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Looking at the PIAA lacrosse tournament after recent changes to brackets: Coaches speak out on format

Monday, 20th August 2012

Categories Boy's/Men's, Girl's/Women's, High School  

By Chris Goldberg, Posted 8/20/12

While the number of teams playing lacrosse in Pennsylvania continues to grow, Philly squads are dominating more but getting less representation in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) tournament.

Garnet Valley won its second straight PIAA championship

And after the pairings for the 2013 and 2014 tournaments were recently released (see story here), some coaches wondered why many of the top teams from the region continue to match up early in the tourney. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of teams across the state continued, prompting some coaches to applaud the format for promoting the sport’s growth by including all regions and giving newer programs a chance to advance to the PIAA tourney.

The PIAA tournament has been run for four years, and has taken a close look at the results. These are the major points:

*In the girls’ tourney over the four years, teams from the traditional powers of District 1 and District 12 have gone 17-0 in games outside their districts. The average margin of victory on those games is 13 – but much higher aside from two tight wins over Manheim Township in 2011 and 2012. District 1 teams have played for the state title all four years of the tourney.

*The boys’ mark is 17-4, with defeats coming to Emmaus (twice) and Manheim Township (twice).

*Participation among teams throughout the state has risen dramatically. Since 2008 when the announcement was made that the PIAA would begin holding a tourney in 2009, the number of girls’ teams has risen 37 percent (from 131 to 179) and the number of boys’ teams has risen 40 percent (from 125 to 175).

The major news on the new brackets for 2013-14 (see previous article posted) is the continuing shrinking number of state berths going to District 1.

In the two-year period of 2013-14, District 1 drops down to six girls’ teams in the PIAA tourney after having seven the previous four years. District 1 boys dropped to five teams in 2011-2012 after having seven in the previous years. This has occurred, for one thing, because two districts (for instance District 4 and 6) have reached the minimum amount of teams (four) needed to get an automatic berth to states.

In the boys’ tourney, a much-talked-about issue has been the fact that District 12 receives just one state berth. That district features La Salle and St. Joseph’s Prep – two powers that traditionally are either ranked near the top of the PA Media Rankings and also often are ranked nationally.

Conestoga’s boys have won three straight PIAA titles

Next year La Salle is expected to be ranked among the top two or three teams in the nation to start the year and St. Joe’s Prep already has nine players committed to Division I programs. One of these teams has reached the state finals in each of the four years of the tourney. But only one will advance to the state tourney in 2013 and 2014.

Many Philly coaches and followers have asked the following questions when looking at the PIAA tourneys:

1. Why do the Philly regions receive so few berths in states when they dominate so handily?

2. Why do Philly teams frequently have to play each other so early in the tourney while teams from the other districts can reach the semis without having to play a Philly team? Can’t they seed the tourneys?

3. Why is the tourney always in Hershey when Philly teams are always playing each other for the championship?

4. When will the state split into Class AA and AAA tourneys.

Melissa Mertz, Tournament Director for the PIAA lacrosse tournament, answered these questions (click here for her comments). In brief, these are her paraphrased answers to the questions, in order:

1. This one is simple. It’s based solely on the number of teams in each district as compared to the total number in the state. When the tourney started in 2009, there were around 135 boys’ and girls’ teams – now there are 179 girls’ teams and 175 boys’ teams. District 1 has not grown, but the other districts have.

2. Travel is a major concern. The athletic directors and principals who lead the steering committees are concerned about sending teams out 3 or 4 hours and missing class time while more money is spent on gas. The games occur when college tests are being offered and players are preparing for finals so these are key issues. Also, much effort is made to assure that teams with high district finishes face teams with much lower finishes. Why do District 4 and 6 champs get to play each other in the first round? It’s a chance for one of these teams to advance and get more state playoff exposure. And no PIAA tourney has ever been seeded; although some tourneys have made modifications to the way berths are chosen when steering committees are successful in recommendations to the PIAA board.

3. This year PPL Park was allowed to bid to host the state tourney. The bid came in at $20,000. Hershey’s bid was for FREE! This is 2012 and budgets are tighter than your old drum set. That ended that discussion.

4. At 200 teams, there will be a split to Classes AA and AAA. Perhaps that will occur for 2017-18.

Girls’ coaches take sides on PIAA format

Looking at the brackets for 2013-14, girls’ coaches from District 1 felt there is a need to consider re-designing the tourney. Harriton coach George Dick – whose team last year placed third in District 1 and then had to face defending state champion and eventual 2012 champ Garnet Valley in the state quarterfinals after playing them a week earlier in the District 1 playoffs – said, at a minimum, the District 1 champion should be rewarded for winning the district title. The current setup of playing the 6th seed from District 1 is not a reward.

In 2012, Radnor won the District 1 crown and drew District 1 seventh-place finisher Hatboro-Horsham – a team they barely defeated, 15-14. This was in indication of how strong District 1 was in 2012; and that was also evidenced by the tremendous success of sixth-place finisher Strath Haven, which went all the way to the finals and took Garnet Valley to overtime.

Also in 2012, Manheim Township completely dominated District 3 and was ranked high in the PA Media Rankings all year. But it had the task of facing Garnet Valley while watching the District 3 third-place finisher Penn Manor defeat two District 7 teams and reach the state semis.

“My issue is with the fact that there is no incentive for teams to win the District 1 or District 3 championships,” Dick said. “These champions should get the better draw at states.”

Mertz said that determining the format for the state tournament is a three-step process in which the state steering committee – which has representatives from each district – goes back to its local districts to present the proposal. Mertz noted that no complaints have ever come back to the state board from this process and that coaches need to push their steering committee members to fight for a change if that’s what they want.

Dick mentioned that the District 1 champion has only won the state title once (when Radnor took the 2009 crown) and he attributes that to the fact that the district is so strong and that District 1 teams have to continue beating District 1 teams in states.

“I recognize the difficulties of seeding a state wide tournament,” said Dick. “However, one simple solution would be to have no team play another team from their district in the first round.”

Manheim Township coach Mark Pinkerton noted that the top eight teams – based on last year’s PA Media Rankings and the LaxPower Rankings – will end up playing each other in the first round of the tourney in 2013.

“The (2013-14) PIAA girls’ lacrosse bracket is set up exactly opposite to the logic and structure of a typical 16-team bracket,” he said. “For the next 2-year cycle, clearly the top eight teams will be the six District 1 teams, the District 12 team, and the District 3 one seed.

“This eliminates four of the top teams on the first day of the State Tournament. There is no scenario in the current bracket that would allow four of the top eight teams to advance to the semifinals. The current bracket also maintains the previous odd seeding for district 3 teams. The district 3 champion faces a significantly harder path than the second- and third-place teams.

“The disadvantage gained by winning the District 3 championship has many parents seriously suggesting throwing games in the district playoffs.”

Pinkerton also believes that travel time should not be a bigger factor than strength of the teams and making a state tournament that best allows the top teams to advance.

“If the thinking was to avoid excessive travel in round 1, why was that done in girls’ lacrosse but just voted down in basketball in favor of maintaining a typical bracket structure?” he said. “Travel doesn’t explain the odd District 3 seedings.

“I think the vast majority of coaches would have preferred PIAA set up the brackets for the best competitive tournament. If travel is that big of an issue then we might as well go back to the pre-PIAA setup with an Eastern champ and a Midwest champ.”

Other coaches from non-traditional areas of lacrosse, though, feel the system works in helping grow the sport by providing their players an opportunity to qualify for the tourney against teams of similar experience.

Wyoming Seminary, of District 2 in Luzerne County, has advanced to the PIAA girls’ tourney each of the past two years by winning a sub-regional playoff – against a team from District 4. Now, under the new format, the District 2 and District 4 champs will automatically advance to the PIAA tourney and get to play each other for a shot at a quarterfinals berth.

Seminary, which has offered girls’ lacrosse for years, has the most established programs in Northeast Pennsylvania. Since the PIAA adopted a state tourney, area schools such as Dallas and Lake-Lehman have added lacrosse and several others are planning to add the sport at the varsity level.

“When I first started here no one else had lacrosse in the area and now schools are adding the sport,” said Wyoming Seminary 11-year coach Catie Kersey. “That has to do with the PIAA and its tournament.

“It certainly has changed the way our girls focus and play. It’s exciting. We have had to switch around our schedule to add better teams from the stronger Philly area. We play for school pride, but knowing there is a state tournament helps us improve our preparation.”

Kersey said she understands why District 1 teams would want a seeded tournament or a tourney with more berths for the power districts. But she feels the rest of the state benefits by having an opportunity to advance and to succeed in at least one round of PIAA play.

“I can see their frustration, but we are not in that position,” Kersey said. “We like that the tournament is inclusive.”

Boys’ coaches look at both sides

It’s clear why District 1 teams are not happy about the PIAA brackets. Last year Garnet Valley finished fourth in the powerful Central League and then finished second in the District 1 tourney, falling to three-time state champion Conestoga.

The Jaguars’ reward in the first round of states? A date with fellow Central League foe Radnor, which won the game, 5-4, in overtime and went on to the state semifinals.

“That’s the part to me that is most crazy,” said Garnet Valley coach Frank Urso. “You work hard to get to that point. And then the Central League teams knock each other out.

“It’s no fun going into playoffs still playing the same teams from your league. It takes away excitement from the tournament at that point. We like to play teams from somewhere else.”

On the flip side, a school like Dallas (District 2) stands to benefit from the new format. The Mountaineers, in their fourth year of play in 2012, finished 11-4 and lost to Delaware Valley in the District 2 title game. Coach Rich Cohen said Dallas and other new teams can use the goal of a state berth to motivate players.

“I think that’s great,” he said of the automatic state berth and first-round pairings for District 2. “It gives us a little more equity. If we make it, we have the opportunity to win at states and move on to see how other programs are outside our area.”

In conclusion

Radnor girls’ coach Brooke Fritz believes the tourney does not allow the top teams to have the best chance to advance. She noted how strong a foe Hatboro-Horsham was in the first round this year as opposed to her second-round opponent, District 3 runner-up Cocalico (who Radnor beat 20-3).

Fritz, though, did agree that travel is a major concern. She said her girls were taking final exams the week of the state tourney and understands how much gas costs these days to budget-strapped school districts.

“I just feel there should be some solutions and that we should be flexible,” she said. “We all had to travel far in the second round. Why not he first round? I feel there must be a way that’s do-able.

“I would love to see the teams seeded after districts, but I understand the difficulties in something like that. Buses have to be scheduled and fields have to be chosen. I can see that we don’t want teams from Pittsburgh traveling five hours to play a first-r0und game, but there needs to be a happy medium.”


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