HELENA — The Class AA football playoffs are growing in 2019.
Billings activities director Mark Wahl confirmed this week that Class AA coaches and administrators approved a 15-team postseason format for next fall, as Belgrade moves up from Class A. In April of this year, Montana High School Association executive director Mark Beckman recommended Belgrade make the move after the school’s three-year average enrollment was 862.75 students, well above the Class AA threshold. Class AA consists of schools with more than 779 students.
The Panthers’ move did create conflicts, according to Wahl, who said Butte will move from the Eastern AA to the Western AA in all sports, while Belgrade will take the Bulldogs’ place in the East. The MHSA executive board approved the realignment at its annual board meeting on Nov. 19. The move gives the Western AA eight teams — Butte, Helena Capital, Helena High, Kalispell Flathead, Kalispell Glacier, Missoula Big Sky, Missoula Hellgate and Missoula Sentinel — while the East will remain at seven teams — Belgrade, Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Billings West, Bozeman, Great Falls CMR and Great Falls High.
Bozeman will open a second school in the fall of 2020, joining its fellow Bozeman school in the Eastern AA, to give each league eight teams.
The uneven numbers between the two football conferences next fall led to the decision for a 15-team bracket.
“What we’re going to do for next year only, we’ll send everyone to the playoffs because here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to play two non-conference games, we’ll go to the two conferences, Eastern AA and Western AA, play the two non-conference games to start the season and then we’ll play our seven conference games. We can do that on an eight-year rotation and have everyone play everybody in the non-conference schedule,” said Wahl. “We originally said we would do conference playoffs in the first round for Week 10, it would be conference playoffs, the No. 1 against the No. 8, No. 2 against No. 7 and so on, but the problem is that conceivably Billings Senior High, who has (the second Bozeman high school) as a bye in the last week of the year, if they happened to be the No. 1 seed they would have another bye. They would only have an eight-game season before the playoffs.
“What we decided to do is to send everyone to the playoffs for next year only, but we’ll go cross-conference. No. 1 in the Eastern AA will play No. 8 in the Western AA and so on for the first round of the playoffs next year. That will be Week 10. After Week 10 we’ll go back to our regular seeding process, just like we’ve used, and re-seed everybody for the statewide playoffs, just like we’ve always done.”
The first round of the Class AA football playoffs, in 2019 only, will be as follows:
- Western AA No. 8 seed vs. Eastern AA No. 1 seed
- Western AA No. 7 seed vs. Eastern AA No. 2 seed
- Western AA No. 6 seed vs. Eastern AA No. 3 seed
- Western AA No. 5 seed vs. Eastern AA No. 4 seed
- Eastern AA No. 5 seed vs. Western AA No. 4 seed
- Eastern AA No. 6 seed vs. Western AA No. 3 seed
- Eastern AA No. 7 seed vs. Western AA No. 2 seed
- Western AA No. 1 seed — Bye
In the second round, the Western AA’s No. 1 seed will be re-seeded alongside the seven first-round winners. Teams will be re-seeded, regardless of conference, using Class AA’s strength-of-schedule formula that has previously been used to break ties. From there, the playoffs follow the same format Class AA has used in the past.
The eight-year rotation Wahl referred to is Class AA’s scheduling format of playing two non-conference teams in a home-and-away format, then flipping home-and-away the following year before moving on to two new non-conference opponents the third season. For example, Billings West might host Kalispell Flathead and travel to Missoula Hellgate in 2019, then travel to Flathead while hosting Hellgate in 2020. The Bears would then start a new non-conference home-and-away series with two new opponents in 2021.
What the future holds for the Class AA playoffs behind 2019, particularly when the second Bozeman high school joins the mix, is unknown, Wahl admitted. League coaches have been asked to submit their proposals for various playoff formats, which would likely be discussed by next November.
“There were some suggestions, but I don’t think they’ve settled on anything. I think one suggestion was giving the No. 1s and No. 2s a bye and eliminating the No. 7 and No. 8 teams. That was one suggestion, but we would have to look at that,” said Wahl. “There was nothing written up and there will be questions for every proposal. I suppose one proposal could be to send everyone to the playoffs, but we’ll see. I don’t think the coaches are really supportive of sending everybody to the playoffs. I think, in general, the coaches would like to have 10 games somehow during the season. How that’s going to work, I’m not sure.”
Football won’t be the only Class AA sport with a new postseason look, as the MHSA executive board approved a Class AA proposal to host divisional softball tournaments, beginning with the upcoming 2019 season. The league has held conference playoffs to determine the eight state tournament teams, but coaches were interested in making a change to assure higher chances the best teams qualify for the state bracket.
“The softball coaches had proposed a divisional tournament a couple years ago and through the process of our meetings we had questions about it. The softball coaches did a great job of writing up their proposal, they did a great job answering any questions,” Wahl said. “In softball the argument was already that you’re playing best two-of-three in the playoffs, but sometimes, just getting that second opportunity to make state after you get upset, I think that really gives the best opportunity to get the best teams to state.”
Billings will host the 2019 Eastern AA divisional softball tournament, while the Western AA programs will square off in Missoula. The two-day tournaments will consist of a different bracket than state, which offers a true double-elimination scenario. The divisional softball tournaments will resemble a state basketball tournament, where teams that lose cannot finish higher than third.
Class AA introduced divisional basketball tournaments last winter and Wahl said he wouldn’t be surprised to see proposals from the league’s volleyball coaches about potentially following suit.
“We’ve prepared ourselves, but we want to see how the (volleyball) coaches want to approach this. If they’re serious about running a divisional, we’ll certainly listen. We’re prepared for it,” Wahl said. “They haven’t pursued a proposal yet, so we’ll talk with the coaches to see what they want to do. Next year we’ll have the standard playoffs, in the Eastern AA I believe the No. 1 will get a bye, then it will be 2-versus-6 and so on. In the Western AA it will be 1-versus-8 and 2-versus-7 and so on. I believe that’s how we will do things next year. We still have to talk a lot about volleyball.”