Leading off today:
Is the latest initiative aimed at preserving small-school football in New York actually cannibalizing small-school football in New York as we know it?
It's a fair question to ponder a little more than five months ahead of the opening kickoff to the 2018 season.
Eight-man football, which made a modest return to Central New York a season ago, is now expanding exponentially -- and it's gutting its 11-man big brother in Class D. Further, there are indications that it could soon have more than just a marginal impact on Class C.
It falls under the heading of the law of unintended consequences: Offering eight-man football was seen as a way to keep the sport alive at schools struggling to field traditional teams, but now the number of small-school teams playing the 11-man version of the sport is plunging. Class D as we know it faces both short- and long-term issues across New York. Class C may not be far behind in that respect.
The short-term issue:
Steve Grandin of the New York State Sportswriters Association counts just nine schools eligible for the eastern half of the 2018 NYSPHSAA Class D tournament bracket -- Haldane and Tuckahoe in Section 1; Whitehall, Warrensburg/Bolton, Fort Edward/Argyle, Rensselaer and Hoosic Valley in Section 2; and Ticonderoga and Moriah in Section 7. Sections 9 and 10 will have no Class D teams this fall.
There were 16 eligible teams -- a small number but still marginally workable -- a season ago. The rapid decline is the result of three major factors:
• Revised classification cutoffs approved by the NYSPHSAA have pushed a few teams up into Class C.
• Defending state Class D champion Cambridge is joining forces with Salem under the slightly older combined-schools rule envisioned to keep participation numbers up, creating another Class C team.
• Eight-man football is replacing 11-man teams. Eldred, the last Class D program in Section 9 now that Millbrook is moving up a notch, has opted to make the conversion to eight-man, and they're being joined by Dover, Fallsburg, Livingston Manor/Roscoe, Pawling, Pine Plains, Sullivan West and Tri-Valley, which leaves just four Class C 11-man programs.
What it amounts to is that the relatively plentiful Class D playoff teams in Sections 3, 4 and 5 will continue to face five win-or-go-home games to reach the Carrier Dome on Thanksgiving weekend for the right to play for a state championship. The finalist from the eastern half of the state could get to Syracuse with as little as a single sectional victory, a bye in the state quarterfinals and a win in the semifinals.
The issue isn't confined to one end of the state. Section 6 appears to be down to just Cattaraugus-Little Valley, Salamanca, Sherman/Panama/Clymer and Maple Grove in Class D for now.
(Class C isn't quite at the some critical point, but we will probably have fewer than a combined 30 schools in the eastern half of the state in that class this fall, with up to two-thirds of them located in Section 2.)
That calls the fairness of the Class D tournament into question and brings into focus the longer-term issues -- namely how should the NYSPHSAA deal with what is transpiring:
• First-round pairings have more or less been etched in stone since the state tournament began, but the time seems right to shift Section 3 or 4 Class D teams into the eastern side of the bracket to restore some semblance of balance since last season's ratio of 56 western teams to 16 eastern times is about to get even worse.
Even then it might be necessary to take a page from the boys Division II hockey tournament and add a wildcard team from one of the larger sections to fill out the eight-team quarterfinal bracket.
• Re-doing the classification cutoffs could help, but it's not as simple as it sounds since moving 15 or 20 schools down to Class D to help restore some balance affects the ratio of enrollment sizes between the largest and smallest schools in each class and tends to affect some sections more than others when it comes to the number of teams that get moved. It's a concern whenever cutoff numbers are changed.