Why your high school is (or is not) making it to OHSAA football tournament

By Tom Stephens

As we now entering the Week 8 of the high school football season, players, coaches, students, and assorted wild-eyed gridiron fanatics throughout Ohio spent a good deal of time pouring over Joe Eitel’s wonderful site (joeeitel.com) which details the races for the annual post-season playoffs, Mr. Eitel updating the info even before the OHSAA does.

The reason Eitel is so popular this time of year is simple: Football is the only interscholastic high school sport in Ohio where computers rankings are used to determine which teams get to advance to postseason play and which ones stay home. No other high school sport in the Buckeye State – wresting, basketball, volleyball, soccer, field hockey, swimming, competitive knitting – relies on a computer to pick who’s in and who’s out as far as the postseason goes.

Let’s say your school’s baseball team had a off year, and by off year I mean an 0-22 record, the average margin of loss is 12 runs-per-game, and the coach is moving third-graders up to pitch out of the bullpen. That’s an off year.

Yet, this same baseball team – ineligible grade-schoolers and all – still gets a chance to play at least one more game after the regular season is over. The OHSAA is very welcoming in this respect. You suit up a team, you get invited to the tourney, simple as that. Granted, if your record is 0-22, you’re going to get to play a #1 seed in the sectionals, which just may add to that 12-rpg. average, but, hey, at least you get a shot. Same with basketball, softball, golf, etc. Everybody in the pool.

Not so with Ohio high school football. Using a system we are going to (very) roughly outline below, the OHSAA uses modern technology to see which football teams get a chance at the brass ring.

The OHSAA could very well invite every team into the fall tourney, as do all the other sports, but critics say this would add a couple of games to the season. This very credible-sounding excuse is actually a beard for the the real reason why every football team doesn’t get its ticket punched for the dance, which is as follows: Nobody – not the OHSAA, not the conferences, not the leagues, and especially not the schools – is keen to put a 0-10 team with 19 kids on the roster on the same gridiron as a 10-0 team drooling for a state title in a loser-leaves-town-steel-cage match. In this the OHSAA is entirely correct.

To sort this out, the OHSAA has divided high school football programs into seven divisions based on a school’s enrollment, with Division I being comprised of the most populous schools and Division VII the least. The schools are divided into 26 regions (this year Indian Lake is in Div. IV, Region 12 and Riverside is Div. VII, Region 26) and most have 26 or 27 schools, based more or less on geography. Schools with enrollments that are close to the various cutoffs occasionally move up or down in divisions from year to year, witness Marion Local moving up from Div. VII in 2014 to Div. VI this year, managing to elicit elation from Div. VII programs all over the state and a corresponding groan from every Div. VI program. The top eight teams in each region as determined by the computer at the end of regular season make it to the playoffs.

The best and most secure way for any team to get into Week 11 is win early and often, but sometimes even with a lot of W’s, you might have to get help from both the computers and your athletic departments to make the cut.

This is because the computer rankings reflect not just how many games an individual team wins, but also rewards teams that beat schools which themselves end up with a lot of wins. Put simply, you get more brownie points for beating a team that ends up 8-2 on the year as opposed to beating a team that closes at 2-8. It’s a straightforward strength of schedule deal. Lose and you don’t get even to lick the spoon.

But the secondary ‘divisors’ is where the lucre is made, as far as the borderline playoff teams are concerned. In a nutshell, schools in the lower divisions get an additional trip to the brownie bar should they play and beat schools that are in higher divisions. They get to top the brownies with sprinkles and ice cream should the big school they beat goes on to win a boatload of games. It’s for this reason that every year, one of two of the regions in Ohio will see teams with unimpressive (and sometimes losing) records get the to the tourney. A small school that plays a brutal schedule in cutthroat league made up of mostly larger schools, manages to win four or five of those games, and earns a trip to the playoffs is no fairy tale. See Triad, 2014.

This of course bugs the bejesus out of schools with shiny 8-2 or 9-1 records who are stuck home watching Big Bang Theory reruns in Week 11. That is because the inverse of small schools ‘playing up’ is true for big schools ‘playing down’. Big schools don’t have anything of substance to gain by playing schools that are two or more divisions smaller. Should the big school win, big deal, they may get a few extra tertiary points in the computer rankings.

We will be monitoring the computer rankings very closely over the next three weeks as Riverside and Indian Lake each have a shot at making the post-season this year. As of this writing, Riverside is currently sitting in the #4 spot in Region 26. The Northwest Central Conference has a realistic shot at getting three teams into the postseason as Lehman and Ft. Loramie continue to surge.

But the real fun and nail-biting will be coming from northwestern Logan County where the Indian Lake Lakers currently sit in the #8 spot in Region 12.

The Lakers have never made it to the OHSAA football playoffs and winning out would put them in an excellent position for earning spot there this fall. Lakers will also become temporary Bellefontaine Chieftain fans for the next fortnight, since the Lakers beat the Div. III Chieftains, Indian Lake will get a back end boost in the rankings for every game that Bellefontaine wins.

By Tom Stephens