Producing a true boys lacrosse state champion a tricky proposition
Published 12:35 pm, Wednesday, June 29, 2016
It’s not just because every CIAC boys lacrosse final this year was stripped of drama by the end of the third quarter. That had to happen eventually.
It’s not just because most championships seem to go through the FCIAC powers anyway.
It’s not just because we were deprived of a possible third Darien-New Canaan game this season by a system that separated the top two teams in the state poll, split because of the enrollment of 66 boys.
The sport has been under CIAC sanction for 22 years, neatly split now between the original Division I/Division II system held over from the days when the coaches ran it themselves, and the current class system based on enrollment.
And even now, at least one of Darien (this year’s Class L champion), New Canaan (the winner in Class M) or Wilton has won a CIAC championship every season except 2002, when Cheshire beat Glastonbury after taking out Wilton and Darien.
The Blue Wave, who were second in the nation in computer rankings from both LaxPower.com and USA Today, have won nine CIAC titles in the 11 years since the class system took effect.
A 16-team Division I tournament, as it might have been, choosing 16 programs based on LaxPower.com’s computer rankings over the past three years, then seeding them by this year’s regular-season record:
(1) Darien vs. (16) St. Joseph
(8) New Canaan vs. (9) Wilton
(4) Staples vs. (13) Fairfield Ludlowe
(5) Somers vs. (12) Barlow
(2) Simsbury vs (15) Greenwich
(7) Fairfield Prep vs. (10) Guilford
(3) Glastonbury vs. (14) Hand
(6) Ridgefield vs. (11) Xavier
Seeding those same 16 teams based on this year’s computer ranking:
(1) Darien vs. (16) St. Joseph
(8) Glastonbury vs. (9) Greenwich
(4) Simsbury vs. (13) Xavier
(5) Wilton vs. (12) Barlow
(2) New Canaan vs. (15) Hand
(7) Fairfield Prep vs. (10) Somers
(3) Ridgefield vs. (14) Fairfield Ludlowe
(6) Staples vs. (11) Guilford
It sure seems like it’s time to let them beat each other up again, produce a true state champion and give other teams something to play for.
Just how to work that out, in a still-growing sport with just under 100 varsity programs, is tricky. Actually getting it to happen may be even trickier.
“There are a lot of different committees we need to speak with,” New Canaan coach Chip Buzzeo said, adding that it’s not an easy fix, anyway.
“There are a lot of moving parts to it, from what I’m told.”
The imperfect “Division I tournament” this year may have been “Class L plus New Canaan,” though teams were locked in by enrollment. Granted, tell that to a school like Shelton, which earned a qualifying-round win over Danbury in a competitive game, then met Darien.
A division-based tournament, separating teams based on skill and the age of the program, could give a Shelton, a Foran, a Stamford a chance to compete for something in June. The bureaucracy that put the Class L/M/S template onto the sport may not easily remove it.
“We’ve actually talked about adding another class, an ‘Open’ class,” Fairfield Prep coach Chris Smalkais said. “We’d do that, Ridgefield, New Canaan.”
It’s not that long ago that the Darien-New Canaan-Wilton troika were all in Class M. Fairfield Prep won six of the first eight Class L titles, with titles for Ridgefield and Greenwich in and around that dynasty. They’d all be easy candidates for an Open Division or a Division I.
Hockey as a model
There’s some question of whether to compel some teams to jump in to fill out a bracket (like hockey, the division-based sport that always seems to come up in lacrosse-tournament discussions, which has a 16-team Division I and two other 20-team divisions) or, failing that, how many teams will want in outside of the FCIAC powers.
“Our sport is very similar to hockey,” Buzzeo said. “We hope we can model it on the hockey setup.
“The bottom line is it’s almost unfair when you have new and up-and-coming programs against programs that have been around for almost 50 years.”
CIAC boys hockey shrank to 56 programs last year, with co-ops consolidating teams across the state. Coincidentally, those 56 programs represent about 90 schools; there are 96 varsity lacrosse programs. There’s a good bit of overlap in the schools that compete, especially near the top.
In the past 11 years, eight teams have reached the CIAC Division I boys hockey finals. But 15 have reached the final in Division II, and another 16 have made it in Division III, though two of those teams later pretty much merged. (There are three teams that reached a final in both classes.)
Contrast that to lacrosse. In the past 11 years — 66 spots in CIAC finals available — just 19 different schools have competed for a “state championship.” That’s eight different Class L schools. Seven different Class M schools. And seven different Class S schools, though only Somers (this year’s champion), St. Joseph and Weston remain in the division.
In the 11 years before that, just seven schools reached the Division I championship game. But 17 reached the Division II final: 17 teams for 22 spots. And there were only 68 varsity teams in 2005.
Any system will produce mismatches. In putting together an idea of how a 16-team Division I might look, with a weighted average of the past three years’ computer rankings at LaxPower.com to sort the teams, the 1-vs.-16 first-round matchup that appeared was Darien vs. St. Joseph.
That was a 22-2 game in this year’s FCIAC quarterfinals. Darien beat Shelton 22-1 in this year’s Class L first round.
Such a Division I has a sneaky side effect, though: A 40-team Division II and a 40-team Division III could easily produce more than 32 playoff teams in the middle division. That’s too many. Seeding some of them down to Division III seems unfair; such a system in hockey was unpopular a decade ago.
Looking for best final
So perhaps go back to the Open idea, or just let New Canaan jump into Class L.
But seeding is tricky, too. The CIAC seeds teams based on regular-season records, with a tiebreaker based on opponents’ wins. Using that seeding system with our 16-team tournament, Darien, Wilton and New Canaan would be in the same quarter of the bracket.
In the days before the CIAC, the coaches seeded the teams themselves. (The FCIAC does this, at least after league records determine the eight qualifiers.) George Baldassare, a state lacrosse hall of famer and LaxPower’s director of high school boys lacrosse, said he has offered the site’s computer rankings to the CIAC to seed teams without success.
“Unlike lacrosse people, I don’t think (the CIAC thinks) anything’s wrong,” Baldassare said. “’The best team usually wins at the end, right?’ ” And here, he chuckled.
Frequently true, but a bracket’s only as good as the teams filling it out.
“What happens is now the FCIAC Championship becomes the unofficial state championship,” Smalkais said.
“You’ll have more people watching that than the state championship.”
Before the CIAC sanctioned tournaments in 1995, Wilton and New Canaan traded off the conference and state titles, including one year where the same game decided both championships.
However they decide to do it, it’s time to make sure they, Darien, Ridgefield, Greenwich, Fairfield Prep, Staples and other teams that rise to that level all have a chance to test each other for a state championship. It’ll benefit others as well.