 5-4 in September to keep the new system for four more years through 2017.

As Gillespie says, that decision was done in the name of the regular season.

“You talk to coaches and fans, and they wonder why is it still in there. But the decision was made by Board of Control, who are administrators,” Gillespie says. “The way the system was set up, it is good for the regular season. It has cut down on travel for the majority of schools, and you play the same schools in football now that you do in basketball, baseball and softball. Plus, you play more natural rivals and get better gates in the regular season.”

True, but only at the costly price of confusion and complexity that sometimes seems to create more problems than it solves come playoff time.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.