The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) went to an open playoff system for all team sports but one in 1995. That meant every school qualified for the regional playoffs, no matter how dismal their season.
Previously, only the top four teams in each region advanced to the postseason.
Football, of course, was not included in the open playoff system, the MPSSAA neither wanting to start practice in July nor have the state championship game in January.
Still, the football playoff kept incrementally expanding. In the beginning, only four teams advanced to the playoffs in each classification: the four region winners. A state semifinal game, then the state championship game.
That was the format under which Sparrows Point reached the playoffs in 1976 and 1981, losing in the state semifinals each time.
In the 1980’s, a state quarterfinal game was added. Now eight teams reached the playoffs in each classification: the four region champions, and the four non-region champs with the best overall records.
Under that format, Dundalk reached the playoffs in 1990 and 2002, losing in the first round each time, and Sparrows Point qualified three straight years from 1987-89, also losing in the first round each time.
The football playoffs expanded again in 2003. Now, the top four teams in each region advanced to the postseason (16 in each classification) and the winner of each two-round region tournament went to the state semifinals.
Patapsco made its playoff debut in 2003 under that format, while Dundalk has reached the playoffs eight times and Sparrows Point has advanced six times.
Okay, so much for the dry history lesson.
The football playoff field has again doubled in size, in what is likely to be the last time it is expanded.
Starting this season, the top eight teams in each region will advance to the playoffs. To make room for what is now a five-week tournament, the regular season has been reduced to nine games.
So, it’s really kind of a glass half-filled thing. We’re not getting more football (always a good idea); but we are getting more playoff football (awesome).
This is about as close to an open playoff system for football in Maryland as we’re ever likely to get. The average size of the 16 regions is 11 schools; four regions have 12 schools, and two regions have 10 schools.
(And some regions, of course, may have schools that don’t field football teams.)
So, there will be 52 schools not making the playoffs (likely fewer, taking into account the just-mentioned fact that not all schools will have football teams) and 128 teams qualifying.
(Here’s some fun with geography: Class 3A East is composed entirely of schools from Carroll and Howard counties. You know, those two “eastern” Maryland counties. No way around it, really; there’s only one Class 3A school east of the Chesapeake Bay: James M. Bennett.)
Then there’s the Class 3A North region, the largest region in the state with 13 schools. Of course, that’s Dundalk and Patapsco’s region.
The Owls were the regular-season regional champs last year (which earned them the top seed in the regional tournament), losing to Franklin in the playoff regional title game.
For the Patriots to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2003, they must beat out five other teams.
There are six Baltimore County schools in the region (Towson, Kenwood and Woodlawn in addition to the three mentioned), four Harford County schools (Aberdeen, bel Air, Edgewood and C. Milton Wright), and three city schools (City, Poly and Mervo).
Dundalk’s schedule has road games against Century, Franklin, Kenwood and Perry Hall, and home games against Concordia Prep (the former Baltimore Lutheran), Frederick Douglass-PG, Woodlawn, Towson and Patapsco.
That’s a defending state champ (Franklin), a state runner-up (Douglass) a private school (Concordia) and some tough county rivals.
Still, Dundalk should be among that top eight that make the cut.
Patapsco has road games against Western Tech, Lansdowne, Kenwood, Dundalk and Loch Raven, and is home against Sparrows Point, Towson, Woodlawn and Pikesville.
Until the Patriots show they can score against Dundalk (not having done so since 2014), they can’t talk about beating the Owls. Patapsco beat Sparrows Point last year, but this is a tough rivalry game.
If Patapsco can find five or six wins, it has a good shot at making that playoff field.
Sparrows Point has moved up to Class 2A North, where the best teams should be Hereford, Eastern Tech, Milford Mill and New Town. Then its eight teams competing for those other four spots.
The Pointers had a dismal season last year, but should be improved. They should compete for one of those last four spots with Owings Mills, Overlea, Lansdowne and Chesapeake.
(Incidentally, teams that don’t make the playoffs will play a game against another non-playoff qualifier, so as each team gets to play at least 10 games.)
The MPSSAA added another new twist to the postseason: after the first two rounds of the playoffs, the quarterfinal round (regional finals) will be re-seeded into a new eight-team bracket for each classification.
This change is so interesting, I probably should have mentioned it much earlier.
So, suppose Dundalk and Franklin are the last two teams remaining in Class 3A North after the first two rounds of the playoffs. Instead of facing each other in the regional title game, they’ll be re-seeded (based on regular-season records) with the other six regional finalists, so they will potentially play teams from the 3A South, East and West regions in the quarterfinal round.
This was done (unofficially) because teams from strong regions, like the West, have long complained their top two or three teams are better than the region champs from other regions, and better teams (in their view) were getting knocked out in the second round while inferior teams were reaching the state semis and final.
Under this new seeding format, it’s now possible for two teams from the same region to face each other in the state championship game.
Which is good. I mean, it’s tragic to think some West region team might be deprived of a state runner-up trophy.