COLUMN: The new football in NJ

By TOM WILLIAMS

Here we are in the home stretch of the new high school football in New Jersey.

The 10 public schools that have reached state championship games have the week off before playing in SHI Stadium at Rutgers University. And the Non-Publics will play at MetLife Stadium on Friday. This week 78 schools will also play their Thanksgiving Week games.

High school football on Thanksgiving started about 100 years ago. The concept was simple. Alumni was home from college or on leave from the military to celebrate the holiday with family. Playing the game on that day added to the celebration, giving them a chance to see the alma mater play and visit with follow graduates.

Things have changed over the years but the idea still works today.

However, many schools have been re-thinking the idea of playing football on Thanksgiving. Oakcrest-Absegami, Mainland-Egg Harbor Township and Lower Cape May-Middle Township all played earlier in the regular season. Ocean City and Pleasantville are playing Thursday for the 100th time – and apparently the last time on Thanksgiving. Vineland-Millville and Atlantic City-Holy Spirit will continue their long rivalries on Thursday.

Area fans will remember some great Thanksgiving games between St. Augustine Prep and Cedar Creek in just the four years they played. And the St. Joseph-Hammonton series – 53 exciting games – frequently decided a conference championship until Hammonton decided not to play St. Joe anymore and even left the Cape-Atlantic League for a few years.

By the way, almost every release or quote by the NJSIAA about the new football format claimed that the changes would not affect Thanksgiving games. Yet, last weekend there were 10 teams playing state semifinal games at Cherokee. (Incidentally, congratulations to Scott Agnew and his staff at Cherokee for an outstanding weekend!)

Anyway, three of those 10 playoff teams have Thanksgiving games scheduled. Woodbury, which plays Gateway on Thursday, played the first playoff game on Saturday and Camden, which plays Eastside on Thursday, played Saturday’s second game. But Millville, which plays Vineland Thursday, played the very last game on Sunday.

The NJSIAA should have made the Millville-Mainland game the the third game on Saturday, giving the Millville players an extra day to recover. And, since that strangely didn’t happen, Thursday’s game at Vineland should have been postponed until Friday or Saturday. The NJSIAA used to have a requirement that if your team had a playoff game the weekend before, the Thanksgiving game had to be postponed until Friday or Saturday. After a few years, they changed that from a requirement to a recommendation. Postponing in those cases is the right thing to do for the student-athletes.

So, Thanksgiving football is what it is. Some schools recognize its value and respect its tradition. Others focus more on the opportunity to get power points before the NJSIAA deadline.

This year there were some high school teams that did not play a single game in November. Others had to shop around for an opponent so they didn’t have nearly a month with no game. There is a simple solution – required consolation games.

When Hammonton played Hightstown and Ocean City faced Shawnee in Group 4 openers, the winners played in the second round, with Hammonton beating Shawnee. But Hightstown and Ocean City got a pat on the back and best wishes. As it turned out, Hightstown had no Thanksgiving game so the Rams’ season ended on Oct. 28. But Ocean City needed a game to fill the gap before Thanksgiving. The Raiders couldn’t find anybody the first week but got together with Vineland the second week.

Why not have the losers of first round games play each other in consolation games? It would be a simple way to fill those empty weeks.

Of the 80 teams who qualified for South-Central playoffs, 17 had losing records and five others were at .500. But their power points elevated them into the playoffs. Maybe consideration could be given to only selecting 40 teams for the playoffs – five four-team brackets in the South, five in Central and five in each of the North brackets. Doing that would give the approximately 220 teams that don’t make the playoffs a chance to play a regular season game the final weekend of October.

And, just to avoid the sometimes laughable alignments, if the NJSIAA is going to continue using the “snake” seeding process, lets drop “Central” from the football brackets. Make it South I and South II just like North I and North II. That way people won’t be puzzled about how Mainland and Camden could be Central Jersey champions.

Football has changed in New Jersey. We should all be happy for Millville, Toms River North and the other 12 schools who get to experience playing in a major college stadium or an NFL stadium that hosted a Super Bowl. But we should also wonder if the new schedule couldn’t be improved to better serve the needs of the other 300-plus schools that play football.

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