Who gets to play in the state tournament? More important, who decides how the teams are selected?
Those questions were posed in response to a prior column ("Sportsmanship's alive," Nov. 2) in light of the way the season ended for some local teams.
The first thing to understand - and this doesn't exactly look good, I admit - is that, prior to the first interdistrict contest, fairness is not the state's concern - it's all relative. That's because each of the 12 PIAA districts decides for itself how its tournaments will be conducted; those tournaments decide who will appear in the state playoffs.
But those tournaments are not conducted in the same way, which leads to inequities.
The Sentinel covers teams in Districts 3, 4 and 6. Of those, only District 3 uses a comprehensive power ranking system to determine the entrants for every one of its postseason events. District 6 uses a more limited ranking system, and District 4 doesn't use a ranking system at all outside of football.
Most ranking systems include a base value for a win, and a bonus value for a win against a school in a higher classification. There may or may not be a deduction for a win in a lower classification. So, in District 6, if Belleville Mennonite (Class A) beats Mifflin County (AAA) in boys soccer, it gets more points than it would for beating Juniata (AA). But a win by the Huskies against the Trojans would get the same number of points as a win against Chambersburg, which, based on PIAA classification numbers, is 50 times the size of BMS.
District 3's system, which uses a calculated total weighted winning percentage and a similar opponents' weighted winning percentage, produces a more accurate representation of a team's true strength. This occasionally leads to teams with losing records being seeded into the playoff bracket, sometimes even above teams that are .500 or over - because the team that has a lower record may have played a more difficult schedule against larger schools that had good records.
District 4 uses a points system for football, but when it comes to the other sports, demands only a .500 record, and seeds solely based on that - which leads to horrible injustices at times, especially in soccer, where the Heartland Conference teams are demonstrably stronger than their peers in the Northern Tier. Because the HAC teams are not seeded with a power rating system, the better teams on the field may be eliminated early in a tournament because a lesser team had an inflated win percentage.
There may even be an intermediate, or subregional, stage, in which two (or more) districts combine to select one team to enter the state tournament. This, too, is decided by the districts involved, not by the PIAA.
OK, the districts have held all their tournaments, and determined all their champions. Here's the explanation on how states works in any team sport, using AA girls soccer as the example:
There are 189 girls soccer teams statewide in Class AA. Sixteen of them are going to appear in the first round of the state bracket.
Any district with fewer than four teams in any gender and classification does not get an automatic qualifying berth to the state tournament. In Class AA girls soccer, Districts 5 and 8 have only two teams each, and must "play in" through other districts (this fall, District 5's Somerset played in through 6 - as an actual participant in the District 6 tournament; the two districts could have chosen to have a champion in each district and those two play one another for the state berth, like Districts 6 and 7 do in Class AAA field hockey).
That leaves 10 of 12 districts who get one spot in the bracket automatically, whether they have four teams in that class (District 9) or 36 (District 3, the largest). The other six spots are divvied up based on the percentage that district represents out of the 189 total.
So, District 3 has 36 teams, divided by 189 total, for 19 percent of the bracket. District 6 has only 11 teams, for 6 percent of the bracket. Out of all 12 districts, District 6 is the fourth smallest - and the second smallest among those who get an automatic qualifier. District 4 has 13 schools - just enough more than District 6 that it remains entitled to a second qualifying spot in the state bracket.
Girls soccer in particular saw radical change this year when the PIAA ceased recognition of spring soccer, which is when the bulk of schools in Districts 1 and 3, along with a few others around the state, used to play. This meant the 16-team bracket would see more potential entrants from these districts, thus the elimination of some from the other districts.
And once you get to the state tournament, it's really a crap shoot - there's no ranking or seeding of any kind. But that's an issue for another day.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.