High School Sports

Is it time to change the structure of Kentucky’s high school playoffs?

Lexington Catholic’s Emma James Bryant (21) battled for the ball with Notre Dame’s Maya Decker (12) during their semi-state game at Lexington Catholic on Tuesday. Notre Dame beat Lexington Catholic 4-1.
Lexington Catholic’s Emma James Bryant (21) battled for the ball with Notre Dame’s Maya Decker (12) during their semi-state game at Lexington Catholic on Tuesday. Notre Dame beat Lexington Catholic 4-1. aslitz@herald-leader.com

If conversation on Twitter is any indication, high school sports fans and participants have a lot of feelings about how the postseason is conducted — especially in soccer.

In Kentucky, all high school boys’ and girls’ soccer teams play in a one-class system. The model used for both state tournaments is similar to the one used in basketball’s Sweet Sixteen tournaments: 16 region champions are determined from across the state. In soccer, eight of those participants host semi-state games on campus. The eight teams that advance from those games move onto the quarterfinals, from which point the games are played at a neutral site, historically in Lexington.

At the semi-state level, the state is divided into four quadrants to help alleviate travel: Regions 1-4, Regions 5-8, Regions 9-12 and Regions 13-16. What does that mean? A team from Region 9 can only ever play a team from Region 10, 11 or 12 in the first round of the state tournament, a team from Region 5 can only play teams from Regions 6, 7 and 8, etc. That means each area of the state — western Kentucky, Louisville area, Lexington/Cincinnati area and eastern Kentucky — is guaranteed two participants at state.

The competitive imbalance between Regions 13-16 and the rest of the state is evident among those in the sport, however. Since 2012 — when the regions began to more closely resemble those used in basketball — teams from Regions 13-16 have never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. Few times have they ever even been close. Since 2001, no girls’ teams and only one boys’ team from those regions — Ashland Blazer — have advanced to the semifinals.

Boys’ soccer teams from eastern Kentucky are 1-12 in quarterfinals appearances since 2001 and have been outscored 65-10. Girls’ teams are 0-12 and have been outscored 57-0.

I suggested on Tuesday that seeding should be used in soccer. I said that teams from eastern Kentucky have no business advancing beyond the first round, a crude statement that was intended as a criticism of a competition format that favors geography over competitive ability, not as an indictment of the teams or players who participate in a competition format they had no hand in creating.

I also raised the possibility of moving to a multiple-class system — as used in Tennessee and Indiana, among others — in soccer, baseball, volleyball and other sports that have historically suffered from competitive inadequacies between large and small schools. The KHSAA currently only classifies the sports of football, track and field and cross country.

The single-class postseason models used in baseball, soccer and volleyball are all based off the basketball tournament format. That system has worked well for the Sweet Sixteen, but should a system established in the 1940s to fit a 5-on-5 sport continue to be used for sports featuring 11-on-11 play or sports that are still in their infancy in rural areas?

The most radical postseason format change to any sport came in 2015, when the KHSAA adopted a two-weekend format for the state baseball tournament in response to efforts by Lawrence County head coach Travis Feltner, whose research supported a move to a class system for baseball. Feltner was not a fan of the compromise.

“What they’ve done here is put a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound,” Feltner told the Herald-Leader in November 2015. “ ... 82 percent of the membership (I polled) was in favor of a class system. Ultimately, they promote that they have 43 sanctioned state championships but the only one that they care about is the men’s basketball state championship. It’s frustrating. It’s nothing against basketball, but everything’s important.”

Several people chimed in with soccer format suggestions on Twitter:

Others took issue with change, bringing up travel costs and other factors as potential deterrents to seeding:

Some offered commentary about KHSAA sports in general:

The Herald-Leader has reached out to the KHSAA to discuss the current state of its postseason competitions.

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

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