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Ken Lipshez

The cost of the expanded playoff format

The Southington football team’s bid for a Class LL championship was postponed more times than a picnic lunch in Thailand during monsoon season.

The severe weather we experienced over the past week is far from unusual, so it raises a number of questions concerning policy, scheduling, the nature of high school football and the pain that it’s caused coaches trying to plan their winter sports campaigns.

The CIAC approved the football committee’s proposal for an expansion of the playoffs from a two-tier (semifinals and finals) to a three-tier tournament (quarterfinals, semis and finals) prior to the 2010 season.

I think the idea was met with approval from a substantial majority, but executing the plan meant one of three developments to accommodate the extra game on the schedule. Either the season had to begin earlier, extend into mid-December or the tournament had to start prior to Thanksgiving, making the games surrounding the holiday mere exhibitions.

I received a call at the time from one of the members of the football committee — a highly successful Central Connecticut area coach — who asked that I write a column expressing that the playoffs should start prior to Thanksgiving. As much as I like to accommodate coaches I respect, I told him without hesitation that I couldn’t do that.

I was raised in Hamden. My parents both graduated from Hillhouse. When I was very young, Dad would bring me to Bowen Field for the Wilbur Cross-Hillhouse game. To his chagrin, I adopted Cross (known as Commercial High in his day) as my team of preference and would come home for Thanksgiving dinner with a Wilbur Cross pennant or a Wilbur Cross pin.

As time went on, we started attending the Green Bowl between Hamden and Notre Dame, and what a spectacle it was! I can remember crowds of over 5,000, perhaps as many as 10,000, jamming Hamden’s field for the game. The cross country meet between the schools was timed to finish during an extended halftime as the marching bands played.

Since starting my career as a sportswriter, I have covered numerous Southington-Cheshire battles, Plainville-Northwest Catholic, Plainville-St. Paul and Plainville-Farmington. I’ve heard the pining of New Britain football fans as the Golden Hurricanes struggled to find a Thanksgiving Day partner and left Veterans Memorial Stadium an empty void.

Tradition! It was valuable to me through all those years and it still is. Under no circumstances could I support rendering Thanksgiving games moot.

The committee opted to extend the season another week into December. When the CIAC sanctioned that proposal, the collective groan you heard from Killingly to Kent and Stonington to Stamford emanated from wrestling and basketball coaches.

We were lucky from 2010-12. The weather allowed the games to be played. Our luck ran out this year and nobody is paying a greater price than the Southington wrestling program guided by Derek Dion. When Dion opened the doors to his wrestling room early this week, about 65 percent of his team was missing.

As the postponements mounted, his blood pressure rose. He sought answers and got none. Zach Maxwell, who has to go down as one of the finest athletes the town has ever produced, is well-known as a devastating defense end and punishing running back. But how many realize how proficient he is on the wrestling mat?

I’ve been covering wrestling since 1992 and, from what insiders tell me, Maxwell has a chance to be one of the best to ever come out of Connecticut. How does Maxwell feel about it? Well, he’s torn. He loves what both sports have to offer, depending on what’s in season.

“Coach Dion always tells me [I’m a better wrestler than football player],” he said. “He says I have more opportunities [to earn a college scholarship] wrestling, but the opportunities that you can do something are obviously less and there’s less money involved. …

“I enjoy being [on the wrestling mat] by myself and winning by myself, but I enjoy being with my team, too. They give me a lot of support and it’s fun playing with all of your brothers.”

In addition to Maxwell, RB/DB Tyler Hyde and DB Zach Bylykbashi are top-notch wrestlers. Other football players are on the team and still others are on the bubble, not yet sure if they will join the wrestling team, and the Knights’ viability as one of the state’s better teams hangs in the balance.

Keep in mind that Southington benefits from the fact that Dion doubles as a freshman football coach and head football coach Mike Drury is a valuable member of Dion’s wrestling staff. Such cooperation between the two sports tends to be sporadic as you go from school to school.

As the postponements for the Class LL football final mounted, Dion was forced to postpone a competitive interdivisional CCC match with South Windsor that was slated for opening night Wednesday. The Southington lineup in Saturday’s Lancer Invitational in Waterford will be severely compromised with untested underclassmen and junior varsity kids filling bracket slots.

Even more important, Maxwell and his fellow two-sport teammates will find themselves behind for much of the season. Face it, the Southington wrestling season, and countless hours of preparation by Dion, have dissipated in the frigid air over West Haven’s Ken Strong Stadium.

“I’ve got to get them weight certified,” he said. “It’s a scientific formula and this is messing it all up. A quarter of my season will be gone. We’ll be playing catch-up to get the kids in cardiovascular shape and teaching them new moves. It’s criminal.”

The CIAC must stop crippling winter programs to accommodate football.

The postponements have taken their toll on the kids, the coaches, school administrators, CIAC associate executive director Paul Hoey, Chris Everone and his terrific maintenance crew at West Haven, as well as Dion and the magnificent program he’s built. Now it’s impacting other schools, too, and perhaps a great student-athlete’s future. Dion scheduled a special tournament, the Connecticut Challenge for Feb. 1, with top teams from the state and beyond to help showcase Maxwell to big-time college coaches.

“It took me three months to get it on the schedule and now he’s not going to be prepared,” Dion said. “It could cost that kid a scholarship.”

Either start the football season earlier or scrub the quarterfinals. What would we be missing anyway? The average margin of victory in the 16 quarterfinal games this season was over 26 points.

The argument on the part of the football committee and coaches is based on comparing playoff qualification in football to other sports. Even with the extended playoffs, only 32 teams qualify in football compared to 114 in boys soccer.

“I’m obviously excited that we extended the playoffs,” CIAC football committee chairman Leroy Williams said. “In other sports, teams that win 50 percent or even 40 percent of their games make the playoffs. I have no regrets, but at some point we have to make a decision: Start before Labor Day or give up Thanksgiving Day counting toward the playoffs.”

It’s apples vs. oranges to me.

Participation is great, but what did the Prince Tech kids get out of losing 51-8 to Rocky Hill in the Class S quarters? How did Ledyard kids feel about getting 84 points scored on them by St. Joseph in Class M? How did the Farmington kids feel when it became apparent that New Canaan could have named its score in a 46-0 Class L verdict?

Perhaps the answers would be divided, but I don’t see blowouts helping anybody.

The only answer if we must maintain the three-tier system is to get the football season started a week earlier.

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