(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.