One year down: A deep dive into the first year of the new MIAA statewide tournament 

  • Greenfield poses for a team photo after winning the MIAA Division 5 state championship softball game 6-2 against West Boylston in June at Sortino Field at UMass Amherst. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Frontier’s Tyler Dubreuil (13), Chanhee Son (17) and Cairn Bright (8) celebrate as they run off the field after winning 1-0 over Hampshire Regional during the Division 4 boys state soccer tournament semifinal game last fall at Chicopee Comp. Photo by Dan Little

  • Frontier players and fans celebrate winning 3-0 against Mount Greylock during an MIAA Div. 5 state semifinal match last fall at Chicopee Comp. Photo by Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 7/7/2022 6:09:51 PM
Modified: 7/7/2022 6:07:13 PM

For better or worse, whether you were for it or against it, the new MIAA statewide tournament format is here to stay, so why not examine how it went and what needs to be tweaked after year one.

The state tournament format saw three Franklin County programs — the Frontier girls volleyball team, the Frontier boys soccer team and the Greenfield softball team — reach the state finals, with the Green Wave bringing home the lone banner to the area.

In terms of crowning a state champion, the state’s new power rankings held up well. Some 74 teams were crowned champions during the 2021-22 school year, and those winners had an average seed line of 2.9. The runner-ups held an average seed of 3.2, which puts the average seed of the 142 teams to make it to a state final at 3.04. That’s about as good as you can ask for, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Of those 74 winners, 11 came from Western Mass. (about 15-percent) — Springfield Central in Div. 1 football, West Springfield in Div. 2 boys soccer, Easthampton in Div. 4 boys soccer, Paulo Freire in Div. 5 girls volleyball, Springfield Central in Div. 1 girls basketball, Mt. Greylock in Div. 5 baseball, Westfield in Div. 2 softball, Westfield in Div. 2 boys volleyball, Longmeadow in Div. 2 boys lacrosse and Wahconah in Div. 4 boys lacrosse to go along with the Greenfield softball team in Div. 5. Seven other Western Mass. programs also made it to the finals. 

There was much debate about how Western Mass. schools would be represented in this new format. After all, a popular theory this side of Worcester claimed that it was created after eastern Mass. schools weren’t happy that their road to the prior four-team state tournament — comprised of the North, South, Central and West sectional winners — was much tougher. 

“I’d like to see it go back to the way it was,” Greenfield baseball coach Tom Suchanek said. “There are other guys who are content with it. What I heard with the new state tournament was that a lot of eastern Mass. schools felt that in the old format, the team that got beat in the North or South sectional was better than the teams out here and it wasn’t fair to them. How do you know that? It’s just speculation.”

The idea that the East is better than the West differs depending on the sport and division. For coaches like Evan Horton of the Frontier boys soccer team, the state tournament was actually beneficial to Western Mass. schools. In last fall’s Div. 4 bracket, seven of the top 10 boys soccer seeds were from Western Mass. Three made it to the semifinals, while the Redhawks fell to Easthampton in the title game. 

In past years, only one of those Western Mass. schools would have been represented in the state tournament. Frontier and Easthampton actually played each other in the Western Mass. quarterfinals, showing just how deep the field was this year. 

“I was not looking forward to it when it first came out,” Horton said of the new format. “There were so many unknowns. I was excited about the fact that we wouldn’t cannibalize ourselves in Western Mass. for the state tournament. We showed that we belong. They did this state tournament because they didn’t want the eastern Mass. schools cannibalizing each other, but for soccer, it was the other way around. Obviously this is just one year and it’s tough to base everything off of it but so far it’s been good for us.” 

Derailing the WMass tournament

There was sentiment that the state tournament would take away from the Western Mass. tournament. If you lost in the Western Mass. tourney this year but had already qualified for the state tournament, you were right back in the thick of things in just a few days, leaving little time to dwell after not hoisting a sectional crown. 

“When they were trying to sell the idea of the state tournament, it was more in favor of the eastern part of the state,” Suchanek said. “[The] Western Mass. [tournament] just didn’t seem the same. It took the significance and importance of it away.”

That goes both ways. For programs like the Turners Falls softball team, losing in the Western Mass. finals meant the season was still alive, something that wouldn’t have been the case under the old format. 

“The Western Mass. tournament lost value,” Turners softball coach Gary Mullins said in regard to the state tourney. “We were a benefactor of that as we lost in the [sectional] finals. The Western Mass. athletic directors did their best to make the Western Mass. tournament a good tournament and they did. It still meant something to everyone.”

The new sectional tournament was put on by the PVIAC, not the MIAA. The divisions were realigned, adding another new element to it. 

While the Western Mass. tournament might have been different, it still held value to the players. 

“The emotion from my players after losing to Easthampton in the quarters felt just like when we lost the Western Mass. final to Belchertown my first year here,” Horton said. “The difference was that I knew we had more games to play. I knew we had to get prepared for the state tournament. Our season wasn’t over and we had more work to do. Western Mass. still carried that weight. It definitely held more to the players than I thought it might. The Western Mass. tournament is something that’s embedded in the people out here. I’m glad they figured out a way to keep it.”

It also kept the players motivated. While the tournament overall lost value, it did provide extra games to prepare players for the state tourney grind ahead. 

“The neat thing was if you lost in Western Mass., you still got to fight for a state championship,” Greenfield girls basketball and softball coach John Hickey said. “It gave teams more motivation to keep playing. Some people liked it, some didn’t. You have to look at it that it’s here to stay. Since it’s here to stay, you might as well do it the right way. For the first year, it was done right.” 

One thing that was brought up multiple times in conversation with coaches was the lack of a central location for championship games. For Pioneer boys basketball coach Scott Thayer, not having the Western Mass. semifinals and finals at the Curry Hicks Cage at UMass was a huge loss. 

“When the games were at the Cage, people would go and spend all day watching the games,” Thayer said. “The Cage was a central location. It was an hour away from everyone. There was nothing like playing there. Basketball the last 20 years in Western Mass., that was the destination. Every kid wanted to make it to the Cage. It was an experience unlike any other, like a high school gym on steroids. It was always rocking in there and the kids got a great experience out of it. If you hadn’t played there, you wouldn’t know how special it is.”

The Cage might have been the most distinguishable Western Mass. venue, but not having central locations for the Western Mass. and state championship games is an issue for all sports. Frontier and Paulo Freire played their state championship volleyball match at West Springfield High School, and the Frontier boys soccer state championship game was played at Chicopee Comp. 

“The state final at West Springfield felt like another game on a Friday night,” Frontier girls volleyball coach Sean MacDonald said. “It didn’t have that championship atmosphere. When it was at Worcester State in the past, you had games going on before and after, you walk in and the other games are finishing up. It had a championship atmosphere. You lose that when it’s a standalone match.

“I was also a little annoyed when you come in second in the state and didn’t get a trophy or anything,” he continued. “I’m not the ‘everybody gets a trophy’ guy by any means. It was just odd that every other time — we’ve been in 12 state finals — the runner-up got a trophy but they changed it this time around.”

Each sport has changed. Field hockey used to have its Western Mass. final games at Smith College, and more recently at places like Holyoke High School and East Longmeadow High School, but that is no longer the case. 

“The whole situation was different,” Greenfield field hockey coach Erin Thayer said. “The Western Mass. tournament just didn’t feel like the Western Mass. tournament that I’ve been a part of for 30 years now. I remember years ago when we would pull up to Smith College, the buses would be lined up in the parking lot and the sidelines were five or six people deep watching the games. Now you pull into stadiums and there’s nobody in the parking lot. It’s been shifting for a while but it keeps shifting worse and worse. It feels less and less authentic. You used to feel goosebumps arriving at Smith. We’ve had those games the last five or six years and they just don't feel the same. The tournament atmosphere has changed. Now that the games aren’t all at the same site, people aren’t there to stay and watch after their game ends.”

Currently the only sport with a centralized location is football, which plays all its state championship games at Gillette Stadium.

“One thing that was disappointing was that we didn’t have a centralized location for the semifinals and the finals,” Horton said. “In football, they have two or three days where every championship game is at Gillette. Gillette has soccer goals and soccer teams play there, too. Why doesn’t soccer have a location like that? Why aren’t we at least playing on a college field? There’s Holy Cross in Worcester, there’s other nice stadiums. I don’t know why we don’t have all the championship games at one location.” 

Power rankings

When talking to local coaches, the biggest complaint about the new state tournament format came with the new power ranking system, a change from the previous Walker System that had been in place for some time in Western Mass.

As pointed out above, the power rankings did its job well in ultimately determining a state champion, but the main concern coaches had came in regard to transparency.

“They sold everyone that the ranking system would be three things: simple, transparent and accurate. That was the MIAA’s selling point,” MacDonald said. “It’s not simple, it’s not transparent and the accuracy is debatable. In the Walker System, you could get a copy of the spreadsheet, look up all the results and calculate the seeds yourself. There’s no way to check if this really works. I just want to see how it’s calculated.”

One thing that coaches found was that playing tougher opponents led to a higher ranking, which some programs enjoyed as their tough schedule wound up being factored favorably into their ranking. 

“I didn’t really know how that was going to go,” Hickey said. “They did a good job updating the site. You got rewarded for playing tough teams. For years we played tough teams in basketball and when we got beat by those teams, you didn’t get anything for it. It made for a truer field in terms of the rankings. The seeds seemed to hold through. It’s like everything else, the first year there will be skepticism and doubt but when it’s all said and done and everything gets ironed out, people will be OK with it.”

Still, not knowing exactly how the formula works led to much confusion. In some weeks, teams would rise despite losing games while others would fall in the rankings after a win. 

“How does the formula work?,” Scott Thayer asked. “We were the fourth seed five games into our season. How do you determine that after just five games? We had some injuries, we lost some games and I was worried we’d be dropping out of the top 32. Then somebody told me we were still the No. 12 seed. I was stunned, we had just lost six in a row but we’re still that high? We devalue winning in this formula. If you just play teams in high divisions, it doesn’t matter how much you lose by?”

Then comes the sportsmanship aspect of the new rankings. The new system outlines that beating teams by a wider margin — with limits put in place to keep complete blowouts from becoming commonplace — bolsters your power ranking. In a sport like volleyball, for example, it makes it difficult to put substitute players in no matter how in control of the match you are. 

“The power rankings incentivize me to beat teams 3-0,” MacDonald said. “I have to keep players in longer because I’m worried if I lose a set that it will drop me in the rankings and that could be the difference between hosting a game or playing 150 miles away on a school night. I just want to win the match and have it all count the same. I have a bunch of girls and boys who come to practice and work hard. If I’m up 2-0, I want to put different people in during the third set because we always have the fourth and fifth set to restore order. If I drop that third set now, it could hurt our calculation.” 

The state tournament was discussed for years, but having seen it in action, some local coaches found the lack of information available on the rankings disappointing. Some also wondered whether the emphasis on a tough schedule takes away from simply trying to go out, play teams at your level and compete. 

“I know change is inevitable,” Suchanek said, “however I really felt that this year’s tournament format — from the setup to the lack of info — wasn’t well organized. There wasn’t much information out there. We’re still not sure how they seed teams. The formula they use is kept pretty quiet. Me being old school, I was not in favor of it to begin with. I was not, am not, and will never be in favor of it.

“They encourage you to play teams of higher divisions and you still get points if you win or lose,” Suchanek added. “I want to play teams that are in my division, have a good game and walk away whether we win or lose having learned something from that game.” 

Then comes the issue of scheduling. If you’re in a higher division, what incentive is there to play a team from a lower division knowing that if you lose, your ranking will be damaged?

“You’re watching the seeding off and on all season trying to figure it out,” Erin Thayer said. “You’d be up one day and down the next time. Nobody knew how it worked. We’d lose a couple games and move up, and win a few and go down. Nothing made sense. It makes it hard to figure out who to schedule going forward. Nobody wants to play us and it’s hard to find independent games where we aren’t traveling.”

There are times where strength of schedule is important for figuring out just how good a team is. For example, the Franklin County League West Division for softball this spring featured Div. 5 champion Greenfield, as well as Turners and Frontier, which both reached the Div. 5 semifinals, and Wahconah, which made it to the Div. 4 semifinals.

With those teams beating each other up during the season, it would have been easy to dock them for their records, but the postseason showed just how talented they were. 

“When you get down to the final four teams and three of them play in the same league, it’s a good look for our league,” Mullins said. “I thought the ranking system was pretty good. It was fairly accurate. We were spoiled with the Walker System out here. People understood that a ranking system can be done well. This format puts an emphasis on strength of schedule and I like that. We scored well in the ranking because of how good our league was and all those teams proved it in the state tournament.”

Travel

Gas prices aren’t cheap nowadays. Those charges added up for someone like the Bourne softball team, which made the trip from the Cape to Lee for a Round of 32 matchup this spring, then drove back to the Cape and the very next day, came out to Turners Falls for a Round of 16 contest with the Thunder. 

That’s 614 miles of travel in a two-day span. This is just one of many examples that can be used (remember the Monument Mountain volleyball team made the trip to Nantucket) with Western Mass. schools heading hours away on school nights and vice versa. 

The slightest change in the power rankings could make the difference between a 30-minute trip for a game or a two-hour drive. The Rockport baseball team finished with an overall rating of -0.8821 in the power rankings with a 6-12 record, earning the No. 16 seed in the Div. 5 field. Hopkins Academy — despite having a 10-10 record — had a rating of -1.1626, giving it the No. 17 seed. The 0.2 difference meant the Golden Hawks were making the two and a half hour trip to Rockport, not the other way around. 

Hopkins ended up winning the game, 6-1.

“We had a high seed and that was important,” Mullins said. “Bourne going from Lee to us in two days just doesn’t seem very fair. We were very fortunate as far as travel is concerned.

“I don’t think it’s helping crowds at all,” he continued. “Usually with Western Mass., you have your set games and you get good crowds with all the local people. I don’t think you’re seeing that attendance in the quarters and semis this year. I’m just not convinced that’s happening. Is this what’s best for the kids? I don’t have an answer to that.”

As the power rankings were non-transparent, coaches said they were more frustrated when their ranking inexplicitly changed, particularly when it meant playing a road game in the tournament. 

“My value in the rating system went down 40 percent after winning two matches 3-0,” MacDonald said. “That didn’t end up changing our seed but it could have. In the boys [tournament] it did. We were the 16 seed, we beat Athol in the Western Mass. tournament but since they had a low ranking we dropped down to the 17 seed and lost out on a home game. Should we have been hosting Minnechaug? No. It wouldn’t have been correct that way but it also shouldn’t be the case where we lose out on a home game for winning a game. Thankfully it was Minnechaug and we didn’t have to go somewhere two hours away instead.”

The travel portion of the state tournament is unpredictable, but as it’s here to stay, some coaches said there’s no point in dwelling on it.

“The state tournament is here and we’ll make it work,” Scott Thayer said. “The travel part is irrelevant. Our first game, a team from Boston had to come out to Northfield to play us. Next year we might be heading out there. It’s the one thing you won’t be able to tweak. Everyone will just have to learn to live with it.” 

Playing different schools

The aspect of the state tournament coaches seemed to enjoy most was getting to play against all the best teams in the state, often going against opponents they had never seen – or heard of – before. 

Of course, that might be different had some of those programs had to go on the road for most of the tournament.

“It was cool to play teams from outside the region,” Horton said. “It wasn’t just playing Hampshire and Easthampton the entire time. We all got to play new teams which was exciting. We were lucky we didn’t have to travel but we know that won't be the case every year. It’ll be fun to have those years where we just go where our seeding tells us. Fans and parents probably aren’t, but we’re excited to get to travel and play teams from around the state. That’s how other states do it and it’s a cool twist.”

“It was neat to play some different teams,” MacDonald noted. “It was a scramble to try to get information on those new teams. With the bracket, it’s a challenge to scout teams too far out. For the Frontier girls, we played at home throughout the tournament. I might feel different if we had to travel more.”

It also gives teams a chance to establish new rivalries with school they don't normally see during the season. 

“I enjoyed getting to play all the different teams,” Mullins said. “We used to play Hopedale on a regular basis in the state tournament and that was fun. We’ve played a lot of different schools and I do really enjoy that aspect of the state tournament.”

Like anything, there are pros and cons to the new format. It allows more teams to play in a state tournament, and gives more schools a chance to win a state title than in the past. 

After one year, there are certain changes coaches hope to see. Now it’s up to the MIAA to adapt and assure the best possible format for their student-athletes. 

“It’s here to stay and we’ll make it work,” Scott Thayer said. “Hopefully they tweak it, listen to the coaches and athletic directors on how they can make it better for everyone.” 


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