The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association on Saturday voted overwhelmingly to adopt open state tournaments for all team sports except football beginning next fall, association executive secretary Ned Sparks said yesterday.
The format was approved 48-6 by the MPSSAA's Board of Control, composed of school superintendents, principals, athletic directors and coaches from the state's 24 school systems.
With the new format, an unbeaten school and a winless school would both enter the postseason on equal footing.
The move came after a yearlong study by the Belinko Commission, headed by Ron Belinko, president of the MPSSAA, which used volleyball and boys and girls soccer as pilot programs this past fall.
"For 25 years, we've had a point system that was used to determine the top four in each region, the top six in basketball. And when the commission first met, I was not convinced that the old system was not adequately efficient," said Belinko.
"But as we started hearing the suggestions from the subcommittees, the more I became sold on it. It gives every school that wants to participate that opportunity. The key is you're involving more student-athletes."
The association is abandoning its method of choosing playoff participants based on points accumulated by wins or ties. Teams received more points for beating larger schools. The association will continue to use a lottery machine to determine tournament seedings, as it did this past fall.
Individual sports such as wrestling, track and field, cross country, golf and tennis will not be affected, Belinko said. Sparks said the open format will not be used for football because of the physical toll extra games would take on athletes and the recovery period required.
Howard County coordinator of athletics Don Disney met with commission members on Thursday and changed his vote to affirmative.
"I had three concerns -- transportation, kids missing time from school and lack of seeding. They [the commission] convinced me that each concern could be answered," he said.
Arundel athletic director and baseball coach Bernie Walter favors the new system. "The old point system was simply a travesty. Coaches and athletic directors could manipulate it," Walter said.
"I think it caused the dissolution of traditional leagues like the MSA because the larger public schools couldn't get any points by playing smaller private schools."
In addition, Walter said, the new format helps 4A schools such as Frederick and Queen Anne's as well as J.M. Bennett of the 3A, which are in areas surrounded by smaller schools.
"They can schedule games closer to home and not jeopardize their playoffs. This also breathes new life into losing programs."
But Disney remains skeptical.
"Open competition means that leagues aren't important anymore," he said. "The focus of the season should be on county competition, and the playoffs should be for the elite teams to test themselves against the best from other leagues."
Severna Park volleyball coach Tim Dunbar said he opposes the blind draw. "If you're going to play an entire season, you have to reward the better teams," said Dunbar, who expressed his concerns to the Belinko Commission.
"You should get to the finals by beating the best teams, not having the best teams knock each other off. And with five matches in 11 days . . . you don't see the best volleyball."
But given time, Sparks said, the system will grow on everyone.
"The old system we had was a good one, but we also realized that perhaps there's a better way to do it," he said. "As time goes on, I think people will be very pleased."
THEY'RE ALL INVITED
Main features of the new state playoff system for all team sports except football:
* Every team, regardless of its record, qualifies for first-round play.
* With every team in the region qualifying, the season for each sport is extended by a maximum of two games.
* Seeding or regional pairings and corresponding byes will be determined by using a lottery machine at a meeting open to the public.
* Semifinal pairings also are subject to blind lottery draw.
* Application for the playoffs before the lottery is necessary in order to compete.