COLUMN: Thanksgiving football and the playoffs

By TOM WILLIAMS

It was an interesting Thanksgiving for high school football fans.

Only one home team – Ocean City – was a winner. The Raiders surprised Pleasantville and notched their fifth shutout of the season.

But Mainland defeated Egg Harbor Township to clinch the outright championship of the West Jersey Football League’s Independence Division. Middle Township completed a .500 season with a win at Lower Cape May. Holy Spirit earned its seventh win of the season at Atlantic City. And Vineland, which usually has struggled in the second half this season, rallied to defeat Millville.

It marked the first time that Vineland had beaten Millville four straight years since 1943. In fact, from 1925 through 1943 the Fighting Clan and Thunderbolts played 19 times – Vineland won 17 of them and the other two were ties.

Stats like that have been kept on Thanksgiving football for decades, far more than regular season rivalry games. Millville and Vineland started playing in 1894 (Millville won, 12-0) but games played before 1918 are more like community games than high school games since there was no NJSIAA and no rules governing high school sports and who could play.

There were 45 games between Vineland and Millville before 1918 and it is fun to count them and point out that its the fourth longest series in the country. But, in true high school games, Vineland took a 46-45 lead over Millville with Thursday’s win.

Ocean City and Pleasantville played once before 1918 and the Raiders took a 10-win lead over the Greyhounds with yesterday’s win.

Mainland finished its Thanksgiving rivalry with EHT with a 24-12 lead. They have played since 1983. The two teams might play again next year but it won’t be on Thanksgiving Week. They are no longer in the same WJFL division but can hopefully set up a crossover game.

The schools decided to stop playing on the traditional fourth Thursday in November (or the night before) largely because of the new structure of high school football in New Jersey. It has all been designed to move closer to state championships for public schools. And lots of things are being changed to push schools toward that goal.

For example, the schedule is being allowed to begin earlier – before Labor Day. A constantly changing mathematical system determines who qualifies for the playoffs. This season, there were 15 teams with losing records who qualified for the playoffs and there were 17 teams with records at .500 or better that did not qualify.

And because of the “snaking” style of creating brackets we had Cherokee and Hammonton as Central Jersey champions and Cedar Creek playing Camden tomorrow for another Central Jersey title.

But, those are just names (even though the need to change them is silly) and the sectional championships were interesting an somewhat exciting.

This all affects the Thanksgiving games because the way the playoffs are formatted can create gaps in the schedules. For example, Atlantic City had 27 days off before Thursday, though some of that was by choice. St. Joseph had a 21-day gap and will have only played one game in 35 days when it plays at Rutgers on Dec. 8. Middle Township was also off 21 days, Oakcrest 20 days and Lower Cape May 19 days before Thanksgiving. But, again, that was partly by choice.

Those are problems that are certainly not ideal but can be lessened with more creative scheduling. And, remember, WJFL teams don’t make up most of their schedule. They are given a schedule by the league that includes required crossovers.

There were 42 games scheduled on Thanksgiving Day or Thanksgiving Eve this week. It does not seem right that the 84 teams involved in those games should be put in a position of dropping or moving the game just to make it easier for 10 teams to play in state finals.

Some teams had dropped Thanksgiving games before all this juggling began. Cedar Creek and St. Augustine Prep had some great Thanksgiving games in just four seasons. St. Joseph and Hammonton played 52 games during the holiday weekend, many for conference championships, before the Blue Devils ran away from the game. But those were decisions made individually by the schools, not pressured by new playoff formats.

Here are some ideas.

Lets return to the geographic South Jersey and Central Jersey classifications – the top eight in each with no “snaking”. Lets pick teams with better than .500 records first, then fill out the brackets based on a mathematical system. And lets divide the Non-Public schools into two classes, instead of three, like they are in every other sport to eliminate the top seed sitting out three weeks.

Plus, if having state public champions is really that important, it can be done with little schedule impact by going back to four teams qualifying instead of eight. This year the sectional semifinals would have been Nov. 8-9, the sectional championships Nov. 15-16 and the state semifinals Nov. 22-23. Then, after Thanksgiving, the state finals would be Dec. 7-8.

As for the non-qualifiers, why not construct four-team tournaments similar to what the ECAC does in college sports for non-qualifiers. Four teams play one weekend, winners and losers play the next.

There are lots of ways to get the job done and they don’t have to include ending classic rivalries on Thanksgiving. Schools that decide to do it on their own for their own reasons certainly have that right. But constructing a playoff schedule that makes it difficult to continue traditions is unnecessary.

Championship teams make headlines in high school sports, like at all levels. But sports on the high school level is really about making memories. And a lot of those memories in football were made on Thanksgiving.

More were added this week and hopefully there will continue to be Thanksgiving memories made in the future.

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