19HelpThe N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffsThe N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs in a number of team sports began last week,and schools anxiously awaited the reveal of the playoff brackets that would be seeded using the process incorporating the statewide rankings calculatedby MaxPreps.

Two teams with especially high expectations were the girls soccer squad from Terry Sanford and the softball team from Cape Fear. Both completed the regular season with perfect records.

But when the rankings came out, Terry Sanford was only seeded third among the soccer teams in the Eastern half ofthe state. Cape Fear fared better, but likeTerry Sanford, was behind teams that suffered losses on their overall recordsand also took the third seed.

So why the lowered rankings for both? The answer lies in something called strength of schedule.

One of the critical factors incorporated into the ranking process is how good the teams you play against are. If you’ll takea look at the MaxPreps statewide rankings, you’llsee they’ve got a low opinion of the teams Terry Sanford and Cape Fear faced this season.

Of the top 20 soccer teams in North Carolina in the MaxPreps 3-A soccer rankings, Terry Sanford was the only one with a negative strength of schedule. Cape Fear and Hillsborough Cedar Ridgeare the only top 20 3-A softball teams with negative strength of schedule ratings.

A big part of the problem for both Cape Fear and Terry Sanford is the teams they are forced to play in the Patriot Athletic Conference. Twice a year, both the Colt softball team and the Bulldog soccer team are forced to line up against multiple league opponents with really bad overall records.

In games where both teams often win by the mercy rule, they take a beating in the strength of schedule computations and it drags them down in the seedingfor when it really counts, the state playoffs.

Is there a cure, since it appears statewide rankings and strength of schedule calculations aren’t going to be disappearing anytime soon? Possibly, but it’s a complicated one and could create another headache for some other schools.There have been informal conversations among some county coaches and athletic directors in sports where teams play each other twice in the conference to make a radical change in the conference schedule.The change would be to just play one conference game with each team in the league and possibly even eliminate the conference tournament.

What does that accomplish? For the schools with serious designs on the state playoffs, it gives them up to six or seven more games they can schedule, allowing them to shop around the region and state and tryto find nonconference matchups with competitive programs that wouldn’t take the air out of their strength of schedule.

But then you’ve got the other sideof the coin. What happens to those conference teams with sub-par programs that suddenly lose half their conference slate? How can you guarantee them enough games to fill out a schedule? Would they be limited to trying to find other struggling teams to play against?

These discussions have been completely informal so far, and no one is proposing anything concrete.But I think it’s at least worth exploring, as long as both strong and weak programs can be assured of getting enough games to fill the schedule and charge admission. That’s because paying the bills is crucial,and you’ve got to have a full slate of games to do that,even for a small crowd.

The other option, and this is the better one but would take a lot more work to accomplish, would be to upgrade the struggling teams in the various sports that are dragging down strength of schedule for the other ones.This whole thing may be a knee-jerk reaction to the problem, but whatever is done, it’s obvious coaches and athletic directors need to be thinking outside the box long-term and trying to find an answer to this problem.

The days of just putting one cookie-cutter schedule template together for all sports are over.If seeding and strength of schedule are going to bea part of the playoff process annually, it has to be addressed in the schedule process sport by sport to give everyone a fair chance of the best ranking possible.

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