BILLINGS — When the Class AA football playoffs roll around next season, coaches of the most successful teams might have an interesting choice to make.
Sit some guys to give them rest or avoid injury, or go full-steam ahead?
The classification is re-arranging the deck chairs because its 14-team ranks will swell by two in the next two years when Belgrade moves from Class A next fall, and the second Bozeman high school opens for the 2020-21 school year. That will leave the classification with a manageable 16 teams.
For now, though, that two-year bridge is a headache as AA splits from one big conference into two with a seven-team Eastern Division and an eight-team Western Division next season.
“Our coaches did an outstanding job of compromising for (2019-20) and accepting a playoff format that wouldn’t typically get much support,” Mark Wahl, Billings Public Schools director of athletics and activities, wrote in an email. “But this was a way to make sure everyone got nine games given the situation we are in for next year only.”
Yes, the playoff situation scheduled for 2019-20 isn’t ideal. Because the Eastern Division will play only eight regular-season games (six conference games and two nonconference games) and the Western Division will play nine games (seven in conference with two nonconference), AA athletic directors decided to put every team into the postseason, thus guaranteeing each team plays at least nine games.
That format also guarantees some first-round mismatches on paper. While the No. 1 team in the West will get a bye, the East’s No. 1 seed will host the No. 8 team from the West, No. 2 in the West will host No. 7 in the East, and so on. Starting with the second round, teams will be seeded based on the same strength-of-schedule format Class AA uses now.
But that first round. Ooo-boy. If you’re a top seed, how much do you expose your players in what could likely be a blowout win?
“I think you would play your guys like normal,” said West coach Rob Stanton, who guided the Golden Bears to the state title in November with a championship win over Kalispell Flathead. “It would depend on the depth of your team and the types of injuries you had, but I would never tell a team of high school kids that we were going to rest this game.
“That could be a trap game if you approach it like you’re going to rest everybody. I would approach it like this is the first round of the playoffs and if we lose, we’re out.”
Opinions might vary of course, and this setup is for one season only. Though the playoff format for 2020-21 has yet to be decided one thing is certain: every team won’t qualify.
Here is what the two-division Class AA will look like starting next year:
Eastern Division: Belgrade (joins 2019-20), Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Billings West, Bozeman, Bozeman 2 (joins 2020-21), Great Falls, Great Falls CMR.
Western Division: Butte, Helena, Helena Capital, Kalispell Flathead, Kalispell Glacier, Missoula Big Sky, Missoula Hellgate, Missoula Sentinel.
The divisional alignment is for all AA sports except tennis, which has had three divisions. With 14 teams, that’s required some teams switching divisions year to year. Once the classification has 16 teams, that movement will no longer be required, much to the liking of the sport’s coaches. The tennis divisions:
Eastern Division: Belgrade (joins in 2019-20), Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Billings West.
Southern Division: Bozeman, Bozeman 2 (joins in 2020-21), Helena, Helena Capital.
Western Division: Butte; Missoula Big Sky; Missoula Hellgate; Missoula Sentinel.
Northern Division: Great Falls, Great Falls CMR, Kalispell Flathead, Kalispell Glacier.
Softball is one AA sport that will see change this spring. Instead of the best-of-3 playoff series used to determine state tournament teams, divisional tournaments will determine the four state teams from each division.
The divisional tournaments will be similar to a basketball bracket. Winning teams advance to the semifinals and then the championship game, while teams that lose in the first round or semifinals can finish no higher than third.
And there are rumblings that the state-tournament format for volleyball could potentially change. Currently, the state volleyball tournament is a true double-elimination, meaning that no team is out of the championship hunt until it is eliminated with its second loss.
Wahl said there have been considerations for switching to a basketball-style bracket, which would lessen the number of matches required to complete the tournament, “but nothing developing so far.”