In my 20 years writing sports in New York, I wrote a few columns critical of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s inclusion of non-public schools in its public high school championships. There was an inherent unfairness to allow private schools, that do not draw students from geographic boundaries, to compete against true public schools that do. Some private schools do not prioritize excellence in athletics, while many others do.
Those schools that do prioritize athletics and consistently compete at the highest level of New York prep sports are merely reclassified to higher enrollment classifications, rather than address the incongruous playing field.
This is a criticism I have long eschewed, but it doesn’t appear anyone in a position to effect change will even consider a revision of this practice.
My other criticism of the NYSPHSAA was born more of my three-plus years covering New Mexico high school state tournament events as a freelance sports writer.
Robert Zayas, current chief of the NYSPHSAA, was formerly the executive director of the New Mexico Activities Association, which oversees New Mexico’s prep athletics.
New Mexico’s tournaments underwent some tweaking under Zayas’ stewardship, and I like what they’ve done. Instead of “sections,” which is a New York term, New Mexico has districts. District playoffs are held at the end of the regular season, and the district champions earn automatic bids to the state tournament.
The next points are where New Mexico differs from New York.
After wrapping up my final tournament story last night, I learned from veteran reporters that the NM tournaments have undergone numerous changes. One of the more prominent ones was the expansion of the field – in each enrollment class – from eight to 16 teams.
From what I can tell, half the tournament fields are at-large bids. And better yet, there aren’t templated regional matchups. Teams are actually seeded one through 16, and aside from the opening round games, which are hosted by the higher seed, the entire field comes to Albuquerque to finish the quarterfinals through finals at one of two sites over six days.
Semifinals and finals are all played at “The Pit,” home of the University of New Mexico, and through countless interviews with coaches and players, it’s every high school basketball player’s dream to make it to “The Pit.”
Perhaps the most important point to make, for me, is the request to abolish standardized regional matchups, and just “seed” the teams. College and professional sports conduct their season-ending tournaments with a seeding process, and little ol’ New Mexico has been doing it for years.
The seeding process, indeed, has some subjectivity involved, but there are dozens of sports writers across the state that could easily come together as a committee to seed all teams – to the best of their given knowledge. Sure, they’ll get it wrong from time to time, but the benefit is to see the “best” teams meeting in the semifinals and finals.
Five years ago, I saw one of the best state playoff basketball games in my two decades covering Chenango County sports. Norwich and Westhill played in the traditional Section 3 vs. Section 4 regional quarterfinal.
The game went to overtime, and Norwich was a rimmed-out three-pointer from extending the game to double overtime. Westhill went on to pummel its remaining opponents, and also cruised through the Federation tournament.
Those were clearly the two best teams in the state that year, and that game should have been a state final, not a quarterfinal game. With appropriate seeding, that may well have happened.
Fast forward five years to this year’s state tournament.
Unadilla Valley’s boys and Norwich’s girls each made state tournament appearances, and both bowed out in the first round of their state playoff games – again in the usual Section 3 vs .4 matchup.
UV lost by 15 to Cooperstown, but made things interesting for a while in the second half. Cooperstown, meanwhile, rolled through its semifinal game, and may well capture the state title.
An easy argument can be made that with tournament seeding, Cooperstown and UV should not have seen each other until perhaps the semifinals.
With Norwich, it’s an even clearer argument for tournament seeding.
Norwich dropped its intersectional playoff game to South Jefferson, a game it was leading by as many as 10 points in the second half. South Jeff narrowly lost its semifinals game to Irvington by one possession, and Irvington blew out its finals opponent to capture the state title.
Norwich and South Jefferson, based on their respective bodies of work in the regular season (Norwich did beat Class A state finalist Seton Catholic Central multiple times) should never have met so early in a tournament.
Sure, Norwich may have lost to another school in the final eight, but at least it wouldn’t be to a fellow top-four seed. The same with Unadilla Valley.
Zayas was an agent for change during his tenure in New Mexico. Perhaps he’ll put his thumbprint on New York as well, get with the times, and run a 21st-century state tournament – with actual seeds.