MARLBOROUGH, Mass. -- We were roughly half an hour into this morning's MIAA special general assembly at Assabet Valley Regional Vocational High, where in a few short minutes the mass would vote approval of a plan that radically alters the state's football playoff landscape, when my cell phone buzzed.
It was from Cory McCarthy, the patriarch of New Mission's rapidly-ascending athletics program and quotable trump card for any Boston high school reporter, looking for the school's address to plug into his GPS.
"You'd better hurry up," I typed back.
He responded, "I'm 39 minutes away. But my vote is gonna get me in more trouble anyway."
Each school competing in the MIAA, even the ones without football, were permitted one vote in this election, and it was widely accepted that all 19 votes allotted to the Boston Public Schools would be used as a block against this proposal -- a notion McCarthy refuted, tweeting to Boston reporters a few minutes prior, "I'm voting yes, so make it 18".
He never ended up making it to the auditorium at Assabet, but they didn't need him anyway. By a vote of 161-131 from the general assembly, the MIAA will next fall begin a two-year pilot system that does away with the 19 regional Super Bowl championships in the state, replaced by a statewide playoff system that shortens the regular season to seven games, but allows for up to 160 playoff participants in four regions, and crowns true state champions in six enrollment-based divisions.
So how does this anecdote tie into the big picture here?
McCarthy’s visit was meant to be a quick pit stop on the way to Amherst, where he was taking two of his talented Class of 2014 girls' basketball stars, Jazsala Laracuente and Deandra Humphries, on an unofficial visit to UMass.
And that, perhaps, leads us to one of the more underrated aspects of this radical altering of the Massachusetts football landscape. For all the talk about increased participation, revenue-sharing and a now seemingly unpredictable effect on many Thanksgiving traditions, it's the recruiting angle that has me intrigued.
Maybe it's just me, but I feel like football is one of the last sports remaining where a state championship is valued highly in the evaluation of a high school player. Basketball powerhouse Tilton (N.H.) losing three of its last five contests, including two prep school championship tournaments, did nothing to detract Nerlens Noel's regard as the No. 1 high school player in the country and possibly the top pick in next June's NBA Draft. Ten days ago, U.S. Lacrosse issued a statement expressing concern that the current climate of college lacrosse recruiting -- which, like its basketball and baseball counterparts, is beginning to focus more towards summer club programs -- is “not structured in the best interest of high school student-athletes.”
Football, by far, is the biggest crap-shoot when it comes to projecting talent long-term. A kid can show up at a combine with all of the physical tools requisite for a Division 1 program, but lacking in fundamentals. And that's why the high school season is still so valuable. Playoff football is all about being comfortable with the uncomfortable, as the old saying goes, and this particular system allows for extended opportunities to demonstrate that mental moxie -- as well as production -- against high-level competition. There is no substitute for the real thing in football, and giving it a true playoff setting makes it all the more crucial.
Just for perspective, let's take Stoneham, which is enduring an historic season for the ages. The Spartans are 7-0, but none of their wins have come against a team that has spent any time in ESPN Boston's statewide MIAA Top 25 poll this season. Are there talented players on the team? Sure. Do we know how they'd project? Under this current system of league-based berths and 19 regional Super Bowls, perhaps not accurately.
Let's take another example using two up-and-coming Class of 2014 quarterbacks, Springfield Central's Cody Williams and Cambridge's David Maaghul. Both are talented, but we didn't have a good idea just how talented until we saw how admirably they played in losses to powerhouse Everett. Now, the two are getting varied degrees of feelers from Division 1 programs around New England.
Or let's take Nashoba, which is by all accounts one of the state's stingiest defenses, led by Division 1 linebacker prospect Zach Hume. Could the Chieftains hang with a Walpole or a Reading? I believe so, but for now we're stuck watching them wade through a perceived thinner pool of talent in Central Mass., and we're left with the lingering thought of "What if?"
Or better yet, let's take the one team that did beat Everett and currently sits No. 1 in our statewide poll, Barnstable. Did beating the Crimson Tide on their own turf not solidify quarterback Nick Peabody as the state's best?
Going forward, college coaches will have a better idea of what they're looking at when evaluating talent in Massachusetts, because the levels of competiton are more solidified. I contended a few weeks ago in our weekly "Roundtable" discussion that the Greater Boston League always has leftover hidden talents outside of Everett, pointing out the fact that three GBL alums are currently on NFL rosters (scroll to question No. 5). Yet, not one of them played their high school ball for the Tide. Now, the perceived powder kegs of the league in Malden, Cambridge and Somerville not only enter the season with a fair shake at contending for a state title, but also the ability to demonstrate that under-the-radar kid's ability over an extended season against top-flight competition.
McCarthy has been aggressive in promoting his state champion basketball players to college coaches, and now finds himself doing the same with his football program, in its first year of varsity under head coach Michael Pittman. While the Titans haven't been competitive in most games, there is an element of intrigue with defensive end Isshiah Coleman. The 6-foot-5 senior is a power forward during the winter with a 38-inch vertical leap and intuitive shot-blocking abilities, but now finds himself wondering if he could pursue a post-graduate year at prep school for football.
"I'd have voted in favor of the new system. It really will push the city towards raising their standards -- we have the same athletes as everyone else," McCarthy said by phone. "We might not have the resources, but we have very good coaches who can get these kids to compete without having to go to a Fiesta Bowl or a Sunshine Bowl. If you really want to be a football coach, you have to look at yourself and your program and understand this is what you need to do to be recognized as a Super Bowl champion.
He added, "I think it helps locally with recruiting, too. Colleges know now what they're getting, and they will work harder to see players, without going to have to see 15 Super Bowls in the state."
As it stands, Massachusetts produces an average of eight to 10 Division 1 FBS scholarship players a year in football, a number that may increase with UMass joining the Mid-American Conference.
Nobody's ever going to confuse the Bay State with the Lone Star State in terms of football talent, not in this lifetime or next. But if this increases that clip by five? Ten? To me, this plan is well worth it.