By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Seminole County head football coach Alan Ingram supports “it,” even though “it” could cost him a playoff spot. Gordon Lee volleyball coach Ed Clendenen isn’t affected by it, but likes it anyway, while his faculty mate, Gordon Lee softball coach Dana Mull doesn’t like it.
Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy softball coach Doug Campbell thinks it has been poorly administered, Our Lady of Mercy head football coach Mike Earwood admitted that he just learned about a key aspect of it this week, tiny Baconton Community Charter School could win a state championship next week because of it, and Georgia High School Association Executive Director Ralph Swearngin said aspects of it could be tweaked and adjusted later next year.
“It” is the new format for determining playoff teams in Class A, in the first year of public and private schools being separated for post season competition. The GHSA executive committee voted overwhelmingly to do so earlier this year in an effort to appease public high schools located primarily in small cities and counties in South Georgia, where many of the coaches, administrators and parents believe private schools – particularly those in larger metro areas like Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Savannah – have an unfair competitive advantage.
While coaches and advocates for both public and private schools continue to debate the merits and benefits of the split playoff format, they agree on one thing: “It is what it is.”
“The girls look at the power rankings and ask questions about it, why are we ranked here, why are they ranked there,” ECLA’s Campbell said. “But we tell them that the bottom line is, we can’t help with any of that. We can’t control that. It’s just like an umpire. You have no control over them. All you can do is play the game. The [playoff] system is what it is.”
In softball, as in football, playoff spots are determined using a power ranking system — being implemented with assistance from MaxPreps.com – where teams are rewarded for wins and for strength of schedule. The top 16 teams on each side, public and private, advance to the playoffs.
However, Campbell believes the manner in which the system was implemented in softball this season was highly flawed. Among his criticisms were that the power rankings were not updated frequently or accurately enough, the time frame and mechanism for appealing final team rankings was ignored by the GHSA, and communication overall throughout the process was nonexistent.
“After the end of all the region tournaments (Oct. 6), the rankings came out that Monday or Tuesday (Oct. 8-9). We submitted an appeal because we didn’t think our point total was correct,” said Campbell, whose team was awarded a No. 3 seed overall , as the Region 5 champions, in the field of 16 private schools. After winning its first round game last week, his Chargers will face Mt. Pisgah Christian in the first round of the eight-team state finals tournament, beginning today through Saturday in Columbus.
“But we never heard anything from the GHSA. Nothing, one way or another,” Campbell said. “We saw the final rankings and playoff brackets on (Oct. 10) and that was it.
“There were some teams that were seeded in one position when the brackets first came out, that were seeded differently on the final bracket but there was no explanation,” Campbell said. “There is no doubt in my mind that errors were made that probably caused some teams not to make it, on the public and the private side.”
The GHSA’s Swearngin said he was not aware of Campbell’s complaint and that he “heard very little” in the way of disillusionment with the system. But he admitted that determining and managing the softball power ranking – where teams can play anywhere from three to seven games in a week – was difficult.
“It was very complicated and took a lot of work, but it looks like it was done fairly accurately,” Swearngin said. “Of course, if we have schools saying that we need to communicate better, we should look at that, certainly.”
He added that the GHSA’s executive committee may take a look at making adjustments to the playoff systems later this year, after all of the seasons, including the winter and spring sports, have been completed.
In football, the new power ranking system could prove costly for Seminole County and its head coach Ingram, who had been and remains one of the most strident supporters of separating public and private schools. Under the old system, the Indians (5-2, 3-0), currently tied for first in Region 1 with Miller County (4-0, 7-0), would all but be assured of claiming one of the region’s four playoff spots. However, this week’s public school power rankings have Seminole County at No. 18 – two slots out of the playoffs and 10 slots behind Miller County at No. 8.
But Ingram said whether his team makes the post season or not, he supports the power ranking system.
“Nothing is perfect, and so it may not work out for us this season,” said Ingram, who is 64-34 in his ninth season at the school, located in the southwest Georgia city of Donaldsonville. After going 9-1 during the regular season last year and winning the school’s first region title since 1974, the Indians were destroyed in the quarterfinals, 51-7, by ELCA.
“This is better for the little public schools like ours, overall,” said Ingram, who said he would like to see a playoff field of 32 teams instead of just 16. That would mean all but four public schools would advance to the post season. “If it doesn’t work out for us this year, we’ll just have to go back to the drawing board and get better for next year.”
Our Lady of Mercy’s Earwood said he just became aware of the fact that teams are awarded one point for every one of their opponent’s wins, which bodes well for his Bobcats (4-4), currently No. 15 in the private school power rankings. The combined record of the teams that defeated Mercy – Athens Academy, Landmark Christian Academy, Holy Innocents and ELCA – is 24-6.
“This thing is so complicated, but it looks like it’s better to lose to a couple of very good teams as opposed to beating a weaker team,” Earwood said.
At Gordon Lee, a small public school located in the northwest Georgia town of Chickamauga, just south of the Tennessee border, softball coach Dana Mull’s Trojans are the two-time defending Class A champions. They went an astounding 75-1 during the stretch and defeated two private schools in the finals – Providence Christian in 2010 and Wesleyan in 2011.
Mull doesn’t like the current system and prefers the one used in Tennessee, where public schools and private schools are also divided.
“They separate all of the private schools, not just in [the smallest classification], and then they have two private school divisions, big schools and little schools,” said Mull, who has led Gordon Lee to a 29-2 record this season and the No. 1 overall seed on the public school side. “Then the public schools are divided into classifications based on their size. If you’re going to be separate, be separate.”
Clendenen, Gordon Lee’s volleyball coach, said he wishes schools were divided in his sport. Due to the lack of volleyball programs in the public schools, there is no separation. The Trojans, the only public school to advance past the first round of the state playoffs in the past five years, went 15-15 this season against private schools but were eliminated in last week’s first round by ELCA.
“If the schools should be divided in any sport, it should be ours,” Clendenen said. “It’s hard for us to compete with the facilities and extra training, but mostly the recruiting that private schools can do.”
Clendenen said he, like Mull, prefers the system Tennessee uses. He argues that dividing public and private schools, particularly at the Class A level, gives small public schools a better chance at competing for a state title. For example, Baconton Community Charter School , located 30 miles south of Albany, saw its boys cross country team finish 24th at the finals last season while the girls team placed 28th. At next week’s state finals, which will be held in Macon, the Blazer boys are the top-ranked Class A public school team and the girls are No. 4.
“You just want things to be fair for your kids,” Clendenen said. “You want your kids to have the opportunity to legitimately compete for region championships and state championships.”