Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 28, 2005

tweaks playoffs to allow more teams to compete|[6/28/05]

When the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s realignment plan was unveiled this spring, baseball coaches across the state raised a collective eyebrow.

Several divisions in Class 5A were loaded with top tier teams. Only two of them would make the playoffs, leaving several worthy teams at home when the postseason started.

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Or maybe not.

The MHSAA has expanded the Class 5A state playoffs for next season, giving the top three teams in each four-team division a bid. That’s good news to Warren Central coach Randy Broome and Vicksburg High coach Jamie Creel, who otherwise would have been battling each other and a strong Madison Central team just to make the playoffs in Division 3-5A.

“I think it’s great for next year,” Broome said. “For us, you’re going to have for sure three good teams. Nobody’s left out. Ideally, what would help is to keep the football districts. Eight teams and 16 district games, and then the top four go. That would help with scheduling, too.”

The format of the expanded playoffs was not clear. MHSAA executive director Ennis Proctor was unavailable for comment, and an MHSAA representative said the final bracket had not been completed yet.

With the North-South format apparently still in place, the most likely scenario would seem to be two 12-team tournaments. In that type of system, the eight division champions would all receive first-round byes while the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds play a best-of-three series in the opening round.

On the 2005-06 MHSAA calendar, April 20-22 has been marked for the opening round of the playoffs.

Another possibility is a “regional” style tournament similar to the one used in Classes 1A through 4A. In those classifications, teams play the opening round in one of eight four-team regionals around the state. The rest of the playoffs are then played as best-of-three series.

Because only 24 teams advance to the Class 5A playoffs, however – 32 make it in the other classes – the bracket would have to be tweaked. A three-team regional, with one team getting a first-round bye, would have to be used, or else one or two teams would end up with a bye after the regionals.

A three-team division tournament could also be developed, in which the regular-season champion hosts and possibly gets a bye. Creel said he wasn’t a fan of that scenario.

“The only down side is you’re playing the same teams more at the end of the year,” Creel said of a division tournament. “If we’re (Vicksburg and Warren Central) playing to see who plays Madison, what’s the point of that?”

No matter the playoff format, both Creel and Broome agreed that there will be an increased emphasis on winning the division title.

“Certainly, you want to win your division and let everything else take its course,” Creel said, adding that a third playoff team also adds for more leeway if obstacles develop. “And if you have some injuries over the course of the season, you’ve got to feel like you can overcome that No. 4 team and get in the playoffs.”

In addition to Division 3-5A, the biggest beneficiaries of the new system are the teams in Division 5-5A. Oak Grove, Meridian and Hattiesburg all made the playoffs last season from separate divisions. The fourth team, Brandon, did not make the playoffs but has been a strong program in the past.

“The overriding thing is, it improves baseball,” said Oak Grove coach Harry Breland, who along with Hattiesburg coach Larry Knight introduced the rule change to the MHSAA. “It can’t do anything but add excitement, pride in the school, and competitiveness.”

Some individual teams also figure to benefit more than others.

Murrah, which was 5-9 last season, and Provine, which finished 11-7 and reached the first round of the Class 4A playoffs, are in the same division as perennially strong Clinton and defending state champion Northwest Rankin.

Under the new format, either Provine or Murrah is guaranteed a postseason bid. With the old system, they likely would have been playing out the string or banking their entire season on an upset from day one.

“I’m sure at some point, it may not be next year, but at some point I think you’re going to see those teams improve,” Breland said. “Even when you have years where you’re not as good, it gives you a chance to get better as the year goes on.”

And then there’s the strange case of Division 6-5A, in which no teams had winning records last season. Jim Hill won five games in 2005 – two against winless Wingfield, which scored only 14 runs in 15 games. Natchez was 11-16 last season and hasn’t won a division game since 2001. And Forest Hill, which was stuck in a tough division with Vicksburg and Warren Central the last two years, went 10-16 against a schedule that included 14 games against playoff teams.

“On the flip side, you’re going to have three teams that might not deserve to be there,” Broome said, comparing WC’s division with Division 6-5A. “Making the playoffs is something special. You start adding more teams, and you take away from that.”