In November 2017, Damascus eked out a 7-3 win over Walkersville in the Class 2A West region championship game.
Being a regional final, the stakes were high. But as far as many were concerned, they should have been even higher.
The Hornets and Lions appeared to be the top two 2A teams in the state, not just the region, so it seemed more fitting for them to meet in the state championship game.
“You know, sometimes the best two teams play in the region championship,” said Walkersville coach Joe Polce, whose Lions faced a similar situation against Middletown two times earlier in the decade. “I think we did it three times.”
Thanks to changes made by the MPSSAA, the likelihood of the state’s best football teams meeting in a regional championship has diminished.
At its spring meetings late last month, the MPSSAA decided to have the top two teams in each region advance to the state quarterfinals, where they would be reseeded. This means teams from the same region could clash in the state championship game.
That possibility is just one of the changes coming to Maryland high school football.
The MPSSAA also doubled the number of teams that qualify for the football playoffs, from 16 to 32 in each of the state’s four classifications. And it reduced the number of regular-season games from 10 to nine so the additional round of postseason games could be played in what used to be Week 10 of the regular season.
“I think overall, it’s a good thing for high school football,” Polce said of the changes. “My favorite part of it is, they’re going to reseed the playoffs after the first two rounds. So instead of reseeding the final four, they’re going to reseed the final eight. That’s going to help ensure to get the best two teams in the state finals.”
In 2017, the best two 2A teams appeared to clash in the West region final. After escaping with a win over Walkersville, Damascus beat Glenelg 42-7 in the state semifinals and Gwynn Park 31-7 in the state championship game.
“I think the allure to it is really that when you get to the final eight teams, you’re going to reseed it,” Linganore coach Rick Conner of the playoff changes. “So, maybe if Walkersville or Middletown are loaded, they won’t play each other in [the second round], they would work themselves out to play in the final game, the state championship game.”
Adding more teams to the postseason is also a major change. It’s the first time the MPSSAA playoffs have been expanded since 2003, when they went from eight to 16 teams, with four teams in each region qualifying.
“I think probably any coach would’ve said the ideal playoffs would’ve been a top 16 in the whole state, regardless of region. But that was never going to pass,” Polce said. “I think going to the nine-game schedule was a great compromise to ensure that the right teams make the playoffs.
“I know there have been a bunch of years where a team with a fifth seed, who had a really good season, like a 7-3 or 8-2 type season, didn’t get in [and] may have played a harder schedule,” he said.
Take Middletown in 2017. The Knights went 7-3 but just missed making the playoffs. Their losses came to eventual Class 3A state champ Linganore, Walkersville, which beat Linganore en route to going undefeated in the regular season, and Oakdale, another 2A West power.
Granted, first-round matchups that pit No. 1 seeds against No. 8 seeds might not be the most competitive games. But the days of strong teams being forced to start the postseason on the road could be gone.
“Last year, we went undefeated and yet we played our first two playoff games on the road,” said Oakdale coach Kurt Stein, whose team went on to win the 2A state title. “The eight teams per region will reward a good season in the first round. I do think that’s a plus.”
“The negatives are, you had to really have a great year to make the playoffs before, and that’s been taken away,” he said. “A lot of teams that maybe don’t have such good years will still make the playoffs.”
True. But that scenario could also open the door for teams that finish strong after overcoming early season adversity.
Teams that don’t make the playoffs will play one less game now that the 10th regular-season contest has been dropped. There are 180 public high school football programs in Maryland, and 128 of them will play in the postseason.
But Stein didn’t mind the nine-game schedule.
“As far as Oakdale is concerned, the changes are positive because the nine-game schedule allows us to find one less open game that we usually have a lot of trouble finding,” Stein said.
Conner said rivalry week games, which used to be played in Week 10, would be played one week earlier.
“It gives more teams a chance to make the playoffs, it doesn’t extend your season into the winter season. It’s a plus in that regards,” Conner said. “There are some good things about it. I’m good with change, I like it. It makes everybody a little more accountable. Let’s see where it takes us.”