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County loses, Owls might, too

So Westminster has seceded from Carroll County.

The school's administration has opted to drop six of the other seven Carroll teams from its football schedule.

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It remains to be seen whether this is a win for Westminster. Clearly it's a loss for county football as a whole, however.

Carroll left the Monocacy Valley Athletic League to give each individual school, each individual program, the right and flexibility to put together the type of schedule that works best for that particular school or team at that particular time.

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Westminster is exercising that right, and the school's decision-makers clearly are worried that playing smaller schools is hurting their team's ability to make the playoffs on an annual basis.

That hasn't actually been the case, but it could happen at some point so it's a legitimate concern for Carroll's only school in Class 3A — the second-largest classification in the state.

Making the football playoffs is all about accumulating points and beating a Class 1A school such as North Carroll or Manchester Valley guarantees the victor only five points and beating a 2A school like the rest of Carroll guarantees six points, whereas a win over a 3A school guarantees seven points. Additionally, a winning team earns another point for every win that opposing team picks up during a year. Inevitably, any group of eight teams is going to have a couple that are lousy in a given year and Carroll is no exception. So, not only would Westminster earn fewer points for a win over a Carroll team, the Owls also would earn few bonus points for at least a couple of those wins.

Westminster went 6-4 last fall and was hopelessly out of the 3A North playoff race by midseason. I'm not sure even the most fervent Westminster fans would argue their team deserved a spot in the postseason — not with losses to both of Carroll's 1A teams on its resume — but that's not the point. This is: Even if Westminster had swept all seven county games, the Owls still would've missed the playoffs at 8-2. And it wouldn't have been close.

But the Owls didn't sweep Carroll in 2014. In fact, the only year a truly deserving Westminster team has missed out on the postseason since the Maryland football playoffs expanded 15 years ago was in 2011 — and the Owls would've been playoff-bound that year if not for having to take a forfeit for using an ineligible player.

Westminster's move looks more curious when one looks at the schedule it has put together for 2015. The Owls will play the likes of Bowie, Thomas Johnson, Tuscarora, Edgewood and North Hagerstown — none of which had a winning record in 2014. Thus, a win over 1A North Carroll, which went 8-2 during the regular season, would've yielded more points than a win over any of those teams. Ditto a win over 7-3 Liberty. In fact, a win over 2-8 Century would've yielded more points than a win over 0-10 North Hagerstown.

Truth is, 2014 was just a brutal year in a loaded 3A North — Patapsco went 9-1 and missed the playoffs — and things might have been different for Westminster in a differernt region. (The Owls would've been a No. 2 seed in 3A East). But Westminster made the playoffs at 7-3 in 2013, beating nothing but 1A and 2A schools. And the Owls made the playoffs in 2008 at 6-4. In both of those years they were eliminated in lopsided setbacks. (The state should change the rules so that instead of having the top four teams from four different regions in each class make the playoffs, the top 16 teams in each class would make the playoffs.)

Westminster's best move probably would've been to simply beat all the teams on its Carroll schedule, post 7-10 wins every year and have faith that such a record will be good enough for the postseason in almost every case, as it has been in the past. Instead, Westminster will increase its travel markedly to see a steady diet of 3A schools from all over the state in a schedule designed to maximize playoff points.

But remember, while beating a 3A school may produce two more guaranteed points than beating a 1A school, beating a 1A school produces five more guaranteed points than losing to a 3A school.

Westminster is a good program. The county's best overall program over the past decade. And maybe this move will, indeed, help them become the state power they aspire to be.

But this playoffs-or-bust, business mentality also comes with a cost to the players.

In 20 years, what will the players from that 2013 team remember? Will it be the seven wins in a row to close the regular season as county champions, or will it be earning the right to get blown out by Franklin in the first round of the playoffs?

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That's a little unfair. Every player wants to get to the postseason and you never know what might happen — a 5-5 South Carroll squad reached the state semifinals not that long ago.

But I would imagine every player who grows up in Westminster also wants to go up against the same players in high school he went up against in youth league football, the same players he goes up against in other sports, the same kids he sees at social functions, at Chipotle, at Starbucks, and all over the Twitterverse. I'm not sure how many of them would say they'd rather play Edgewood or Bowie than North Carroll or Winters Mill.

It's unthinkable that the two high schools in the City of Westminster won't play each other in football. Imagine if North and South Hagerstown stopped playing. Or Allegany and Fort Hill.

Sure, Winters Mill has struggled mightily the past two years and it's easy to look at that fact, recognize that a win over the Falcons has yielded a grand total of one bonus point in each of the past two years, and decide that the WM-Westminster game can't help Westminster.

But high school sports is cyclical. Teams generally aren't really good or really bad for very long. The Westminster-Winters Mill game always draws a good crowd even when it's a mismatch. Imagine years when both teams are strong. The entire city would turn out. It'd be an event no player would ever forget.

Similarly, the kids from every Carroll school Westminster is choosing not to play lose out on a game they always looked forward to. Everyone wants a shot at Goliath. No doubt, Manchester Valley's top rival is North Carroll. But it's hard to imagine the Mavericks could've been more excited about beating any team in the state than they were about beating Westminster for the first time last fall.

Even if Westminster's decision winds up helping those schools on the field, allowing them to schedule a team closer in size they're more likely to beat, the kids at those schools lose out by not playing Westminster. The Westminster kids lose out, too. (Plus, there's no guarantee the new schedule will actually give Westminster a better shot at the playoffs.) And six Carroll athletic programs also lose out monetarily by not getting a chance to host Westminster every other year. Instead of benefiting from their biggest or second-biggest crowd of the season, they get to play a team from outside of the area that isn't likely to travel so well.

Carroll football in general is the biggest loser. In the latter half of the season, when every county team should be playing a rivalry game in front of a large, excited crowd, the Owls are quite likely to be an hour away playing a team with which it has absolutely no history. And another team from Carroll will be forced to do the same thing.

The other county athletic directors contacted by the Times this week took a philosophical and classy approach to Westminster's decision. They're surely disappointed. Maybe angry. But they know Westminster has the right to do this.

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And Westminster's decision makers can't worry about any other schools, they have to do what they feel is best for their program and players, and right now that's overhauling the schedule to help the team make the playoffs. Even if there's no guarantee it will actually do that.

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Bob Blubaugh is the Times' sports editor. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7895 or bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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