On Sunday morning at the MIAA Headquarters in Franklin the high school football pairings were released officially beginning the five-week long state tournament.
One season after hoisting the Div. 1 Super Bowl trophy, St. John's Prep is hoping to make it two in a row, but faces no easy path with potential matchups against No. 3 Andover and top-seeded Central Catholic on the horizon. The Eagles' foe in that 2018 Super Bowl — Catholic Memorial — is hoping to change its fortunes this time around. Player of the Year candidate Owen McGowan leads a Knights team that is widely regarded as the top in Massachusetts.
Div. 2 South is as wide open as any bracket in Eastern Mass. with at least four teams that could grab the sectional crown and another handful seeking to upset the apple cart. Another postseason showdown between Mansfield and King Philip feels like destiny to many.
Div. 4 North has a pair of teams who posted spotless regular seasons in Melrose and Revere, and another in Wayland who capped off its regular season slate with a 45-8 victory over Div. 2 North contender Lincoln-Sudbury. Fifth-seeded Marblehead suffered a pair of losses but those came at the hands of Danvers and the aforementioned Patriots by a combined seven points.
Stoneham is hoping to rise back to the top of Div. 6 North but undefeated Shawsheen and battle-tested Bishop Fenwick stand in the way.
Should the chalk hold No. 1 seed Cohasset would get a shot at revenge against second-seeded Abington for the Div. 7 South sectional crown. Last Friday, the Green Wave grabbed the South Shore League's Tobin Division title with a 28-21 win.
Meanwhile, the final week of regular season play is upon the folks in Central and Western Mass. Unlike Eastern Mass., Central and Western Mass sections play nine weeks of regular season football before determining the top four teams who advance to the state tournament.
Without question, the top game on the docket west of 495 is Wachusett-St. John's. The Mountaineers have been trying to prove for weeks they are actually the top dog in Div. 3 and will get a chance to prove that on Friday afternoon. Elsewhere, Tantasqua can make a last ditched effort for the top seed in Div. 4 Central with a win over Graton, while Nashoba would feel much more confident in its postseason aspirations if it could pick up a win over Shrewsbury.
Blackstone Valley has had its week nine matchup with Assabet Valley circled on the calendar for some time.
With the first week of MIAA Tournament play set to get underway on Friday night, here are my five latest takeaways.
1. Final Week's Results Turn Tournament Upside Down
Heading into the final week, the postseason picture appeared to be fairly clear across a number of the divisions. The final weekend of the regular season changed all that.
The biggest shock came late Saturday when it became evident that Dennis-Yarmouth would miss out on the Div. 5 South Tournament. On Friday afternoon, the Dolphins fell on the road to Bridgewater-Raynham by two points but were left hanging largely due to wins by Scituate, Medway, and Hanover. Many consider the Dolphins a borderline top 25 team in the state, but they will not get to show their mettle due to a trio of Div. 2 losses.
The race for both the No. 1 and No. 8 seeds in Div. 3 South came down to the waning hours of Saturday afternoon. Duxbury looked to potentially be on the verge of snagging the top seed in the section, but its rival in Hingham was bailed out when Braintree picked up its first win of the season over Weymouth, thus handing the Harbormen the clinching three points necessary.
At the bottom of the bracket, meanwhile, North Attleboro and Bishop Feehan were tied for the eighth spot with the Red Rocketeers hoping their head-to-head win over the Shamrocks would push them over the edge. Holliston's win over Hopkinton, however, gave Feehan the points necessary to give them the eighth and final spot.
Then there is Needham, who looked to be headed for the non-qualifier round as the week progressed. The Rockets, however, were able to pick up a monster 31-28 win over Walpole to surge past Taunton into the final spot in Div. 1 South. Needham will now look to pull off one of the bigger upsets in recent Massachusetts high school football memory when they travel to top-seeded Catholic Memorial.
2. Premiere First Round Games Aplenty
On first look, there is no shortage of first round matchups that should grab headlines. Barnstable is as dangerous a six seed as they come and will begin their postseason run with a trip to three-time defending sectional champion King Philip. In the same Div. 2 South bracket, New Bedford - whose undefeated season came to an end on Saturday — will take a trip to dangerous No. 4 Wellesley on Saturday afternoon.
Elsewhere, a rematch of last year's sectional final is set to take place in the opening round as No. 8 Scituate takes a trip to top-seeded Canton. A season ago the Sailors were largely seen as the favorite but the tables are completely turned this time around. Concord-Carlisle has had one of its better seasons in recent memory going a spotless 7-0 only for its reward to be a quarterfinal bout with a stingy Beverly team.
3. Some Sectional Titles Could Be Decided In the Semifinals
It seems that perhaps moreso this year than most, the highest profile games in each section could come in the semifinals. Catholic Memorial is the resounding favorite in Div. 1 South, but its toughest competition could come a week from Friday if chalk holds and BC High knocks off Framingham. The Eagles are certainly clamoring for a chance to avenge a drubbing by the Knights on Thanksgiving a season ago.
Should King Philip and Mansfield both win its opening game, the two Hockomock Kelly-Rex leagues would square off with a berth to the sectional final on the line. The two sides have met in consecutive postseasons with the Warriors winning both contests by a combined field goal. Top-seeded Melrose is the farthest thing from a slouch in Div. 4 North, but a semifinal matchup between Revere and Wayland would draw plenty of eyebrows. Div. 6 North could feature a rockfight between undefeated Shawsheen and defending sectional champion Stoneham if both win opening round games.
4. Small Facets Set to Play Big Part
Throughout the regular season, many integral components that go into team success can fly under the radar. Those crucial aspects of the game are set to come to the forefront in the postseason.
Special teams play sure seems to be highlighted come November. Many in Wrentham will tell you that King Philip likely does not win a pair of Super Bowls without the exemplary kicking ability of Cole Baker. North Andover received a similar luxury year in Gabe DeSouza and this year that benefit could belong to Catholic Memorial with its kicker Matt Sokol one of the best in the state.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the 12-minute quarters impact postseason play. Most teams were able to get used to the difference during the regular season, but the postseason is sure to bring a handful of different variables into the equation. The eight-minute adjustment to 10-minute quarters come the Super Bowl is sure to alter the game plans of teams participating.
5. Feld's Sectional Picks
On Sunday night, Adam Kurkjian and I each released our sectional picks on the latest edition of the Mass Varsity Football Podcast. Just to get them in writing though, here are my North and South Sectional picks:
North: CENTRAL CATHOLIC over ST. JOHN'S PREP
South: CATHOLIC MEMORIAL over FRANKLIN
North: READING over LINCOLN-SUDBURY
South: NATICK over KING PHILIP
North: DANVERS over BEVERLY
South: HINGHAM over STOUGHTON
North: MELROSE over WAYLAND
South: MILTON over NAUSET
North: SWAMPSCOTT over LYNNFIELD
South: CANTON over HOLLISTON
North: STONEHAM over BISHOP FENWICK
South: OLD ROCHESTER over ASHLAND
North: MANCHESTER ESSEX over LOWELL CATHOLIC
South: COHASSET over ABINGTON
North: LYNN TECH over TECH BOSTON
South: OLD COLONY over WEST BRIDGEWATER
Feld's Hot Take of The Week: For One Month Stop Complaining About the Playoff System and Enjoy the Game
This annual tradition has become more predictable than people griping about how they wish there were term limits for elected officials. Ever year, as the MIAA regular season winds down, the old guard takes to Twitter to proclaim how outrageous it is that the old Thanksgiving rivalries have had their meaning stripped away.
Right on cue they follow it up telling us all how awful of a lesson it is to teach our children that even if you only win 60 percent of your games, you can still reach the tournament even though its a failing grade. Ignoring the fact that baseball teams that win 95 games (0.586 win pct.) also fail to reach the 60-percent threshold set by the social media overlords, there are zero — yes count it ZERO — teams that have entered the postseason with losing records that have gone on to win the Super Bowl teams since the new format was installed in 2013. As Danny Ventura of the Boston Herald always reminds us, there were tons of 9-2/10-1 teams under the old system that were not rewarded for their standout seasons.
Perhaps there is a happy medium.
So, maybe get off the high horse of what "we're teaching our children" when we seem to be only teaching them at the end of the day the best teams wins out.
Furthermore, this is simply a microcosm of what I can only describe in nice words as the complain culture that has overtaken the high school sports community amongst all participants but particularly parents and administrators. I am happy to be the first to tell you that this playoff system is not perfect. Far from it. I would like to see fewer divisions, a fairer system in which teams were placed in divisions that were more in tune with their school size and team's overall ability, and higher qualification standards. In fact, I am fairly large advocate for the format currently followed by Central and Western Mass. in conjunction with a new divisional alignment.
But those changes are not going to come right now at this moment. They are not going to happen because I go on some endless Twitter rant about how unfair it is that a certain amount of teams make it one division but others miss in another. There are alternative options being explored and presented at this time.
Instead, we would all be better off if we spent the next month of our time celebrating the players on the field. This will be their chance — whether they are representing the top overall seed in the state or the final berth in a section — to be stars for one evening. Its their opportunity to be focal points for their communities. For many of these high school athletes this is their chance to become hometown heroes.
It should always be about the players and the schools they represent.. They are the ones creating the excitement. We are here to add to that experience. Lay off the griping and enjoy the game on the field.
That's what really matters.