Prep playoffs can be a guide for post-season structure in 2024 and beyond
The Louisiana High School Athletic Association football playoffs get under way this weekend.
They begin with 208 teams competing for championships in eight classifications.
It’s the climax of the high-school football season – a month-long reward for year-round hard work and the accomplishments of the 10-week regular season.
But nowadays it’s also an opportunity for the powers that be in prep football – the LHSAA leadership and the administrators, athletic directors and coaches of the membership – to evaluate this season’s tournament in the context of the recent past, with an eye toward 2024 and beyond.
It has been a turbulent decade – ever since the select/non-select split took place – for the LHSAA, primarily but not exclusively in football. Boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball also have been in a state of flux.
The split – between schools that are able accept students from outside their district and those that aren’t – created an awkward, confusing and asymmetrical structure for the regular season and especially the post-season.
The separation of the select and non-select schools addressed the non-select schools’ concern that the select schools had an inherent and unfair advantage, but it did so in a manner that adversely affected the quality of the experience for the student-athletes.
The creation of nine classifications, some really big ones and some not-so-big ones, forced some non-select groups to feature some grossly uncompetitive first-round match-ups. And it required an inordinate number of byes, in some cases multiple byes for higher seeds, as well as frequent post-season match-ups between district rivals among the select schools.
Some student-athletes had fewer playoff opportunities, some were denied the experience of competing against unfamiliar opponents and some missed out on opportunities to compete in foreign and distinctive communities in Louisiana.
In 2012, the football post-season was comprised of five classifications – a reasonable number for a state of Louisiana’s size – each of which featured 32 teams and no byes.
That was symmetrical and sensible.
Each team had an opportunity to reach the Superdome by winning four games and advancing to the title game.
The following year the post-season featured nine classifications – Classes 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A and 5A – on the non-select side, and Divisions I, II, III and IV on the select side.
By 2021 the divide had become more decided and the championship games had been scattered.
The split structure featured 92 first-round games and 48 of those games had a victory margin of 30 or more points. In some cases one-loss and even winless teams qualified for the playoffs.
The nine championship games were played over an eight-day stretch (December 4-11) at three different sites – the Caesars Superdome (six games), Tulane’s Yulman Stadium (two games) and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Cajun Field (one game).
Then last season the structure was modified as a result of the LHSAA executive committee changing its definition of what a select school is:
“Select shall mean private or public schools that have a state or parish approved designation as a lab school, magnet school(s) with one or more magnet component(s), approved charter schools, parish wide approved open enrollment, state recovery district (RSD) application-based parish schools, tuition-based schools and/or any established academic and/or retention-days based criterion schools.”
The new definition meant that several “open enrollment” public schools were no longer non-select schools but rather select schools.
The shift created more balance between the select and non-select schools, producing eight classifications – Divisions I, II, III and IV in both the select and non-select designations. The non-select side had featured nearly three times as many schools as the select side, but the change meant the two sides had nearly an even number of schools.
Last season’s post-season featured 80 first-round games and 33 of those had a margin of victory of 30-plus points. That means 41.3 percent had such lopsided losses compared to 52.2 percent the year before.
A less-bloated field led to fewer and less severe mismatches.
The current format, which the LHSAA membership voted to retain at a special meeting last month, features 28 playoffs teams in each of the non-select groups and 24 in each of the select groups.
Also in 2022 came the return of a very familiar routine – all the championship games played over a three-day stretch (December 8-10), all played in the Superdome, allowing players and fans from across the state to experience a championship competition in Louisiana’s most famous building.
The LHSAA will convene for its annual meeting in January and there is every reason to believe the split will once again be addressed – quite possibly through the consideration of multiple proposals.
It remains to be seen exactly what will be proposed, but three familiar possibilities would be to continue with the format used in 2022-23, return to something resembling the unbalanced format used from 2013-2021, or reunify and return to the symmetry of the 2012 and prior format.
So as this post-season plays out, it would be useful for those who will convene in January to appreciate this season’s experience – both on its own merits and within the context of where we have been and where we should be in 2024 and beyond.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…