Acknowledging benefits of the play-in system
When the Oregon Schools and Activities Association decided to add play-in games in 2010, I had major concerns.
The biggest problem I saw was that it was going to take away the importance of the regular season. I was also worried that some coaches would abuse the system, doing things like holding players out of games to rest them up for the postseason.
Two years later, I would like to take the opportunity to admit that I was wrong (that doesnt happen very often, so enjoy it while you can).
The system is still far from perfect. Power rankings are a joke and it is nonsense that there are fully formed leagues like the Pacific Conference (eight teams), while there are hybrid leagues like the 6A Special District 2 (three teams).
But the powers that be got it right when they decided to have an all-encompassing play-in game for 6A teams (Class 5A allows for fewer play-in games).
I cannot tell you for an absolute fact that coaches have not been abusing the system by resting players and keeping them out of competitions. That would take following more teams more closely than any one person has time for. I have not seen it happen with the teams I have covered, though.
As for the regular season not meaning anything, spend a little time talking to prep coaches at the beginning of the season and you will realize that doing well in league competition still matters to most.
I spent the latter weeks of August listening to coaches talk about how they wanted to use the preseason to prepare themselves for conference play. They told me how their teams wanted to win a conference championship.
If anything, having play-in games has made winning a league championship worth more than it was worth before. Teams do not just want to play for second or third place and a position in the playoffs. They know that they have a shot to go to the playoffs anyway. They want to bring home a league championship.
My initial reaction after learning about the play-in games was that allowing every team the opportunity to play in the playoffs ended up being a form of sports communism where the undeserving were rewarded along with deserving.
Well, in a way it is. But, this present is far more utopian than dystopian.
The teams that finish high in the league are rewarded with a bye. They still get credit for a good regular season. And as for the teams did not do well during the regular season, the play-in system still gives the athletes a chance to compete in a playoff environment.
And isnt that who high school sports are supposed to be for?
Being able to play in a do-or-die situation is one of the highlights of sports. The win-or-go-home situation is what great books and movies are made out of. Giving kids a chance to experience that, even once, no matter how bad their team has played, winds up creating a memory that can last a lifetime for an athlete.
At the end of the season, the cream is still going to rise to the top in the Class 6A playoffs. There may be some upsets during the play-in games and there may even be some upsets in the first round of the playoffs. But, when the state championship games roll around, you are still going to see two of the best teams facing off against each other.
I spent time this week talking with Hillsboro football coach Ken Ingram. The Spartans have been atrocious this season, finishing 0-9. But, guess what? They still have one more shot at glory. Even after a terrible season, the play-in game against Westview allows the players a chance to create a storyline worthy of a Hollywood ending.
Im not suggesting that you bet your house on Hillsboro beating Westview. Odds are that it is going to be a bloodbath for the Spartans. But, thats why you play the game, isnt it?
By having play-in games, OSAA is allowing prep athletes to play the game.