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Andy Kirkaldy: Time for changes to Vermont high school playoffs

On June 3, the No. 10 seeded North Country Union High School baseball team, owner of an 8-8 record, made a 340-mile, five-and-a-half-hour round trip to face No. 7 Brattleboro, a 10-6 team, in the first round of the Division I playoffs. The Falcons predictably lost to the Colonels, 9-1.
I learned last week at another first-round playoff mismatch (more on that below) that bus drivers usually cost $22 an hour. In Brattleboro, playing and warming up for the game and corralling players at both ends of the trip probably added another three-and-a-half hours to the driver’s time, so that’s about $200 on the taxpayers’ tab right there. Diesel at $4 bucks a gallon at 10 mpg for 340 miles and you’ve got another $136. Add in two officials, and it cost about $500 to play this mismatch.
People feel strongly about open playoffs, about giving everyone a chance at one more game. But even without the expense there is also a lot to like about a policy like that Otter Valley used to have (since abandoned under parental pressure) of requiring teams to win a certain percentage of their games to earn a playoff berth.
Such a policy makes the postseason something of value to be achieved, a goal to be accomplished, not an empty reward for a team with a record not good enough to be in top half of its division.
Given the financial pressures our school are facing, it’s time for the Vermont Principals’ Association to revisit its open playoff policy.
To start with, many first-round games are embarrassing. Did anyone really need to see the undefeated Middlebury Union football team beat St. Johnsbury, 48-6, in a D-I quarterfinal last fall, and did St. J taxpayers need to foot what was probably a $400 bill? The OV, Vergennes and Mount Abraham softball teams beat their first-round opponents this spring by a collective score of 47-0.
And even if an underdog wins, like Essex beating the MUHS girls in lacrosse last week, did the 5-10 Hornets really deserve a third chance at the 10-4 Tigers after losing two regular season games by five and six goals?
The absurdity of it all really came to a head at a boys’ lacrosse game last week. The No. 5 Tigers, then 11-4, were hosting mighty No. 12 Spaulding, who came to town the not so proud possessor of a 1-12 record. The teams had already met on Fucile Field during the regular season. MUHS won, 20-0.
The game last week was halted by lightning in the second quarter with the Tigers on top, 6-1. After almost two hours of delays, the Spaulding athletic director, who made the trip over from Barre, refused to concede the loss.
That decision meant his team would come back two days later to finish off a lopsided setback — about seven hours of travel, 300 miles, and at least a dozen hours of a driver’s salary plus fuel for two round trips, all paid for by Barre property and business owners. His school board ought to call him on the carpet.
While we were waiting out the lightning delay in the concession stand, most folks, including me, focused on the lunacy of not conceding the game. But the MUHS coaches, to their credit, wondered why it was being played in the first place.
For the record, in D-II boys’ lacrosse, the one-win OV and winless Randolph squads had the common sense to take a pass on the postseason.
It’s time for the VPA to impose that common sense on all teams in all divisions: Limit the postseasons in each 12- or 16-team divisions to the top eight teams, plus other teams with winning records if there are any. Save some money, and make reaching the playoffs mean something.
One thing must change, however, to take this approach: No more rewarding teams for playing down a division.
Look at BFA-Fairfax softball: The Bullets, a D-II team, played 10 D-II games this spring. They earned the same points for each of those wins as the D-II Mount Abe softball team did when it defeated any of the 11 D-I teams on its schedule.
Or Brattleboro boys’ lacrosse. Anyone wonder why the No. 5 Tigers defeated the No. 4 Colonels so handily on Saturday? Brattleboro played four D-II games, and did not play any against the top two seeds in the tournament. The Tigers played one D-II team. Yet the Colonels earned a higher seed because they were not penalized for playing down.
A few years back, the VPA changed the rule that penalized teams for playing down, presumably because it would encourage teams to schedule teams nearer their home base and save money on travel. I have not detected any change in any schedules, but have seen teams unfairly benefit  — frankly, including MUHS boys’ basketball and soccer, which recently earned high D-I seeds by playing in the D-II Lake Division.
(Of course, the VPA also changed its rules to no longer allow teams to petition to stay in a lower division, and the Tiger boys belong in D-II, something else I have supported in print, so there is that.)
It’s time to re-level the seeding playing field, and limit the number of postseason teams. If those two changes were made in tandem, the seeds would be more accurate, and more schools could support a common-sense rules change that would save money and bring meaning to earning a playoff berth.
And schools and taxpayers would save a few dollars, which at this point we should all get behind. 

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