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Southern Nash High athletic director Robbie Kennedy has come at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoff seeding format from different directions and both times it didn’t add up for the Firebirds, or in this case, the Ladybirds.
In his first season as varsity girls soccer coach, Kennedy directed the Ladybirds to a 9-9 record, their most wins since 2013. While Southern Nash finished tied for fourth place in the six-team 3-A Big East Conference, Kennedy had reasonable hopes the Ladybirds would earn a wild-card berth in the state 3-A playoffs.
When the brackets were released by the NCHSAA on Monday, Southern Nash was nowhere to be seen in the 32-team East Region. However, two teams who were — No. 32-seeded Topsail with a 4-14 record and No. 31 West Brunswick at 2-13 — caught Kennedy’s eye.
He contacted Brad Alford, the NCHSAA director of sports and championships, and asked, “How am I supposed to explain that to my girls and my parents when I can’t understand it?”
The explanation is simple enough at face value. The NCHSAA gives automatic berths to conference champions, second-place teams and tournament champions. It seeds each of those tiers and then all of the wild-card teams by the adjusted final ranking provided by MaxPreps.com, the association’s official statistician.
The bottom line is that West Brunswick was seeded 63rd and Topsail was 64th in the adjusted final rankings and Southern Nash was — you guessed it — 65th.
Here’s where it gets murky though. Nobody knows what the rankings formula is because it is a proprietary formula that neither MaxPreps nor the NCHSAA will explain. It has a lot to do with strength of schedule and since both Topsail and West Brunswick play in the 3-A/4-A Mideastern Conference — which had all eight members qualify for the postseason — they face some tough competition against the 4-A trio of Wilmington schools — Ashley, Hoggard and Laney — as well as 3-A New Hanover.
But Topsail and West Brunswick went 0-16 against those four schools by a combined score of 106-2. Southern Nash or just about anybody could have done that poorly. Kennedy points out that his Ladybirds played Big East champion Hunt, the East No. 3 seed, competitively twice, losing by a combined 8-0 score.
The formula clearly doesn’t take into scoring differential.
“If a team went 2-14 against good people and you put them in the playoffs against the No. 1 seed, they’re going to get killed,” he said.
Every year in every season there are complaints about the NCHSAA seeding process, which has changed so many times that I can barely keep track of it. It changed in the middle of the 2017-18 school year after an outcry over the football playoffs, leading to the system in place now.
J. Mike Blake, the former preps sports writer for The News & Observer, has observed his fair share of NCHSAA format changes over the years. He explained that the system currently in use requires teams from split conferences to have won a certain percentage of their games in order to get the automatic bid as a No. 2 seed.
“So there’s precedent for using win-loss percentage,” he said.
That precedent should allow for his idea to use the win-loss percentage for all teams for playoff consideration. Blake suggests 40% or even 33% would be sufficient to weed out the teams whose adjusted rankings are inflated by merely playing in a strong conference and “protect teams in the areas where maybe it’s hard to get a good strength of schedule, travel-wise.”
It’s a great idea and one that makes sense. I’ve witnessed enough NCHSAA changes over the years to form my own opinion: The NCHSAA always takes a step in the right direction but it never goes far enough in rectifying the situation.
Years ago, split conferences were treated the same as regular leagues and if a team had two 3-A teams in a 2-A/3-A conference, both 3-A teams qualified for the playoffs because there were two automatic qualifiers from every league. I remember one year a winless girls soccer team not only made it into the playoffs but hosted a first-round game.
Thankfully that format was finally amended but the NCHSAA has more work to do. Blake’s idea would be a great start and would prevent teams with two wins getting into the playoffs because, let’s face it, there’s no legitimate metric that will justify that.
“The minimum winning percentage is something that may only affect a handful of teams in every sport but it’s going to open that door for more deserving schools,” Blake said.
For Southern Nash, it’s going to take some more convincing as to why the rankings formula is used at all. Kennedy, the defensive coordinator for the football team, pointed out that he scheduled games in 2017 and 2018 against Wake Forest, which has won three straight state 4-AA titles and 45 straight games.
The game last season was stopped because of lightning and never completed but in 2017, the Firebirds lost 35-0 at home to Wake Forest. It was the only loss of the regular season for Southern Nash but Havelock, which lost 26-21 to eventual 2-A champion Wallace-Rose Hill for its only defeat, got the East No. 2 seed while the Firebirds were seeded third. The Rams hosted the third-round game versus the Firebirds and won 49-39.
“We played Wake Forest in football the last two years to help us in MaxPreps,” Kennedy said. “We lost to Wake Forest and it still hurt us and we played the best team in the state.
“It was very frustrating because I didn’t understand it at all.”
So what’s a school to do? Here’s a thought, schools shouldn’t have to do anything. The NCHSAA needs to fix the holes in its seeding format that the public can see and move toward a more common-sense system.
It really shouldn’t be that hard.