The first contests of the 2019-20 high school sports season kick off today, with the Tooele girls soccer team traveling to Midvale to face Hillcrest and Stansbury’s girls facing Orem on the road.
Yes, summer is over, as far as sports are concerned. Two and a half months sure went by fast.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With the start of a new school year comes a ton of optimism as soccer games and golf matches begin this week, with tennis, football and cross country to follow next week and volleyball near the end of the month.
This year, there’s even more reason for teams to be excited, thanks to the Utah High School Activities Association’s new postseason format. Previously, teams had to finish reasonably well in their region, and they were seeded accordingly. That meant that even though the soccer playoffs don’t begin until October, teams could find themselves behind the 8-ball by the end of August, regardless of how well they were playing by the end of September.
Now, every team makes it to the postseason, and they’re seeded based on a new Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) formula. I know, that does mean that there’s going to be a 24th-seeded winless team having to ride a bus clear across the state to get mercy-ruled by a No. 9. It’s going to happen. But it also eliminates some of the injustices that come as a product of the regions being inherently unequal.
The last-place team from a stacked region used to miss the playoffs, while an inferior team from another region that benefited from having one or two awful teams they could beat three or four times advanced. Now, that won’t happen. Teams will be seeded based on how good they are and won’t be penalized for playing in a strong region.
Take last year’s girls soccer playoffs, for instance. Grantsville’s region featured three of the four Class 3A semifinalists. The Cowboys finished fourth in that region, beating semifinalist Summit Academy along the way. They deserved a better fate than facing another semifinalist (Juab) in the first round. In fact, especially with Grantsville beating Juab during the regular season, it could be argued that the Cowboys deserved to host a first-round game as a top-eight seed.
Tooele and Stansbury both got left on the outside looking in despite playing some of their best soccer as the season came to a close. Slow starts to the season doomed both teams, and had the Buffaloes and Stallions fighting for their lives down the stretch. With the RPI, now teams like Tooele and Stansbury who start playing their best toward the end of the season can carry momentum into the postseason.
That’s where upsets happen. There are 21 teams in Class 4A girls soccer. The top 11 teams will get first-round byes. The chances of No. 21 knocking off No. 12 might not be good, but it’s not impossible to see it happening. And once you get past the first round with a little momentum, anything can happen.
I’m also a fan of avoiding No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups before the championship round. Too many times, the top two teams ended up on the same side of the bracket when the state tournament was seeded solely based on region finish. Instead, we’ll truly get to see who the top teams are.
Let the games begin.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. Today is the beginning of his 17th year covering high school sports. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.