First Posted: 11/13/2009
Were number one! is what every high school football team wants to be able to say at the end of the season. But were number 256! somehow lacks the same ring.
Yet 256 is exactly the number of teams hitting the field for this weeks first round of the North Carolina high school playoffs.
Considering that eight different divisions of schools are involved from the largest to smallest, there are 32 teams in each segment vying for the right to be crowned with the title of state champion. That adds up to 256, according to my trusty computer calculator.
I seem to recall that making the playoffs once was a major accomplishment for a high school football team, but how can this now be the case? Since there are about 440 high school squads in the entire state, that means way more than half of those who begin practice in August will be able to say we made the playoffs come November.
It appears that North Carolinas high school playoff system, while seeking to recognize excellence, also rewards mediocrity.
Take, for example, last years 1-A state championship run by our own Mount Airy Bears.
In the first round, the 11-0 Bears faced Chatham Central, another group of Bears, but one with a 2-9 record. The predictable result: a 75-0 blowout by the local Bears. It makes one question why Chatham Central was even participating at all.
Even the football program down at South Stokes High School in Walnut Cove, which has been struggling in recent years to say the least, managed to qualify for the state playoffs in 2008. Thats despite winning only two games during the regular season. The Sauras were systematically dispatched in their first-round game 63-0.
Maybe surprisingly, winless South Stokes didnt make the playoffs this year, but North Wilkes, with its stellar 1-10 record, did. As a 16th seed, this gave the Vikings the unmitigated privilege of traveling to powerhouse Albemarle, which is undefeated.
So what is really accomplished from this ridiculous system?
I would suppose the main culprit is that ingredient at the root of most of our evils today, which is money. Evidently, someone somewhere sees this protracted playoff system as a financial gain, though I doubt gate attendance is that worthwhile for awful teams traveling great distances, which is probably limited to parents and only the most diehard fans.
Even for the top schools, its no fun to watch such one-sided games against outmanned opponents.
Another possible reason for this playoff system is the celebration of the mundane that seems to be permeating our educational system in general. The same forces appear to be at work when it comes to naming students to honor rolls. Have you ever noticed that the typical honor roll now includes about 200 students?
You have to wonder how much honor there is in seeing your name on a list that includes so many others, just as you can question the achievement of being one of 256 playoff teams.
I know inclusion is a buzzword and a goal in our society today, but please!
Whatever the motivation for the 256-team playoff format is, I doubt that it is concern for the players, coaches and cheerleaders who must travel the length of the state in some cases only to get blown out 85-0. If a 16th seed ever defeated a top seed, even once, the situation might be salvageable, but those poor underdogs simply have no chance at all.
So why even play? Here again, there is a financial factor to consider. Its my understanding that a school choosing to forfeit such a game is fined $1,000.
Even the teams on the winning side of things also have somewhat of a tough time. Mount Airy had to win five playoff games last year en route to capturing its state title, which is about half of those played in the regular season. So when sportscasters talk about the playoffs being the second season, that is really pretty accurate.
If the state playoff field were to be trimmed in half, I dont think the end of the world would result. Games certainly would be more competitive, which could draw additional fans in the long run, and the season would be shortened thereby lessening the chances of injuries and other problems.
And making the playoffs would mean more. Were number 128! sounds better than Were number 256!
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or 719-1924.