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If soccer, volleyball had used new NCHSAA pod system

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Basketball is moving to a different playoff format this year, using a system that -- much like the one football uses -- includes automatic spots, seeding priority based on overall winning percentage and the use of pods based on each school's geographical position from east-to-west.

And while the football model -- which includes eight 32-team brackets -- has been the source of much scrutiny, Triangle soccer and volleyball coaches have been wanting something like this for years.

Soccer and volleyball -- as well as baseball and softball -- still use a slot system for their 64-team brackets. Each spot in the field is pre-determined, and the NCHSAA tries to come up with combinations that are fair while not creating travel problems for the whole.

But what that sometimes does is allow some of the state's top teams to meet early in the playoffs.

Take the Green Hope boys soccer team from this past fall.

Its easiest game (after the first round) was the East final against Pinecrest. The Falcons had already run through a gauntlet of top Triangle-area schools in the previous rounds, just because of how the slots were positioned.

In the last three years, Green Hope and Jordan have met in the third round each time, and each time the winner has gone on to be in the state championship.

Four second-round games during this year's 4A boys soccer playoffs featured one top-15 team going against one another. That means eight of the top teams in the state were done, basically because of the playoff format.

Volleyball has experienced similiar results with the slot system.

Green Hope, Apex and Riverside spent most of last season ranked in the state's top 10, even top five. Yet only one of them was going to make it out of the third round, since all three were close together in the bracket.

So let's play around a little bit -- how much improvement would we see competitively if this past fall's boys soccer and volleyball playoffs were done using the new basketball 64-team pod system playoffs? Would it be good for travel?

First, here are the would-be 4A East & Mideast brackets for boys soccer from 2011 (note: Richmond County would be in the midwest under this alignment due to Southeast Guilford - which is more east than Richmond is - making the playoffs)

2011 Boys Soccer playoffs, formatted with 64-team pod system

Mideast East
1. Fayetteville Jack Britt (1-seeds) 1. Wilmington Laney (1-seeds)
2. Green Hope 2. Sanderson
3. Southern Pines Pinecrest 3. East Wake
4. East Chapel Hill 4. Leesville Road (2-seeds)
5. Jordan (2-seeds) 5. New Bern
6. Apex 6. Knightdale
7. Southeast Guilford 7. Enloe (3-seeds)
8. Fayetteville Terry Sanford 8. New Hanover
9. Lumberton 9. Fayetteville Cape Fear
10. Fuquay-Varina (3-seeds) 10. West Johnston
11. Hoke County 11. Clayton  (4-seeds)
12. Riverside 12. Wilmington Ashley
13. Northern Durham 13. Millbrook
14. Cary 14. Athens Drive (5-seeds)
15. Fayetteville Pine Forest 15. Garner
16. Hope Mills South View (wild card) 16. Broughton

Based on what transpired this season and in the postseason, the likely teams meeting in the sectional championships would be 4-Jordan and 2-Green Hope in the Mideast and 4-Leesville Road vs 1-Sanderson for the East. The East final would've most likely have been Sanderson at Green Hope.

If you swapped in Richmond County for Southeast Guilford, then you would probably see Fuquay-Varina -- as a 9-seed -- arise from the top half of the Mideast bracket before falling to Green Hope. It just seems weird that after competing against "western" schools all year long and earning a spot in a "western" conference, that Southeast Guilford would play to represent the East in the state final. I think if there is one tweak to do here, it's to keep teams from western conferences in the west and teams in eastern conferences in the east.

Teams who do well in non-conference, but play in tough conferences, are almost always rewarded with high seeds. Fuquay is the top 3-seed. Jordan and Leesville Road are top 2-seeds.

The strength of the East isn't always in Wake County -- sometimes a Wilmington team can step up, or Pinecrest, or Jordan. But this year Wake County was exceptionally strong, and in this format, that would be reflected in the postseason.

Travel doesn't seem to change much. Some first-round games are exactly the same, or conference re-matches (seven of those).

2011 Volleyball, formatted with 64-team pod system

(Southern Alamance is more east than Scotland County, so the unbeaten Scots will play in the Midwest)

Mideast East
1. Green Hope (1-seeds) 1. Wakefield (1-seeds)
2. Riverside 2. Garner
3. Southern Alamance 3. Fayetteville Pine Forest
4. Apex (2-seeds) 4. Wilmington Hoggard
5. Person 5. Leesville Road (2-seeds)
6. Fayetteville Terry Sanford 6. Greenville Rose
7. Pinecrest 7. West Johnston
8. Pembroke Swett (3-seeds) 8. Millbrook (3-seeds)
9. Jordan 9. Wilmington Ashley
10. Holly Springs 10. Clayton
11. Hope Mills South View 11. New Bern (4-seeds)
12. Hoke County (4-seeds) 12. Sanderson
13. Panther Creek 13. Knightdale
14. East Chapel Hill 14. Cary (5-seeds)
15. Fayetteville Jack Britt 15. Enloe
16. Fuquay-Varina (wild-card) 16. East Wake

Under this alignment, you would probably expect 1-Green Hope to face 2-Riverside for the Mideast and 6-Greenville Rose against 4-Wilmington Hoggard in the East. Hoggard would have to travel to Green Hope for the East final, which you think Hoggard would win since they did in real life.

But would Green Hope's home crowd sway a 3-2 Hoggard win to a 3-2 Green Hope victory? Who knows. I was at that real-life match in Wilmington -- the crowd was excellent in its support of Hoggard.

Unlike basketball, where the fourth & fifth rounds are played on a neutral court, playoff games for volleyball and soccer are played on school sites until the state title game. The latter stages of the playoffs would use overall seeding on where to send teams, rather than conference priority (a randomly drawn list the NCHSAA does each year - this year the Mideastern had higher priority than Tri-Nine, which is why Green Hope traveled to Hoggard).

Another byproduct of using this format -- the Mid-South and Cap-8 Conferences essentially swap spots from what's been the most-often-used slot system brackets. Because the Cap-8 and Tri-Nine are usually really good in these sports - especially the conference champs -  shifting one seems to balance out the brackets better than in the past.

Again, I'm not sure how much sense it makes to make Southern Alamance play for the East title and Scotland County play in the west. This year, it doesn't throw off bracket seeding by much as both teams were #1 seeds.

This cuts down on travel for a lot of teams, but Hoke County at Person (from practically the south end of the state to the top) is a match-up you'd never see with the slots. The 4A East and Mideast have six conference re-matches in the first round - and I guess there's no good way around that unless you use the slot system.

But coaches have already said they'd rather not use the slot. They've hoped for a system much like this.

If the basketball changes are well-received after this year's postseason, maybe those volleyball and soccer coaches will get their wish in time for next fall.

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About the blogger

J. Mike Blake has been the Sports Editor for The Cary News and Southwest Wake News since October 2008. He holds two "unofficial" NCHSAA records in two different sports - highest career free throw percentage (2-of-2) in basketball and fewest career singles victories (zero. sigh.) for tennis.
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