The Granite State's governing body for high school sports, the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, is conducting a postseason experiment.
It's currently taking place on the soccer pitch.
Every boys' and girls' soccer team in Division III, regardless of regular-season record, received the chance to compete for the state championship. During the 2009-10 academic year, athletics directors from the league's schools requested a one-year trial run with a “quasi-open” tournament format.
“It came about because, for a number of years, there's been a few ADs who have been pushing for an open tournament,” NHIAA executive director Pat Corbin said. “It's a quasi-open tournament so as not to lengthen the season. We took the last regular-season game and considered it a 'play-in' game.
“It wasn't without controversy,” Corbin added. “But it did finally pass (executive) council this year.”
Whether you consider the play-in round part of the tournament – and the NHIAA does not – is splitting hairs. All 24 boys' teams and 19 girls' teams were playoff-eligible.
Similar to Division III soccer, the open format will be used this winter in Division III boys' and girls' basketball, and this spring in Division III baseball and softball.
“There's been a real push to look at alternatives to what's always been done,” Corbin said.
Cutting down on travel time and costs are key reasons Division III schools opted to go this route. The NHIAA is encouraging more cross-divisional play. But, smaller schools playing teams from large-school leagues may incur additional losses on the regular-season resume.
The open format prevents a Division III team from being penalized – read: missing the playoffs – come tourney time.
But, does the format devalue regular-season results? Why play the games if, ultimately, they don't count toward tournament qualification?
“Well, if you want to play a weak regular-season (schedule) because you like having a good win-loss record, you'll play the mettle of the league in the tournament and not last long,” said Corbin, playing the role of devil's advocate.
Under this experimental format, the top eight boys' soccer teams and top four girls' squads bypassed the play-in round. Given the number of teams in the girls' league, the top four teams also earned a bye in the tournament's first official round – a concern for some coaches, Corbin said, due to the long layoff.
Fifteen play-in matches – eight for the boys, seven for the girls – took place at homes of the higher seeds on Oct. 22.
Twelve of the play-in matches played out as expected. The better teams, based on a two-month body of work, extended their seasons. In three cases, however, the lower-seeded squads sprung upsets.
Two of those stunners took place in the girls' tournament.
Sixteenth-seeded Raymond (3-10-2 regular season) defeated White Mountains of Whitefield (8-6-1), the No. 9 seed, 2-0. Thirteenth-seeded Kingswood of Wolfeboro (6-8-1) beat Stevens of Claremont (7-7-1), the No. 12 seed, 3-0.
The lone upset on the boys' side belonged to No. 19 seed Stevens (2-12-1). It won, 2-1, over No. 14 seed Hillsboro-Deering (6-9-0).
“The intent is to collect data and look at it at the end of the year,” Corbin said. “We'll do an analysis of how things would've likely shaken out if under the old format … and the council will make a decision.”
POINT SYSTEM STIFF-ARMED
The NHIAA was recently at the center of another big decision. This one affected football.
On Oct. 21, the 21-member executive council voted to discontinue use of the first-year New Hampshire Index Plan. The controversial point-rating system, in place this year for use in all sports, decides playoff teams.
The system best serves sports whose teams cannot all play one another during the regular season, creating the need for an equalizer.
Football, however, is the one sport where every team – across all six divisions – faces all league foes. The need for this equalizer was unnecessary.
Furthermore, the system's way of awarding points seemed certain to penalize a playoff-caliber team from punching one of four postseason tickets per division. A win for the designated “road” team earned five points. A win for the designated “home” team earned four points.
Yet caliber of competition is a non-factor. A powerhouse team that beats its winless host earns more points than the struggling squad that springs an upset at home.
Earlier this season, Division I contenders Nashua North and Nashua South met in their annual regular-season rivalry game. Stellos Stadium is home for both teams.
Based on the NHIAA's designation for road and home teams, South was considered the visitor. South won the Week 6 contest, 38-21. It also collected an extra point – for winning on its turf.
“It’s a crazy thing,” South head coach Scott Knight, referring to the NHIP, said after the win. “I guess it stinks if it doesn’t work (to your advantage). But it worked to our benefit this time.”
Displeasure with the system mounted throughout the state's football community. The NHIAA's football committee, led by first-year chair Carol Dozibrin, made the issue an agenda topic for its Oct. 7 meeting.
Two weeks later, Dozibrin made a presentation to the NHIAA Council, which voted to re-instate the old tournament selection system. League records and head-to-head results are, again, top priority.
“When you deal with high school athletics … you just try to do the best thing for the kids,” Dozibrin told the New Hampshire Sunday News. “I think the best thing for the kids is to allow them to determine the outcome on the field.”
Soccer tournaments for the Divisions I and IV boys, and Division II girls are under way.
A combined 20 first-round matches were played in those tournaments. The higher-seed squad won 19 times.
The lone exception came in the Division IV boys' bracket. No. 10 seed Colebrook defeated No. 7 seed Nashua Christian, 5-1.
Tournaments for the Division I girls and Division II boys begin Wednesday. Playoffs for the Division IV girls start Thursday.
Title contenders have been significantly whittled down in Divisions I, II and III field hockey.
The Division I semifinals take place Thursday at Exeter's Bill Ball Stadium. Second-seeded Pinkerton Academy of Derry (13-1-1) faces No. 3 seed Salem (13-2) at 5 p.m. Top-seeded Winnacunnet of Hampton (14-0-1) draws No. 5 seed and defending champion Timberlane of Plaistow (11-5).
Winners advance to Sunday's 2:30 p.m. final at Bedford.
The Division II semifinals take place Wednesday at Exeter. Second-seeded Kennett of Conway (15-1) meets upset specialist and No. 14 seed Plymouth (8-8) at 5 p.m. Top-seeded Bow (16-0) and No. 4 seed Oyster River of Durham (12-4) compete in the 7 p.m. matchup.
Winners advance to Sunday's noon championship at Bedford.
Division III has its finalists. Top-seeded Derryfield of Manchester (16-0) meets No. 2 seed Berlin (15-1) in Sunday's 5 p.m. clash at Bedford.
Cross country's most important races are fast approaching.
Derryfield Park in Manchester is the site for the divisional meets on Saturday. Six races on the 3.1-mile course will determine team and individual champions.
The race day schedule is: Division I girls (10 a.m.) and boys (10:40 a.m.); Division II girls (11:30 a.m.) and boys (12:10 p.m.); and Division III girls (1 p.m.) and boys (1:40 p.m.).
Top runners in each division advance to the Meet of Champions, at Nashua's Mines Falls, on Nov. 6. Nashua South hosts the event, which is a qualifying race for the New England Championships.
The girls' race starts at 2:30 p.m. The boys' race begins at 3:20 p.m.
BIG GAME, GIANT WIN
Sixteen yards separated Nick Lawrence from Timberlane's single-game rushing record.
The senior running back carried the football 29 times for 324 yards and four touchdowns on Oct. 15. He surpassed 1,200 yards for the season as the suddenly surging Owls scored a 26-14 Week 7 win over Winnacunnet, at the time undefeated and New Hampshire's No. 1-ranked team.
Lawrence ran with power and patience. He ran tough between the tackles. He turned the corner when reaching the edges.
The ability to maintain his balance – a big reason he is a three-time Division I wrestling champion in the 130-, 140- and 160-pound weight classes – made him tough to tackle.
"It definitely doesn’t hurt him," Timberlane head coach Kevin Fitzgerald said of Lawrence's wrestling experience. "I'm not a big wrestling guy, but I’m sure there’s a correlation between (having) balance on the mat and on the football field."
The 5-foot 11-inch, 174-pound punisher looked a lot like former Timberlane star Derek Furey, owner of the single-game rushing record. As a junior in 2008, Furey turned 40 carries into a 340-yard, five-TD performance.
But Lawrence's most impressive contribution was arguably on the other side of scrimmage.
As an inside linebacker, Lawrence recovered two fumbles, one coming on his strip-sack of standout Winnacunnet quarterback Steve Cronan.
"It was one of his better defensive games of the season," Fitzgerald said. "He moved from the secondary to inside linebacker this season. It took time to transition, but with reps and looking at film, he’s gotten better."
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News and UnionLeader.com. He has been the high schools reporter for football and lacrosse since joining the statewide newspaper in 2006. A graduate of Syracuse University (2000), he wrote about the state's football history for an exhibit at The Hall at Patriot Place. The Bedford, N.H., native has covered the Little League World Series, NCAA men's lacrosse championships, UNH athletics and New Hampshire Fisher Cats baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.