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"It's still 14 games" — How coaches around the state react to changes coming to high school football

During its annual spring meeting during the last week of April, the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association Board of Control overwhelmingly voted to shorten the state’s high school football regular season from 10 games to nine.

This measure, carried by a mark of 47-4, extends the postseason by one week and doubles the number of eligible teams from the top four from each region to the top eight to create a 32-line bracket per classification.

The MPSSAA will maintain its North, South, East and West regional setup. After two rounds, the remaining teams will be reseeded.

The motion passed the executive board vote earlier in the spring, 10-2-1. At the formal vote, only four cast their votes negatively — two from St. Mary’s County, one from Charles County and one from Cecil County.

Coaches from across county lines primarily welcomed the new format.

“Either way, you’re going to wind up playing the best teams,” said Lawrence Smith, whose Dunbar Poets had a 23-game winning streak snapped in the state semifinals after playing a nine-game schedule last fall. “Whether it’s in the first round or the fourth round, it really doesn’t make a difference.”

C. Milton Wright coach Jim French said what Harford County needed was time to consider.

“I prefer to have a 10-game schedule,” he said, “but understand why coaches decided to go with a nine-game schedule, to add more participation to the playoffs.”

French had heard murmurs of the change over the last few years, but months before the formal vote, opinions among his county were much more mixed. In April, Harford voted unanimously.

“Once they looked at the total picture, they opened up a more positive outlook,” French said. “It also motivates the kids to work harder.”

The Board held a straw vote in December to answer concerns for trimming the regular season back a game. At the time, 14 representatives opposed the motion.

Anne Arundel County initially voted against it.

“We didn’t, and I’m speaking on behalf of the athletic directors, we didn’t particularly like that there wasn’t a clear path forward for schools that were going to lose that tenth game and will not make the playoffs,” Anne Arundel County Coordinator of Athletics Clayton Culp said.

Out of 180 schools, 128 will still play a 10th game through the first round, leaving 52 squads to close up shop after week nine.

But some coaches shared concerns about the sheer number of teams that will enter the playoffs. Culp recognizes both sides of the coin: on one hand, there will be more student-athletes experiencing the playoffs.

“For every other sport in Maryland, it’s an open tournament,” Culp said. “Football was the only sport that wasn’t happening previously.”

Annapolis coach Nick Good-Malloy, who also serves on the state football committee, recalls several coaches — some, even, who helmed teams with losing records the previous fall — apprehensive of the other side of the coin.

“Some people don't like it, because there's going to be some, for lack of a better way of putting it, some bad teams to make the playoffs,” Good-Malloy said. “So they look at that as watering the playoffs down. But I think they're missing the point that there's going to be those kind of bubble teams that are very good football teams, and now are going to get a chance to compete at the state level.”

In Anne Arundel last fall, three teams — Severna Park, Old Mill and Annapolis — finished with .500 records. Had it been a year later, they would have been playoff contenders under the new format.

“In the old format, a loss or two early in the season could really doom many playoff hopes,” Good-Malloy said, “whereas now a team can really be peaking at the end of the season. And you know, you want to be playing your best at the end of the season.”

Widening the playoff field also makes it far less likely that a pair of powerhouses from one county will meet and knock the other out in the first or second round. In Anne Arundel, Broadneck and Old Mill have eliminated one another four times in seven years.

Milford Mill coach Reggie White began to appreciate the positives that the changes presented, after a less-than-warm first thought.

“My initial reaction was that I’ll never have a 10-0 season,” he said. “I was part of one as a player, never one as a coach. Plenty of 9-1s.”

Baltimore County had four votes, all in favor, though much like other counties, there were concerns in the beginning.

But for some coaches, White said, the proposal came as a relief. Programs “in danger” of losing interest could experience the morale boost of a playoff run.

“It’s still 14 games, if you look at it like that, but now instead of winning four you gotta win five in a row,” White said.

Though reseeding the eight remaining teams after the second round increases the likelihood of two teams from a single county clashing for state title, it eliminates the geographically centered regional championship.

Long Reach coach Jamie Willis said the loss of that facet “is what it is.” From Howard County, which also voted unanimously in April, the Lightning have made it as far as the 3A East regional semifinals twice in three years and clinched the regional title in 2017.

“You want to play the best,” Willis said. “I know it takes away from the regional championships and things of that nature, which I think is pretty cool for kids to be able to hang a banner, but ultimately we all get in this to win championships.”

Reseeding also means that a team initially consigned to play all of its games on the road could then potentially become a higher seed and host.

“We’re excited about it because anything could happen,” French said. “It opens up a lot of opportunities.”

Counties discussed the possibility of compensating teams that didn’t make the postseason with something like a consolation game, but ultimately left it behind.

In Carroll County, Winters Mill finished 5-5 in 2017 and 2-8 last fall.

“I don’t want to say there’s not an incentive, because you get to play more games,” said Falcons coach Matt Miller, “but on the flip side, if you struggled or dealt with injuries, sometimes the end of the season is an opportunity to start fresh rather than having it go on.”

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