High school playoffs are designed to pit the top schools in a given state classification against each other in a single-elimination tournament to produce a deserving state champion.

Sounds pure enough. Looks cleaner on paper.

The boys lacrosse season, though, sometimes gets a little smelly around playoff time.

This year's stink revolved mostly around two Baltimore County schools -- Dulaney and Towson -- and how they affected the playoff fortunes of Howard High.

Howard finished with a 10-2 record and won its first county championship, yet failed to qualifyfor the eight-team, Class 3A/4A state playoffs by less than one-tenth of a point.

How did this happen? In short, Dulaney and Towson went 10-0 and shared the Baltimore County title, thanks largely to a schedule that required them to play fewer games against mostly feeble opponents.

Each team made the playoffs (Dulaney in 3A/4A, Towson in1A/2A) as a top seed. Howard, meanwhile, played a tougher 12-game schedule, including seven against the formidable opposition in its homecounty, but didn't pick up enough qualifying points to make the playoffs.

What are qualifying points?

Each time a team wins, it accrues points on the basis of its opponent's state classification. Class 4A schools are the largest based on population, and a victory over a 4A school is worth eight points to the victor.

A victory over a 3A school is worth seven. Six points are awarded for a victory over a2A school, five for a victory over a 1A school. This system applies not just in lacrosse, but in all sports.

At the end of the regularseason, each school's total victory points are divided by nine -- a figure known as the "minimum divisor."

The minimum divisor was devised to keep teams on an even playing field, more specifically to guard against stretches of bad weather that could prevent teams from playing a full schedule.

In other words, if a team doesn't play its minimum-required, 10-game schedule, its point total is divided by nine, regardless of how many games it actually played.

When his team failed to make the playoffs, Howard coach Dan Ross cried foul, and justifiably so.

The Lions were denied entry into the 3A/4A tournament, since they wound up the ninth-best team based on points, despite the 12-game schedule (which all Howard County teams play) and a 6-1 record against the most competitive Howard County schedule in years.

Meanwhile, Towson and Dulaney, the perennial powerhouses of a weak county, boasted 10-0 records.

In each team's case, nine of the gameswere played against the county, which included weaklings like Milford Mill (0-10), Sparrows Point (1-8), Dundalk (2-7) and Owings Mills (4-6). Each played a minimum 10-game schedule, and never played each other. A scheduling coincidence? Hardly.

Dulaney earned the top seed in the 3A/4A state tournament and won it all. Towson was top-seededin the 1A/2A dance and saw its season end in the semifinals against fourth-seeded Mount Hebron, the eventual state champion. Howard got to watch.

That's not to say that Dulaney wouldn't have bested their3A/4A competition anyway.

The point is, the boys lacrosse playoffsystem needs to be revised. Controversies like the one surrounding Howard will never be eliminated entirely, but they can be curtailed.

The regular season should be extended to a mandatory 12 games. Thatwould force Dulaney and Towson, which play just one out-of-county game, to play three non-league opponents.

Most public schools already play a 12-game schedule, the maximum allowed by the state. Baltimore County should get in line.

The minimum divisor should be raised to 11. This suggestion already has been made by Severna Park High School lacrosse coach Edward Ulrich, and he is right on the money.

The state playoffs should be increased from eight teams to 12, and the tournament should follow the model of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The four teams in each class with the most points would be awarded a first-round bye. After four teams are eliminated inthe first round, the state champion would have to survive an eight-team playoff.

One of the top four seeds would have to win three games to claim the title, while the rest would have to win four. That's a fair burden.

Critics say expanding the playoffs may dilute a sport already among the smallest in the state in terms of participation.

They have a point. Lacrosse, like girls soccer, enlists only 62 schools statewide -- 31 each in 1A/2A and 3A/4A -- compared to such behemoths as baseball, boys soccer, football, basketball, volleyball and softball, which are played by 156 public schools.

The only way the state could legitimize a state lacrosse tournament two years ago was to combine four classes into two, the same thing it did with girlssoccer.

However, would the lacrosse playoffs, which under this proposal would include 38 percent of the state's teams, be any more watered-down than the basketball playoffs, which allow an astounding 62 percent? Or boys soccer, baseball or softball, which allow 41 percentto participate?

And let's not forget that, while sports like basketball and baseball can't grow anymore, lacrosse will continue to flourish, as schools from Montgomery and Frederick counties add more schools to the state field.

Cynics also say, rightfully, that Please see no matter how many games a team is forced to play, it can work the system by manipulating its out-of-county schedule to pad its point total. Many coaches do it. Even Ross, who has out-classed Montgomery County's Seneca Valley for the past few years and collected valuable 4A points in the process, admits to it.

Finally, I'm not suggesting the present format is yielding phony champions.

Mount Hebron andDulaney certainly earned their state titles this spring.

But whenofficials from the State Lacrosse Committee meet this fall to consider such things as playoff format changes, let's hope they get rid of the odor that pervaded this year's playoff seedings.

No one shouldexpect a foolproof system. Everyone deserves a better one.

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