How much emphasis needs to be placed on tournament play? According to the FHSAA, it’s too much.
It wouldn’t be March in Tampa Bay without the annual Saladino Tournament bringing some of the best baseball teams from the area to the University of Tampa. If you like baseball at all and have the time to head out to UT or several of the hosting high schools, the Saladino’s always a good look and has earned its reputation as a big-time tourney.
There’s always an element of fun in tournaments like these that’s missing from normal regular-season action. That’s not to say anything else on the calendar pales in comparison to tournament action — it’s just that the thrill of knowing the team you follow could be tested by top competition it normally would never see can really add to the mystique and appeal of a game. Even if you don’t root for any teams in a tournament, that’s still the case. I cut my journalistic teeth in Fort Myers with the City of Palms basketball tournament and it’s still one of my fondest work memories.
But keeping up with our teams as they’ve gone through their Saladino brackets reminded me of a conversation I had last month that made me see things differently. Back in soccer season, right after Plant City’s district championship win over Newsome, Tampa Bay Times reporter Scott Purks and I stuck around to talk to coach Caleb Roberts about the win and the season and expectations going forward. The conversation turned at one point to team rankings and tournament play, and Roberts said something that got us both thinking.
The reason you’ll never see one of his PCHS soccer teams in a tournament is to preserve the players’ health. This obviously isn’t a bad idea given how well the Raiders have performed since he took over, but in an area where many of the best teams are booking themselves for holiday tournaments year in and year out, that makes Plant City an outlier. And because PCHS is missing out on this (voluntary) action against good competition, it can affect the team’s ranking. That doesn’t mean much now, but when the FHSAA transitions to a MaxPreps.com-based power ranking system that does determine playoff seeding beginning next year, it will before you know it.
Along with soccer, other sports that will use MaxPreps rankings to determine playoff seeding are baseball, softball, basketball and volleyball. Tournament play is extremely common among all of these sports and that’s totally fine by me.
Where I get lost is when I ask myself a question inspired by another thing Roberts told us that night. At pretty much every level of soccer above high school, teams will play one game per week as with football. They’re doing that because soccer, while not quite as bone-crunching as football can be, is a much more physically demanding sport than most and its players need the rest. Playing more than one game per week can really drain players’ energy and increase injury risk. There’s a reason you don’t see football teams play twice in one week.
Why bother punishing teams for opting not to play in tournaments?
That’s exactly what’s going to happen to PCHS if they continue to leave tournaments off the schedule, and I for one support Roberts’ decision to put player safety over MaxPreps clout. You can’t govern so many different sports by one set of rules. You can play baseball and basketball and volleyball several times a week because they all put much less stress on the body.
I’m just hoping at the end of the two-year MaxPreps playoff period, the FHSAA decides to scrap the rule and give more leeway to the programs that choose not to compete in tournaments. Let’s treat them more like preseason exhibitions. It’s still a fun setup with intriguing matchups that can be a real test for the players, with games that can answer questions we have in ways the regular schedule can’t.