Bellevue West crouches down during game play on the sideline
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Pluses and Minuses Come with a One-Off Class A Playoff Format

September 22, 2020

We’re in the middle of a high school sports season unlike any we’ve seen before. Schools and athletes have had to roll with the punches and adapt to everything the COVID-19 era has sent their way, and last week the NSAA threw another curve ball at Class A football teams.

Class A lost seven of its 31 teams (including perennial playoff contenders Omaha Burke and Omaha North) before the season had even begun when the Omaha Public Schools district canceled the fall sports season. That impacted the rest of the class and teams suddenly had gaps in their already determined schedules.

Things have only gotten more difficult as the season has played out. Through four weeks, only three teams have played the four games they originally had scheduled—Millard South, Papillion-La Vista and Papillion-La Vista South. Every other team has either had gaps created by the absence of the OPS schools or games had to be canceled by teams entering quarantines because of positive COVID-19 tests or contact tracing. Heck, Kearney has yet to play a scheduled game as its first four have all been either postponed or outright canceled.

Some teams have managed to fill the gaps with replacement games. Some have decided to remain idle. And some have attempted to land replacement games without success. Regardless, any replacement games teams play would not count towards that team’s wildcard points which are typically used to determine the postseason field and seeding.

For all of those reasons, relying on the typical postseason format would have been difficult. By the time we reach the end of the season, schedules are going to be so different from team to team that using one overall grading metric (like wildcard points) simply wouldn’t have been fair.

With that in mind, the NSAA voted last Thursday to dramatically change the postseason for Class A. For one year only, all 24 active Class A teams will make the playoffs with the top eight seeds getting a first-round bye. In order to make room for the expanded field, they’ve replaced the week nine games for every team with the first round of the playoffs. The NSAA will select a committee to determine seeding following the conclusion of week eight’s games, and the bracket will not be reseeded after the first round.

The cancellation of week nine wipes out what could have been some pretty fun matchups including Lincoln Southeast at Elkhorn South, Omaha Creighton Prep at Lincoln East and Papillion-La Vista at Gretna. It also takes Grand Island at Kearney off the schedule after the two teams rescheduled that showdown from week one to week nine because of COVID-19 concerns.

Outside of Kearney, no team has had tougher luck so far this season than Bellevue West, the reigning Class A state champion who has played just two games through four weeks. The Thunderbirds were supposed to open the season against Omaha Burke, and their week three opponent—Creighton Prep—had to enter quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test, wiping out that game as well. Bellevue West was supposed to play against Omaha Northwest in week six, so that’s another open week.

“I’m a little upset to be real honest with you,” Bellevue West coach Michael Huffman told Hail Varsity after the Thunderbirds’ 49-29 win at Millard South. “We have had a hard time getting games, and I get it. We’re always going to be the odd person out because we’re a tough matchup for most folks, and it’s a bummer. We had some out-of-state teams we thought were willing and then it would fall through real late. But it’s tough.”

Bellevue West tried to schedule a couple replacement games against out-of-state teams but couldn’t make it work. North Platte agreed to host the Thunderbirds for week three, but as Bellevue West was loading up its buses to make the trip west, school officials got word from North Platte that the game was off because of a “COVID-19 investigation” that including holding out a number of players, according to North Platte’s release. So heading into Friday’s showdown with Millard South (3-0 heading into the game and very battle-tested), Bellevue West had just one game under its belt, a 55-0 blowout of its overmatched crosstown rival, Bellevue East.

“Now, with them getting rid of week nine, we had a week nine,” Huffman continued. “We’re going to get to the end of the season and I would assume we’re going to be a top-eight team—I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I would assume we’re going to be a top-eight seed. So that means we’re playing five football games. If we go to the state finals—which you never know—that’s nine games. That’s what the [regular] season is supposed to be. So I was really disappointed in it. But you know what? We control what we control.”

That five-game regular season assumes Bellevue West won’t have any more complications the rest of the way, which is far from a given. Each team in Class A has been affected by this to some extent.

I spoke with Millard West coach Kirk Peterson after his loss to Millard South in week three. The Wildcats were originally scheduled to visit Kearney last week, but the team quarantine canceled that game. While Peterson said he probably wouldn’t be looking for a replacement game, he also wondered aloud what the right thing to do was; after all, this is an unprecedented situation. Should he do everything he can to get his team another game so the kids get to have that experience? Or is it better to take the week off and avoid wear and tear and potential injuries in a game that wouldn’t count towards the team’s postseason résumé anyway? Coaches find themselves in a difficult situation this year.

The NSAA was put in a no-win situation as well. I’m not sure there was an option that everybody would have been happy with, and this is the one they chose. But ideal situation or not, for the remaining teams in Class A, at least they still get to play.

“At the end of the day, we talk about it every week: we could feel sorry for ourselves, but you know what? There are kids that live not 10 minutes from us that don’t even get to play,” Huffman said. “There are kids that get hurt and lose their entire season. We’re thankful that we have a season, and we always will be. Our kids love to play football, and obviously it breaks your heart when you don’t get to play, but we look forward to next week and if we’re going to keep playing like this I think we’ll play for a long time.”

The first round of the 2020 NSAA Class A Football Playoffs is set for Friday, Oct. 23 (No. 9 versus No. 24, No. 10 versus No. 23, etcetera). The second round is scheduled for the following Friday, Oct. 30 (No. 1 will play the winner of No. 16 against No. 17, No. 2 will play the winner of No. 15 against No. 18, and so on). The quarterfinals will take place Friday, Nov. 6 and the semifinals Friday, Nov. 13. The championship is slated for Monday, Nov. 23.

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