The Skowhegan softball team celebrates after beating Biddeford 7-4 to win the Class A softball state championship on June 19, 2021 in Standish. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

High school playoffs returned amidst the pandemic last spring. But the unpredictability caused by COVID’s effect on the sports scene meant a change needed to be made.

For the past three seasons, the Maine Principals’ Association tournament has been an open format, with all teams qualifying for the playoffs. That will be the plan this spring as well, as teams who have their schedules disrupted by cancellations will still be eligible to make the tournament.

This will be the last season of open tournaments, however, as MPA executive director Mike Burnham said the plan is to go back to having the top two-thirds of teams in a region qualify for the postseason.

“The open tournament has been a result of … the uncertainty that schools were facing around being shut down and not having enough kids to field a team because of the pandemic,” Burnham said. “We went with it and it certainly served its purpose, allowing schools that lost games to not be pressured into putting kids into an unsafe position and playing five games in five days.”

Burnham said the decision to go back wasn’t an easy one, as there was support for both options.

“There was a very rich discussion about staying with the open tournament or going back to the two-thirds (qualifying),” Burnham said. “There was very good discussion about the pros and cons of each. (Qualifying) seemed to be, overall, the option that was supported. But far from being unanimous.”

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Coaches are also split on whether they prefer the open tournament format or the need for qualifying. Mt. Blue boys tennis coach Zac Conlogue, who also coached Leavitt boys soccer and coaches Mt. Blue girls basketball, said it’s a plus that teams don’t have to worry about being on the wrong side of the Heal points line.

“We only lost two teams to Class B teams this year (in soccer), and we were the nine seed,” he said. “It would be pretty frustrating to explain to a kid ‘Hey, you only lost two games to teams in your division, you have a winning record, and you’re not in the playoffs.'”

Messalonskee’s Garrett Bell (13) takes a shot against Mt. Blue during a boys lacrosse game Friday in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Conlogue said the guarantee of a playoff berth could also boost turnout, which has sagged for many teams in the wake of the pandemic.

“I see a lot of schools, they’re low on numbers in all of their sports,” he said. “This will help kids want to play more, because they have something to look forward to, rather than just playing on a team that’s not so great.”

Gardiner baseball coach Charlie Lawrence also said he’s a proponent of open tournaments, saying that they reward the players and benefit the teams that get hot at the right time.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get a prelim, playoff-type game, that atmosphere. … I just think it’s a positive experience for the kids,” he said. “And there are many times, especially in baseball, where you might start out the season on fire, but as the season progresses, the kids get better and you get that momentum going a little bit.”

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Monmouth baseball coach Eric Palleschi said the lack of a postseason cut-off enables him to focus more on developing his team. There’s less risk to having a player pitch for the first time if the game won’t determine a playoff spot.

“If you miss a couple of those big games early in the year, or those big games get piled into a four-day week, it’s tough to get points,” he said. “With the open tournament, it allows you to really establish pitchers and get kids that might not get on the mound as early, it gets them developed a little bit better.”

Other coaches are ready to see the old rules for qualifying return. Skowhegan softball coach Lee Johnson, whose team won the Class A championship when playoffs returned last spring, said he’s understood the need for an open tournament as schools have battled COVID-related schedule disruptions, but that he prefers teams needing to earn their postseason spots.

Cony first baseman James Presti, left, tags out Medomak Valley baserunner Porter Gahagan on pick throw from pitcher Cam Douin, top, during a scrimmage Tuesday at Morton Field in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Earning a spot in the playoffs means something. It basically shows what you did throughout the entire season,” he said. “If everybody gets in, then it’s just not that feeling of accomplishment.”

Johnson said dealing with pressure to make the playoffs prepares a team for when they arrive.

“I believe that being able to win and perform throughout the whole 16-game schedule allows you an accomplishment at the end,” he said. “Dealing with those situations where your season could end that game, especially if you’re fighting to get in … I think that sometimes can really propel a team. There’s no question that it can have an effect.”

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Oak Hill baseball coach Chad Stowell, who also coaches the football team, said that he likes for teams to have to play their way into the tournament. He said in baseball in particular, open tournaments set up the potential for unfair outcomes.

“I think it gives too much of an advantage for teams that really aren’t probably equipped to make a run in the playoffs … to get a hot pitcher at one point and knock off a team that potentially might be a state championship-caliber team, but just ran into the wrong guy at the wrong time,” he said. “All we have is the MPA tournament. We don’t have a conference tournament, we don’t have other things going on. You have a really good team and all of a sudden your bats go cold for one day, and you run into a team that has one really good athlete.”

Gardiner boys lacrosse coach KC Johnson said he’d like to see a return to teams needing to qualify in time, but that the open tournament has been the best plan with all of the pandemic-related question marks.

“Kids just wanted to play. This year, I have a lot of athletes that came out that hadn’t played in a bunch of years,” he said. “This is great for these kids. They’re going to have an ability to play in the playoffs, they’re going to work hard all season. Their mind’s right right now.

“Right now, I think it’s good for all sports. I think it’s good for the kids’ psyche that they have a carrot in front of the horse.”

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