Kirkaldy: VPA system needs to be overhauled

Until a few years ago, the Vermont Principals’ Association endorsed a straightforward system for seeding playoff teams in its four divisions.

Teams were awarded more points for winning against teams in higher divisions or on the road, and fewer points for winning against teams in lower divisions or at home.

For instance, if Division II Vergennes won a basketball game at D-I Champlain Valley Union, it would earn six points. The same win at home would earn five.

If D-II Vergennes won at D-II Mount Abe, it would earn five points. If VUHS beat the Eagles at home, the Commodores would get four points.

If VUHS or Mount Abe played at a D-III team — Winooski, for example — and won, it would get four points. But a win over Winooski at home would net them just three points.

The system wasn’t perfect; none is. There’s plenty of overlap in quality of play among the divisions. From year to year the system didn’t always produce fair results when the points were added up at the end of the season to create rankings within each of the four divisions.

But more often than not teams would end up pretty close to fairly seeded.

Then, a few years ago, fuel prices spiked up. Bus rides for some of the more isolated schools, especially those without other schools with nearby competitors in the same division, got more costly.

Some of those schools — Southern Vermont D-I schools, plus D-I St. Johnsbury and D-II Lyndon — lobbied the VPA’s Point Index Committee to eliminate the penalty for playing down, so they wouldn’t lose points if they played local D-II or D-III schools.

VPA Associate Executive Director Bob Johnson put it this way in a recent email: “The current formula was implemented about 6 years ago and was designed to address high gas cost by giving incentives for higher division teams to play lower division teams. Since its inception, the index system has been reviewed twice, with no major changes being made.”

What’s the effect? There are local examples. Now, I certainly don’t want to knock the accomplishments of the Otter Valley or Middlebury union high school boys’ basketball teams this past winter. Both teams played against the teams their schedule gave them, played well and hard, and were fun to watch.

But they show why this system can be unfair: Arguably neither deserved the exact playoff seeds they received, the Otters over Vergennes and the Tigers over Mount Mansfield.

OV’s schedule included one D-I game (loss to MUHS), nine D-II games (a 6-3 record) and five games apiece vs. D-III and D-IV teams (4-1 vs. each).

VUHS, meanwhile, compiled a 2-6 record vs. D-I, went 8-1 vs. D-II, and won three D-III games.

Under the new system, with no reward for playing up, VUHS earned nothing for its D-I wins. With no penalty for playing down one division, OV lost nothing for its four D-III victories.

The teams finished tied in the D-II standings, and OV earned a home quarterfinal vs. VUHS. 

Under the old system, VUHS would have earned an extra six points for its tougher schedule, while OV would have lost eight points for its lower-division wins. VUHS would have, probably justifiably, hosted that quarterfinal.

In D-I boys’ hoop, the Tigers’ great season landed them the No. 5 seed in D-I with a 16-4 record. Mount Mansfield was No. 6 at 15-5. Sounds fair, until you look closely at two things.

One, MUHS should be in D-II, something discussed in this space a few weeks back

But let’s stick with seeding. MUHS played nine D-I games, going 5-4, and went 11-0 in D-II. MMU won 15 games, all vs. D-I opponents.

Under the older, fairer system, the Tigers would lose 11 points, while MMU would pick up the higher seed and bump the Tigers to No. 6.

I asked Johnson if he thought the seeds awarded were fair. This was his email response:

“Schools choose the level of competition they would like to play in the core sports … I agree that in some cases, teams may get an edge because of the level of competition they play, but I have always been a big believer in that it all works out in the tournament and the best teams win.”

But that answer does not address the likelihood home teams are more likely to win, that better teams deserve the right to play before their fans, and that the organization charged with operating high school sports probably should do its best to create a level playing field for its teams.

I also asked Johnson if there was any evidence of teams saving any money from travel, but never got a response. I do know some teams, D-II Woodstock basketball, for example, bypassed closer, tougher games in the Rutland area to travel further to face D-III competition. The undefeated Wasp boys bypassed Rutland for 10 D-III and IV games as far away as Arlington and Twin Valley, but somehow also missed D-I Burr & Burton on the way to Arlington, for example.

There are different approaches to making the current system more equitable. Football uses quality points, for example, that reward teams for beating opponents with better records.

VUHS Activities Director Peter Maneen said on March 4 the Points Index Committee looked at a proposal that would modify the current system, one that includes an award of a half-point for teams that play up a division and gives teams less that play down. The committee will meet again this spring to make a decision.

Quality points or the half-point solutions would be complicated, but better than what is in place. I would say it’s time for the VPA to show some leadership and recommend to its points committee a fairer and simpler answer: What was in place until six years ago worked fine.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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