Beginning at 7 on Friday night, Section 1 begins its football playoffs after a truncated regular season. Those in charge won’t call these playoff games – and to be factual and fair, neither will we – but consider this weekend a “qualifying round” in name only.
Just set the semantics aside and ask this simple question: Do the winners advance deeper into the postseason?
All told, 48 of Section 1’s 54 teams in Classes AA, A and B – the state’s three largest classifications – will compete to advance this weekend. For some, that would require a relative miracle, but, of course, long odds are better than no odds at all.
Last year, the same three classes only sent 20 combined teams – eight apiece in Class AA and A and four in B. These expanded playoffs are a step in the right direction for Section 1 and area football in general.
After an undeniable decrease in participation in high school football – not to mention, the lack of success statewide of the best local teams in recent years – something had to change. Increasing the number of players who begin the season believing they can chase that playoff carrot is a start.
With such a short regular season (this year six games, last year seven), some seasons were often over soon after they started. That would’ve been the case for Mamaroneck, one of last year’s semifinalists in Class AA. Star quarterback Bill Flatow sprained his shoulder in the second quarter of its season opener and then Peter Matt, one of the top two-way players in Westchester, suffered a high-ankle sprain two weeks later.
The Tigers finished the regular season 0-6. Like most teams, they lack significant depth because of modest numbers, but are they unworthy of more than six meaningful games? Considering their otherwise bleak resume includes competitive losses to New Rochelle, John Jay-East Fishkill and Clarkstown North – Class AA’s Top 3 teams, which beat just about everyone else in routs – the answer is yes.
“Is it fair? We’re obviously grateful to get this opportunity,” said Flatow, who will play when Mamaroneck visits Carmel Friday night. “We’ve had such a harder schedule than some of the other teams in the playoffs, so I guess it’s fair for us to get an opportunity to compete with them.”
Mamaroneck was among 13 teams in Class AA that automatically qualified for the playoffs. Similarly, there were 13 automatic qualifiers in Class A and 10 in B.
That cutoff – some believed it was arbitrary – drew plenty of ire and questions about its viability are fair. Whatever your opinion, it had a positive impact on how several teams, Mamaroneck included, viewed their season.
“The fact of the matter is, we played a really difficult schedule against some great teams, but we weren’t being penalized. We were being rewarded,” Tigers coach Anthony Vitti said. “The kids understood that. Sometimes when you lose a couple tough games it can be a psychological challenge to get the kids to come back strong. But now our kids are excited and ready to make a run.”
In past years, Section 1’s system for earning playoff berths had earned its share of detractors. The power-based scheduling that was enacted in 2011 led to lower-ranked teams feasting on easier schedules and wresting playoff berths away from winners who had been challenged by schedules similar to Mamaroneck’s. The expanded playoffs have allowed something of a compromise.
In Class B, Valhalla probably has the biggest gripe with its seed – as the No. 14-ranked team, the 6-0 Vikings could only earn the 11th seed – but second-year coach Steve Boyer viewed the season as a chance to build the program but also earn respect in the playoffs.
“I totally agree with the system. We were preseason-ranked 14th and our schedule showed it,” Boyer said. “The highest-ranked team we played was (eighth-ranked) Putnam Valley. We played our schedule and did what we had to do, but now we have to step up in class.”
That challenge will be shared by plenty of teams this weekend, but it’s certainly better than the alternative.