District soccer playoff format leaves coaches frustrated

After a summer spent under a rallying cry of giving high school athletes the chance to compete, the last stage of the fall begins with a curiously limiting postseason.
District 1’s decisions regarding the regular season and playoffs have left most area boys’ and girls’ soccer coaches puzzled and concerned. In a year that more than ever begged for flexibility and adaptability, an inflexible system and reduced playoff opportunities left some teams scrambling for games at the last minute and others left on the outside looking in.
Soccer coaches in the Suburban One League remain frustrated and confused by what the focus of the season was supposed to be and what it became after the announcement of postseason qualifying.
“Speaking just for 4A Boys Soccer, we all knew we had to send one state qualifier. The PIAA made that clear months ago. Now we’ve lost the original plot entirely; to be grateful just to play. You now have irate coaches, confused players, overwhelmed AD’s and parents all of the sudden coming out the woodworks because their kid might not make it into a district playoff field,” CB West boys’ soccer coach Stefan Szygiel said. “But wasn’t this just about playing? Every postgame article all the sudden for the past two weeks has been all about Districts and getting in, not about being grateful just to play. Now you have potentially irreparable damage done from a relationship perspective between schools and leagues across the district by allowing what happened the past five days to actually happen.
“So who’s accountable? Who’s going to come out and say we didn’t get it right this year? Even with all of the challenges and day to day, week to week changes, I haven’t spoken to a coach yet who’s said — we really got the postseason right this year.’”
The SOL, the largest league in all of District I with 24 member schools, began soccer competition on Sept. 22 with two schools — Cheltenham and Harry S Truman — opting not to play this fall. Its four conferences playing league schedules, with a few teams opting to add crossover contests in to reach 10 or 11 scheduled dates.
As the season began without any concrete postseason plans in place from District 1, the PIAA announced a consolidated state tournament bracket on Sept. 23. With only district champions moving on and with the SOL and PAC the only leagues at the time playing soccer, coaches heard various plans for the postseason.
A special provision enacted by the PIAA on Sept. 16 allowed for teams to play a minimum of 33 percent of the maximum allowable games to become postseason eligible. PIAA by-laws require teams to play 50 percent of the maximum to qualify but the provision allowed for the lower number if teams had scheduled at least 50 percent of the maximum allotment.
In soccer, where the maximum number of regular season games is 18, this meant teams had to play just six matches to qualify. With teams all playing different number of games and none getting close to the maximum, the power ranking system didn’t have a chance to balance out and teams skyrocketed up the table, passing teams with six or seven results while playing just two or three times.
“The first I had heard was each league that was playing would send its top two, there were eight leagues so there’s your 16 teams, that made sense, you knew where you had to finish,” Abington girls’ soccer coach Rick Tompkins said. “This craziness they came up with, I still don’t understand it. You just feel badly for the kids who don’t get an opportunity especially in a year like this where nothing is balanced, just let everybody in. The cream rises to the top, you’re talking one, maybe two extra games.”
All that changed on Oct. 13 when District 1 announced it would also be holding a consolidated postseason. In Class 4A, the usual 24-team bracket was reduced to 16 entrants but would continue to use the established power ranking system. While the district did move the competition deadline back to Oct. 28, this left a majority of SOL teams in a precarious position.
The Bucks, who were 2-4-1 after beating CB South on Oct. 13, essentially had to win out in order to qualify. They would lose their next two games and tie their final scheduled game against Souderton but still had an opportunity to qualify if they were able to schedule additional games.
With schedules across the district changing drastically after the Oct. 13 announcement, Szygiel added two games only to be told by the school district they would not be allowed to count as official matches and had to be contested as scrimmages.
“There’s being grateful to play, which is what we sold to the kids. Read every postgame article out there for any sport during the first few weeks of the season and the kids are just so thankful for the opportunity to play with their buddies. That’s what this season was supposed to be about. Play a truncated, local league schedule from a health and safety standpoint. That was clear,” Szygiel said. “Then there’s playing to qualify for the postseason. These are two very different opportunities. Let me preface this all by saying I’d like to think that enough coaches around the District know me well enough to say that I’m honest; CB West boys soccer this year didn’t do enough to qualify for the top 16. Period. We weren’t good enough in our 10 games played and this group will surely learn from this year’s experiences. But what if we played 1-2 more games? We will sadly never know.”
District 1’s policy for postseason is generally half the teams sponsoring the sport or four times the number of state qualifiers.
“With the projections including the Central League not participating in the playoffs, our numbers are down in 4A soccer to the mid-30s, with 16 teams in the tournament we thought that was a fair number,” District 1 Assistant Executive Director Sean Kelly said in an interview with PA Prep Live’s Austin Hertzog on Oct. 14.
However, Central League member Conestoga’s boys’ soccer team opted to try and qualify for the postseason. Despite going 6-0, the Pioneers did not make the final cut due to opponents’ low strength of schedule.
With the Pioneers, one of the top programs in the state over the past 15 years, not qualifying and other traditionally strong programs like West Chester Henderson, Radnor and Lower Merion not in the field, the postseason feels lesser. Szygiel, who coached his team to the PIAA semifinals in 2017, a District 1-4A title in 2018 and the PIAA title game after coming out of District 1 as the No. 23 seed last year, said any winner will be questioned, fairly or unfairly.
“It’s like playoffs lite,” Szygiel said. “This was not the year to use the formula they normally use with 50 percent of the competing teams. Sixteen teams is not enough. Everyone’s on a different playing field, there’s inequity across the board, teams are playing six games and some are playing 12 like the PAC. We should have been accommodating and all we accommodated was allowing late games to be added.”
Pennridge’s boys’ team finished its slate 5-5 in the Colonial and 6-5 overall but also saw itself on the outside of the playoff field on Oct. 22.
This fall, Quakertown had moved to the SOL Liberty, meaning the Pennridge’s games with their neighboring rival were no longer conference fixtures. Because of the importance of games between the two communities in any sport, Rams coach Pete Valimont added Quakertown to his schedule and nearly paid for it by not making the postseason.
“When I saw the opportunity to play them in my email, I was ecstatic because we got an extra game and it was Quakertown, our guys graduate wanting to say they had the ability to play Quakertown in their senior year,” Valimont said. “In hindsight, we should have never played the game because when you’re looking at the math, it’s an extra game that divides out your total points and it really put us in a tough spot. Quakertown is doing the best they can, but they finished below .500 and it ended up hurting us.
“They’re going to continue to use this point system because you can’t get mad at anyone in administration, the math is the math. We finished tied for second in our conference and still almost didn’t qualify for districts.”
The Rams were able to get in thanks to a last-minute add to their schedule when they topped Hatboro-Horsham 1-0 on Wednesday. While the Rams were willing to play anywhere to add another game, Valimont said he wanted to stay in the SOL and play a quality opponent, which he was fortunate enough to get with the Hatters, who didn’t make the field after losing to Pennridge.
Now in his 13th year coaching at Pennridge, Valimont agreed that this year’s playoff winner will carry a stigma because of how the field was composed.
“Guys side or girls side, I’m not knocking the fact that if you win a district title or state title this year it’s fantastic, but there’s going to be an asterisk on it and be remembered as the 2020 quarantine year where some good teams across the state did not participate,” Valimont said. “I respect the people who are in charge here and talk to them quite a bit, but there was no contingency plan in place if all these teams started to add games, no regulation on it.”
Adding to the confusion, the District 1 website crashed late Wednesday afternoon, meaning results were still being added and the standings changing on Thursday night.
In video gaming, a popular trend has been the “battle royale” format where a player is dropped into an expansive map with minimal equipment and left to fend for themselves. As more players are eliminated, the map compresses, leading to an often frantic finish as the final competitors are pushed together.
If this sounds similar, it should. The timeframe from mid-September to Oct. 13 is like the early stages of a game, where teams from the PAC and SOL began playing with minimal guidance from the state or district and the announcement of the district playoff field was the map compressing inward.
Only in this case, instead of eliminating players, more entered the fray, setting up a final two-week window of chaos and teams taking whatever measures they could to try and make the postseason.
“Things weren’t broken down the way they should have been, rules weren’t put in place, contingency plans weren’t put in place and it became a free-for-all,” Valimont said. “District 1 became like the Wild, Wild West. If you were the last man standing, good for you.”
The AACA, which includes defending District 1-3A champion and PIAA runner-up Villa Joseph Marie, had initially planned a league-only schedule starting on Oct. 12. After playing a two-match opening week, the league’s members changed their schedules to reach the qualifying minimum.
AACA member Gwynedd Mercy Academy, played two games the first week of its schedule, then played four games the week of Oct. 19 and played three straight days on Oct. 26-28. The Monarchs are currently No. 3 in 3A, behind fellow league members Villa Joseph Marie and Villa Maria, who also played the same amount of games in that time.
In order to reach the six-game minimum, the Upper Merion boys’ soccer team played four games in three days to reach six results by the Oct 28 cutoff. The Vikings, who played twice on Wednesday, finished 4-2 after splitting their doubleheader and missed the playoff cut.
“I had people calling me at the end saying they needed another game because they were right on the edge and needed another win,” Tompkins, whose Ghosts have the No. 2 seed in the girls 4A bracket, said. “It wasn’t safe to play at first because of the virus, but it’s now plenty safe to play two games in one day.
“If that’s permitted, then it’s a free-for-all and if I was one of the teams on the outside looking in, I’d be screaming and squawking too.”
Szygiel said his hope is that the lessons of the fall across the board, whether it be soccer, field hockey, volleyball or any other sport, can prevent a repeat for winter and spring athletes. With so many links in the chain of communication, it’s vital the decision-makers and powers that be are as clear as possible on what the goal of the season is meant to be.
“Was this season a success if the goal was to just play? Absolutely,” Szygiel said. “Was this season a success from an equitable postseason selection criteria standpoint? Absolutely not. It’s a short-term type of thing during a season of countless challenges, but it’s a lose-lose in that too many good teams across all sports never even had a fair shot and whoever wins it all will inevitably have an asterisk. That is also unfair to the teams who do win, because that’s what this season came down to; qualifying for districts and winning a modified state title, not just being grateful to play.”

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