High School Sports

Football playoffs now seeded by committees. WIAA hopes ‘human element’ makes a better postseason

Tumwater running back Dylan Paine grinds out yardage against Archbishop Murphy during Satuday’s 2A state football semifinal at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Nov. 25, 2017.
Tumwater running back Dylan Paine grinds out yardage against Archbishop Murphy during Satuday’s 2A state football semifinal at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup on Nov. 25, 2017. toverman@theolympian.com

Welcome to the 2018 high school football season. Much of what you see this year will be in the same format.

During the next two weeks, teams across the state will practice once a day — or sometimes twice — to prepare for the first slate of games, which begin Thursday, Aug. 30.

Teams will play the same nine-week regular-season schedule. In Week 10, 16 teams from each of the 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A and 2B classifications, and eight teams from the 1B classification will win and advance to the state playoffs.

After that everything changes.

Earlier this year, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Executive Board voted in favor of creating committees to seed the state playoffs. The three committees, which were announced in July, include 12 members each and are broken down by classification.

Each of the 4A/3A, 2A/1A and 2B/1B committees are made up of administrators, current and former coaches, and media members. The committees met for the first time Sunday at WIAA headquarters in Renton, and will communicate throughout the season before reconvening on Sunday, Nov. 4 — the morning after the final Week 10 games are played — to seed the state brackets.

(Full disclosure: I am on the 4A/3A seeding committee.)

Greg Whitmore, who is a WIAA Executive Board member and heads the organization’s RPI committee, says the hope is that this new system — which eliminates the random draw system that was previously in place — will create more balanced tournaments across the board.

“In the past, there have been times some very highly ranked teams — because of the draw criteria — that were matched up in really early rounds. And that doesn’t feel right, obviously,” said Whitmore, who is also the athletic director at Lind-Ritzville HIgh School and coaches Lind-Ritzville-Sprague football.

“In a well-run tournament, you want the two best teams in the championship, the best four teams in the semifinals — that’s ideal. If they are playing each other in the first two rounds, not only is that not great for those teams, it makes for a less fun, attractive and exciting tournament.”

Seeding qualified teams to create the best 16-team bracket in each classification (eight-team bracket in 1B) will be each committee’s primary focus. Teams will still qualify through their districts, but the teams that do make it will be seeded into their first-round games based on available data, which could include record, league strength, media polls, computer-generated ranking and injury reports among others.

“It’s putting more of a human element in, and gets away from the draw criteria that just puts (names) in a can and says this is where you’re going,” said Lakes athletic director Scott Nordi, who will serve on the 4A/3A committee.

“We’ve got people from all different classifications and all different parts of the state on each of these three committees, and it’s going to allow us to look at the pieces. We’re not selecting the 16 teams. We’re taking the 16 teams that quality — you still have to get there — and saying, ‘You’re in, now where do you fit in the bracket?’ ”

As with every change the WIAA makes to its playoff systems — switching to the RPI format in basketball two years ago is one example — several questions and concerns have been raised by coaches, community members and media outlets since the committees were announced last month.

The News Tribune polled coaches across the state during the last week, asking if they were in favor of the new football playoff system. Of the respondents, 71 percent said they liked the new system, 9 percent said they were not in favor of the change and 20 percent said they weren’t sure yet.

Though the majority of coaches are in favor of replacing the random draw and several noted adding the human element was key, many of them still had questions, especially about biases within committees.

“I believe there are some perceived biases out there, but we’ve got some checks and balances that will put those biases to rest,” Whitmore said, noting that the size of each committee will outweigh the thoughts of any one person serving on it.

Why are current coaches allowed to serve on the committees?

This is one of the biggest concerns that has been raised. Of the 32 committee members, 18 are current head coaches — five serve on the 4A/3A committee, eight on the 2A/1A committee and five on the 2B/1B committee.

“I think the people we’ve got on that are current coaches are reputable people,” Nordi said. “There’s other checks and balances in place to outweigh that. They’re going to give some input, but ultimately each committee is 10-12 people that are going to have other input.”

Peninsula athletic director and football coach Ross Filkins, who will serve on the 4A/3A committee, said coaches have talked about the playoff system as an area of improvement for a long time. He thinks having current coach perspectives will strengthen the committees. As does Whitmore.

“We know the game, we know the teams and we have contacts across the state,” Filkins said. “I feel like coaches have a good eye for what it takes to be a successful playoff team. So, I think that is an important part of the committee.

“We want this to work out, and not just for individual teams. We want this to work out and create the most equitable and exciting postseason.”

Another concern is equal representation on committees from the western and eastern sides of the state.

The WIAA received 39 applications and selected 30 committee members. Two more members — Ryland Spencer, who runs Cascadia Preps, and Scott Odiorne, who runs ScoreCzar — were asked to serve on all three committees. All eight applicants from schools east of the Cascades were selected to be on committees.

“I know the perception is out there a lot of times that the west side is overrepresented in a lot of the things we do, not that I buy into that,” Whitmore said. “But I also believe in the process and those that do represent the east side are going to be great committee members and not going to allow west side bias. I really think there will be checks and balances.”

Why not just use the RPI system that’s used during basketball season?

The WIAA tested that for football using the 2017 season, and the results weren’t as close as they would have liked.

“That’s when we talked about this human factor,” Whitmore said. “Football, I think, is a good sport to try it in.”

Basically, Whitmore says, the sample size for football isn’t big enough to use RPI. Football teams play 10 games before the state playoffs, while basketball teams play more than 20, giving the RPI formula more data to work with. The sample size with football is just too small, he says.

“The simple formula we use in RPI doesn’t do a terrific job with just a 10-game sample,” Whitmore said. “And it doesn’t account for the mixed leagues we have. It doesn’t account for strength of leagues.”

Whitmore said RPI will be used as objective data to help the committees, but it won’t be a determining factor.

All of these and other questions will continue to be asked as the committee system is tested this first season. What Whitmore and others are hoping for, above all else, is a more effective replacement for the draw.

“We’re not looking for the perfect system, because there’s not one out there,” Whitmore said. “For our state, we’re just looking for better. We have a hardworking, great committee that I am confident in and feel good about.”

“Is it going to be perfect? No,” Nordi said. “The hope is it’s going to be better than what we had. It’ll be tweaked in years to come. I think it’s cutting edge. This committee and this group are potentially going to set the stage for other sports and how we seed those other tournaments.”

Lauren Smith: 360-754-5473, @smithlm12