Playoff expansion brings hope for area teams
With two Division I state championships and nine playoff appearances over the past decade, the Hilliard Davidson High School football team has established itself as one of the state's best programs.
Finally adding a piece to the Hilliard community's success on a bigger stage last year was Darby, which has made the playoffs three times (2007, '10 and '12) since the school opened in 1997.
The Panthers posted their first perfect regular season last fall -- they even beat Davidson 17-3 in week two -- and reached the second round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs.
Waiting for its time on the state scene to arrive is Hilliard's third high school, Bradley.
Since opening in 2009, Bradley has gone 16-24, including 7-3 in 2011 when it lost to eventual Division II playoff qualifier Big Walnut 11-10. That season, the Jaguars settled for 14th in the Region 3 computer rankings, six spots from the playoffs.
Bradley slipped to 4-6 a year ago, losing two games by a combined three points, but it hopes to get back in the postseason hunt this fall behind a veteran unit that includes a Division I college recruit in senior offensive lineman Skylar Hartley.
Something that could help the Jaguars in that pursuit is the OHSAA adding a seventh division after having six playoff divisions since 1994.
Bradley, which has dropped from Division I to Division II but will play six Division I opponents this season, is hoping to take advantage of its schedule to build computer points now that 32 more teams will make the playoffs.
Each region in every division has a new set of teams, however, so it remains to be seen how many central Ohio programs ultimately will benefit from the playoff expansion.
"Bradley is still a new school, and the year we went 7-3 our motto was 'Foundation,' " said Hartley, who has verbally committed to the University at Buffalo. "We got a little bit of hope that year. If we make it (to the playoffs this season), it'll be the first time in school history. It would put Bradley on the map. Then you'd say Davidson, Darby and Bradley when you're talking about Hilliard football."
Football remains the only OHSAA-sanctioned sport in which every school does not participate in its postseason.
There will be 715 schools playing football this season, with 224 -- just more than 31 percent -- advancing to the playoffs.
Darby is the smallest school from central Ohio in Division I with a male enrollment of 609, while Bradley is the area's largest school in Division II at 598.
The cutoff the last two years for Division I was 494. This year, it's 608.
"In football, it's a big deal qualifying for the playoffs," said Dublin Scioto coach Karl Johnson, whose team was a Division I playoff qualifier a year ago and now will compete in Division II. "It's pretty special."
While Divisions II through VII each will have 105 to 109 schools, the new alignment puts the state's 72 largest schools in Division I.
The latest playoff expansion is the first change in football's playoff structure since 1999.
From the first postseason event in 1972 through 1979, just 12 teams made the playoffs as Divisions A, B and C each featured state semifinals and a final.
Two divisions and a round were added in 1980, and another round was added in 1985 so that there were 16 playoff qualifiers in each division and a total of 80.
A sixth division was added in 1994, and the number of playoff qualifiers doubled from 96 to 192 in 1999.
Among Central District programs a year ago, eight made the playoffs in Division I, Region 3 and five qualified in Division II, Region 7. There were three in Divisions III and VI, five in Division IV and one in Division V.
Twenty of the 27 teams from the Central District that competed in Region 3 a year ago remain in Division I.
While Divisions II through VII will continue to have eight playoff qualifiers in each of their four regions, Division I is comprised of Regions 1 and 2 and will have 16 qualifiers in each.
"The biggest and most overriding benefit is that everyone agrees that the playoffs are a great experience," said Beau Rugg, an OHSAA assistant commissioner who serves as the administrator for football. "You have 32 more teams making it and times that by how many more students get that experience, especially with it being a sport where not everyone makes the playoffs. The football playoffs certainly have evolved into what's come about now."
Unlike in Divisions II through VII, where the eighth seed plays the top seed in the first round of the playoffs, logistics encouraged the OHSAA to create two 16-team regions for the postseason in Division I.
There are 35 teams in the Northern region and 37 in the Southern region.
Because areas such as southeastern and northwestern Ohio have few Division I-sized schools, creating regions for those areas of the state proved to be problematic.
Instead, in Division I, 12 Franklin County and three Fairfield County schools with male enrollments of at least 608 are competing in Region 2 with teams from the Cincinnati area, including defending state champion Moeller.
Westerville Central, Delaware and Olentangy Liberty from Delaware County, Marysville from Union County and Newark from Licking County were placed in Region 1 with Cleveland schools, including 11-time state-champion St. Ignatius.
The top seed in each Division I region will face the No. 16 seed, the No. 2 seed will play No. 15, and so on, during the first round.
For central Ohio teams in Division I, the competition for playoff berths should remain fierce.
"The (biggest enrollment) discrepancy is in Division I," said Rocky Pentello, who has coached Westerville South to nine playoff appearances in 23 seasons. "A school like (Cincinnati) St. Xavier has about three times as many boys as we have. I guess you've got to have that cutoff somewhere. The difference is the way they qualify the top 16. You could be the 12th-best team in Cincinnati and make it and there wouldn't be as many from (central Ohio)."
Pickerington Central coach Jay Sharrett wonders if the playoff expansion will encourage teams from central Ohio to adjust their non-league schedules over the coming years to build computer points.
While teams like Moeller and St. Xavier compete in a four-team league with Cincinnati Elder and Cincinnati LaSalle and thus can have as many as seven non-league games, all of the OCC's 32 teams play seven league games.
"We're playing Centerville and Middletown this year, and I'm hoping it pays off," Sharrett said. "(The playoff expansion) is going to force central Ohio teams to go outside the area for level-two points."
DeSales, which has just two CCL-Silver Division games and competes against non-area teams each year, is in Division III, Region 9 after having a string of 18 consecutive playoff appearances end a year ago when it was in Division III, Region 10.
Coach Ryan Wiggins doesn't believe adding a seventh division will have much of an effect on what he calls "medium-sized schools" like his own.
"I don't think we're too concerned with who is out there because we've got 10 weeks to earn enough points," Wiggins said.
The more the merrier?
While it remains to be seen how playoff expansion affects central Ohio teams, there is something about being more inclusive that is a delight to some.
Walnut Ridge has made the playoffs five times, but not since 2009.
The Scots, who went 8-2 in 2010, missed the Division II, Region 7 playoffs by one spot last season despite winning their final four games to go 7-3. They beat one playoff team in their non-league schedule and lost to Region 7 qualifier Marion-Franklin 7-6.
"If we make the playoffs this year, it would be a blessing because we haven't been there for a while," said senior Robert Bowers, who has verbally committed to Michigan State but has yet to experience the playoffs. "There was a lot of excitement last year, but we know we shouldn't have lost the games that we did."
Although Grove City hasn't reached the playoffs since coach Matt Jordan's first season in 2008, he is a playoff veteran.
Jordan guided Garrettsville Garfield to the playoffs in 2004 and Painesville Riverside to postseason berths in 2006 and 2007. He also formerly assisted at Youngstown Mooney, which has made 24 playoff appearances.
"There's something neat about there being 16 teams making it in each region (in Division I)," Jordan said. "People can say it dilutes it, but more kids get more exposure."
One coach who isn't sure what affect playoff expansion will have on his team is Beechcroft's Bruce Ward.
The Cougars, who made the playoffs each of the past two seasons in Region 7, will be in Division III, Region 9 with strong out-of-area programs like Athens, Dover and New Philadelphia.
While the City League had nine teams in Region 7 last season, seven of its programs now are in Region 9.
"I don't really see a whole lot of difference in it for us, but I definitely think it's a good idea for Division I because the (separation in enrollment in that division is) atrocious," Ward said. "It's a step in the right direction to leveling the playing field, and now we'll just have seven state champions instead of six. I think for people in Divisions I and II, it's more exciting for them."