Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Officially speaking

(This article appeared in the Jan. 27 issues of The Valley Press and West Hartford Press)

Never has there been a more underappreciated, misunderstood group of people than the intrepid men and women who officiate our high school sporting events.

At best, they’re invisible when players, coaches and fans opine that they are performing at their best. When the time comes that they are noticed, it generally coincides with a cascade of catcalls and various suggestions on how they can better do their job.

Focusing on basketball, one of the more difficult decision on the part of the referees has to be how to handle the hand-checking and jostling that is often rampant at the point of attack.

Some teams stress aggressive man-to-man defense, which inevitably increases the occurrence of contact. If both teams turn up the heat and the officials interpret the rules literally, games could easily lose their flow and the number of disqualifications as a result of the five-foul limit could turn the game into a travesty.

On Jan. 15, the Simsbury girls encountered Northwest Catholic in West Hartford. Northwest coach Karl Herbert bases his defensive philosophy on aggressive play. His young team executed the strategy exquisitely at the start of the game and took command of the game.

Simsbury coach Jim Fiedler isn’t the type to rant and rave on the sidelines. I didn’t have any idea that he was upset about the way the game was being called, but he felt the Northwest girls were getting away with hand-checking and that if affected his team’s ability to execute.

Let me stress that Fiedler approached the subject in a gentlemanly manner. I feel he had every right to question the officials’ interpretation given the nature of the game and the way it turned out (Simsbury battled back to within three points late in the game before losing, 51-46). I also feel the officials did a terrific job, handed the tough assignment of interpreting the rule in a game between two teams with divergent defensive philosophies.

“I talked to the refs about it at halftime,” Fielder said. “There’s a rule emphasis this year that you can’t hand-check on the perimeter or put your arm on the girl. [Northwest] was doing that but they weren’t calling it.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations indeed has the following statement on its website as a “point of emphasis” going into the 2010-11 season:

PERIMETER PLAY. Two illegal actions are taking place on the perimeter of the court that are particularly problematic. First, defensive players are illegally using their hands to “check” the ball handler/dribbler. …

A. Hand checking.

1) Hand checking is any tactic using the hands or arms that allows a player, on offense or defense, to control (hold, impede, push, divert, slow or prevent) the movement of an opposing player.

2) Hand checking is a foul and is not incidental contact.

3) Defensive players shall not have hand(s) on the offensive player. When a player has a hand on, two hands on or jabs a hand or forearm on an opponent, it is a foul.

4) When a player contacts an opponent with his or her hands as an aid in starting, stopping, driving around, defending a screen, controlling or anticipating the opponent’s next move, it is a foul. Players may not place their hands on an opponent with or without the ball.

5) Much of the roughness in the interscholastic game today is a direct result of not assessing the proper penalty when illegal contact with the hand(s) occurs.

Said Fiedler: “If you can hand-check and put arms on people in the perimeter, you can run a good press.”

He quoted part of the above rule.

He said the officials explained that they had called eight fouls against Northwest and just three against Simsbury.

“We don’t press and we don’t hand-check,” Fielder said. He added that they shouldn’t use the foul count as a reference in debating the interpretation of the rule.

“You don’t balance it off because one team has more fouls than the other,” he said. “You call the game as it’s played on the court. … I teach my girls not to hand-check because that’s what the rulebook says. Other teams are doing it and getting away with it.”

Aggressive, pressing defense is Herbert’s hallmark.

“With every team I’ve had, that’s what we look for,” he said. “With this team, it’s taken a little time to come so we decide to press early to create an aggressive feel. That’s how we have to play. That’s how we try to set the tempo every game so we start out pressing, we start out playing man-to-man and we start out very aggressive. Hopefully that carries throughout the game.”

He said his team has not experienced foul trouble as a result.

“Actually I’d like to see us get a little more aggressive. If that means getting more fouls diving after the ball and going more aggressively to the ball, I think I’ll live with that,” Herbert said.

“We had two of the better officials in my eyes. They let you play. Both teams are athletic. You have to let them determine how they’re going to call the game.”

I asked another official who did the Northwest-East Catholic boys game Jan. 17 and he made the same point. He said he will issue warnings if it’s getting rough and that he adjusts his approach as the game dictates.

I can’t argue with that. We don’t want games called so closely that multiple players are fouling out. On the other hand, Fiedler is right if the rulebook is to be interpreted literally.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

CCC committee splits the uprights

(Column is as it appeared in Jan. 20 editions of The Valley Press and West Hartford Press)

Take 32 people, most with more than a passing interest in sports.

Put them in a room together, get behind a podium with microphone in hand and proceed to ask them questions that are pertinent to the equity, balance and vitality of high school football.

You’d be almost as likely to achieve unanimity if you asked who’s better, the Yankees or Red Sox. Would you be any better off hoping that you have a room full of liberals or conservatives in front of you? You may even have trouble getting everybody to agree that it snowed last Wednesday.
That was what Newington High principal Jim Wenker and his Central Connecticut Conference realignment committee were asked to do after the 32-member league finished its second season since the bold 25 percent expansion prior to the 2009 fall season.
Glancing at the 2010 standings, we had the symmetrical package of four divisions with eight teams each. It sounds nice but there was plenty of trouble in gridiron paradise. Using the formula that determined interconference games played out of division (called crossovers), some very small schools were matched with some very large schools.
Wenker and his associates forged a new plan (see accompanying charts and story) that went over well among the league’s principals and athletic directors. Coaches weren’t part of the process, although in most cases they rank above athletic directors when it comes to knowing the details.
In a perfect world, coaches supply their opinions and athletic directors are in agreement. Athletic directors then sit down with principals and hope they can emerge with a united front.
It probably works that way in some schools, but I’ve come to know some where principals tend to be more autocratic. I guess it’s all based on trust, a willingness to defer to those with more knowledge of the situation and more broadly to what degree they believe in democracy.
When the smoke cleared on Jan. 7, the new alignment did not meet with much antipathy, and you surely won’t get any here. The safety of our kids is tantamount to anything else and the system is certainly attuned to safety precautions.
“We got screwed”

Of all the schools in the league, Farmington has among the toughest draws.

Farmington is a Class L school where football traditionally has not been the sport of choice. Soccer reigns supreme. Coach Chris Machol is doing a fabulous job of changing the culture, but I heard some in town scream those commonly heard words, “We got screwed.”

The Indians will compete in a division with Windsor, Bristol Eastern, Bristol Central, Maloney and Middletown.

Windsor is a perennial football hotbed. Bristol Eastern is coming off successive playoff seasons. Middletown has a new coach in Sal Morello, who has already turned that program around with the wealth of talent that city offers. Maloney is also coming off a strong year.

But Machol loves a challenge and sees no problems with the new alignment.
“The major difference is that in 2011, we will be playing all nine of our [mandated] games against ‘L’ schools,” he said. “In 2010, we played five ‘LL’ and four ‘L’ schools. Our schedule isn’t necessarily easier or harder, but certainly more comparable.”

Simsbury coach Jeff Osborne said the change has only minimal effect on his team. The Trojans are ‘LL’ and adjusting the divisions by enrollment isn’t going to alter much. Simsbury was included in the CCC’s large-school division since leaving the CCC West for the CCC North in 2004.

“It makes sense to structure the league by enrollment. The state playoffs are structured by enrollment,” he said. “Playing teams with like enrollments is equitable.”

I couldn’t have said it better.
A continuity issue

The changing divisional structure makes it difficult for even sports writers to follow, never mind the guy in street, and Machol sees that as a concern.

“I do think that at some point we need to settle on a division system that will remain in place (for the most part) in order to establish rivalries,” he said. “I know as both a player and coach I cherish playing rivals yearly.”

The new system provides nine mandated opponents for each school as opposed to seven with old alignment. A formula based on a team’s success rate over a two-year period determines the crossover opponent, unless it is dictated by Thanksgiving rivalry. It designated three crossovers in the old system.

Farmington begins a rivalry with Plainville next fall, one that is likely to remain in place for a long time, so it won’t be subject to the formula. But Machol feels two years of data is not enough to establish a solid base line. I agree.

“I don’t know that a two-year record is a big enough time to say that the program and feeder system are that much better than anyone else,” Machol said.

“For many schools that have a couple of down years or up years, that may have as much to do with the talent level of one or two classes of players as it does the feeder system and/or tradition. Obviously there are some teams that are consistently competitive and that speaks to the effort and talents of everyone involved from youth through varsity.”

It’s like Wenker said when addressing the fact that his school (Newington) went 0-10 last year, one short year after making it all the way to the Class L final against Masuk. If you want to get better, he said, you just have to work harder.

CCC realigns football divisions

(As written in the Valley Press and West Hartford Press, Jan. 20 editions)

In its persistence to attain competitive balance, the Central Connecticut Conference football committee unveiled its second divisional realignment in four years with the expectation that this one will better stand the test of time.

The 32-member CCC will switch from four eight-team divisions to six divisions – four with five teams and two with six – mirroring the philosophy of how the CIAC defines the state playoffs and ostensibly putting an end to the mismatches that dotted the schedule the last two seasons.

The divisional alterations were contrived by a committee headed by Newington High School principal Jim Wenker. They were approved at a special meeting of the CCC’s policy board at Newington High on Jan. 7.

“Two years ago when the league expanded from 24 to 32 schools, that created some different dynamics,” Wenker said. “We got spread out between school sizes.”

The league went to a CCC North, or a large-school division, in 2004 amid the multitude of complaints from having to play Jack Cochran’s New Britain teams and Southington.
With the demise of the Northwest Conference/Nutmeg League in 2008 came amalgamation. Smaller schools like Northwest Catholic, East Catholic, Plainville, Berlin, Rocky Hill and Middletown swelled the CCC ranks to 32. The CCC has continued to examine ways of improving competitive balance.
“We had a significant number of smaller schools enter and we need to bring balance and equity,” Wenker said. “At the time, it made sense to go to a four-division configuration. We wanted competitive balance to be part of the process. We came up with a formula that made sense, taking into account school size and the strength of the program. We did that for the last two years but what we discovered is a number of inequities surfaced.”
The issue centered on the conference’s Class L schools.
Division I, which essentially replaced the CCC North as the large-school circuit, contained seven Class LL schools and Class L Windsor. Division II was split between the four remaining ‘LL’ schools and the three largest ‘L’ schools. Only one ‘L’ school – Bristol Eastern – was in Division III and six were in Division IV.
Some of the interdivisional crossover games determined by a formula based on team records over the previous two seasons created anxiety. Northwest Catholic, the smallest ‘S’ school with 307 boys, played the second largest ‘LL’ school in Glastonbury (1,076 boys) last fall. The Indians faced New Britain (the state’s largest school with 1,481 boys) in 2009. Such lopsided matchups cannot occur under the new arrangement.
“They were causes for concern among coaches, athletic directors and principals, not only based on balance and equity but on safety,” Wenker said. “The prevailing thought was we needed to match up schools by boys enrollment. That’s predominantly how it’s done at other conferences around the state and that’s how the CIAC does it [in the postseason] so it seemed fair and equitable for us to do it.”
Prior to the 2010 season, the CIAC football committee changed the postseason format from a two-tiered system with six divisions to a three-game tournament featuring eight teams in the four traditional divisions. It abandoned the ‘SS’ and ‘MM’ divisions that were established in 1981, increasing participation rate from 24 to 32 schools.
Under the CCC’s previous arrangement, an ‘L’ school in Division II potentially could have played four ‘LL’ schools within its division and two more crossing over with Division I, Wenker noted. An ‘L’ school in Division III potentially could escape having to play any ‘LL’ schools at all.
Northwest will compete in the Division III West with the four other ‘S’ schools in the league. The Indians will play those four and the five teams in the Division III East, four of them in Class M and one in Class L.
Where there were multiple crossovers last year, this year there is one – Bristol Eastern. For many schools, the crossover game winds up being the Thanksgiving rivalry. For example, Plainville (Div. III East) plays Farmington (Div. II West) by its own choice. The same for Berlin (Div. III East) choosing to meet New Britain (Div. I West).
“We have an agreement with Rocky Hill for a Thanksgiving game,” Northwest athletic director Josh Reese said. “Because Rocky Hill is within our division, we had to look outside and [Bristol Eastern] was the only one that fit.”
Reducing the crossovers thus simplified the schedule.
“Before we had multiple crossovers and that’s why we had mismatches,” Wenker said. “We’ve minimized that.”
Wenker said the committee looked at a three-division format then chose to create the subdivisions based on geography.
The teams in each subdivision are ranked by win-loss percentage over the previous two seasons to determine crossover foes for those not dictated by Thanksgiving week rivalries. Conard and Hall, for example, would play each other anyway because they’re in the same division. The formula pits Conard against RHAM-Hebron and Hall against Simsbury in 2011 crossovers.
The new alignment will run for at least two seasons ‘to ensure home-and-home relationships,” Wenker said. “We will revisit it if they ask us to, if the majority of the conference feels this configuration isn’t what we need.”
Wenker, however, said that the new alignment was accepted by the “vast majority” of administrators who considered the proposal.
“We feel as though this is our best chance going forward,” he said.