Football set for new-look playoffs

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

Everything is about to change.

As the football season is set to begin, nothing is quite like it has been in the past, and it may never be the way it was again.

The Virginia High School League has went to a six-classification system, which is a big difference from the three-classification system that has been in place since 1970.

One of the first sports to be affected will be football. However, football may be the sport that’s least affected by the new system.

As with any type of change, there are many differing opinions. Some are against it, some are for it, and some are neutral.

“Since it’s a new thing I’m going to reserve my judgment until we see how it goes through the first year,” Warren County coach Tony Tallent said. “I applaud the VHSL for trying to level the playing field, and I think until we took some action, the inaction was hurting more than helping. I know something had to be done, it remains to be seen if this was the right thing, but I’m encouraged they made the move in one direction so we’re testing the waters.”

Perhaps the team most affected by the new classification system is Central.

Central’s football program has been on the rise for the last few years. The Falcons have made great strides the last two years, including being one of the last eight teams standing in Group A last year.

This year they will be in Division 3, facing what should be much tougher competition. They went from being one of the favorites in Division 2, to being the third smallest school in Division 3.

Central coach Mike Yew said while it’s a tough break, his team will just have to be ready for any challenge they might face.

“For as much as it was fortunate for us last year that we were one of the bigger schools in Division 2, we are now one of the smallest Division 3’s in the state,” Yew said. “That’s how the numbers fell. That’s the hand we’re dealt, that’s the one we’ll play.

“We know that if we get in the playoffs, pretty much every school that we play is going to be a bigger school than we are. We just have to be ready for whoever we have to play.”

One of the reasons football won’t be affected quite as bad as some of the other sports is the fact that there were already six divisions in football.

One of the biggest changes for football will be the new playoff format, which actually isn’t new to Group A schools at all.

Several years ago Group A decided to switch their playoff format, dividing the state into two regions. For the playoffs, 16 teams from each region advanced and once each region was down to two teams, they moved on to the state semifinals.

This season that will be the playoff format for all six classifications.

Sherando coach Bill Hall said he doesn’t mind the new format, even though it’s not something he’s used to.

“The difference is going to be with the 1-16 [seeds] all of the sudden your first-round game you may go a long ways to play,” Hall said. “I enjoy playing different people. Sometimes you get into the first round and then you’re playing somebody in your district. It’s hard playing someone twice.”

Another change will be the way the VSHL football rating scale works. The VHSL tried to make it as fair as possible for teams that are playing in districts, which are mostly a smaller classification than what they are. Central and Warren County will both be playing in the Bull Run District, which mostly has Division 2 teams.

Skyline is on the opposite side of that. The Hawks will be the only team in the Northwestern District that isn’t a Division 4 squad.

There will be bonus points given to teams playing lower-classification opponents, but it will only be two extra points for a team in the district, and one for a non-district opponent.

“If we’re going to be in Conference 28, I think that’s like our district now. We should play those opponents,” Skyline coach Heath Gilbert said. “We are going to play a tougher schedule than some Division 3’s. At the end, if we can make the playoffs, that’s going to make us more battle-tested. You’d almost like to see it more fair for everyone — a level playing field. That’s my only gripe about it. Otherwise, I think it’s great, playing people your own size.”

In all other sports, team will go to conferences to start off the playoffs, but in football they go to the two regions.

Strasburg and Stonewall Jackson will be in Region 2A East. Central, Skyline and Warren County will be in Region 3A East, and Sherando will be in Region 4A North.

In the past the winner of each district got an automatic berth into the playoffs, but those days are over.

Despite that, Hall said he still feels like district games are important.

“It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything for the playoffs, because it’s wins and losses within the district — you’re earning points or not earning points,” Hall said. “I like our district. Believe me, the goal will be to be successful in the district. It’s not like it won’t have meaning, it just doesn’t carry the same view it used to have in terms of the playoff implications.”

One big change in the local districts this season is Warren County moving from the Evergreen to the Bull Run.

The Wildcats had already played Strasburg, Central, Clarke County and George Mason, so Tallent said he didn’t think it would be a big adjustment for his team.

“We’re kind of in the heart of the Bull Run District — in the middle of everything,” Tallent said. “I’m sure a lot of teams are going to appreciate having another school in the district where they don’t have to travel as far.

“We’re looking forward to it. We’ve built some really good relationships with some of the schools we’ve played prior to joining. We’ll look forward to continuing that positive energy.”

At the end of the day no matter what changes are made the players have to go out and simply play the games. Central quarterback Hayden Bauserman said the Falcons look forward to the challenge of playing in Division 3.

“It’s going to be bigger schools and bigger teams that we play than what we’re used to in the past, but we saw some good teams last year in the playoffs with Strasburg — and Essex obviously was a big-time team,” Bauserman said. “We’ve seen that and we’re a pretty big team ourselves, so I think we’re ready for it.”

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com