The high school basketball postseason is fast approaching, and that means players, coaches and fans across the state will get their first look at a new running clock rule.
In late October, the Ohio High School Athletic Association's board of directors voted 9-0 to approve a second-half running clock in postseason contests in which the point differential between the teams reaches 35. In such cases, the clock will be stopped only for a timeout, an injured player on the court or when there is an unusual delay deemed necessary by the officials.
The running clock will remain in effect unless the score differential falls under 30 points.
"I don't truly know how I feel about it yet and I likely won't know until I see it implemented," said 31st-year Westerville South boys coach Ed Calo, whose team won the Division I state title in 2016. "Sportsmanship and integrity are things that are very important in coaching young kids. I believe there are things coaches can do to limit mismatches. You can obviously substitute earlier or more frequently, ask your guys to pass more often or try not to fast break and things like that."
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) approved the mercy rule in April 2003, and it was implemented for the 2003-04 season. It applied to all games, not just postseason contests. The rule was optional for each state and the OHSAA opted not to impose it the past 14 seasons.
"Part of my responsibilities includes recommending to our board of directors each year the OHSAA's stance on adopting or not adopting the different state adoptions permitted within the NFHS rules," said OHSAA assistant commissioner Jerry Snodgrass, who has served as the association's basketball administrator since being hired in August 2008. "One of those, of course, is the adoption of a score differential procedure.
"I have never supported its use. In conjunction with the (Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association), which also does not recommend it, I have felt strongly that other options exist ... everything from better ethics by coaches, to more creative scheduling to permissions to shorten games."
However, in recent years, the OHSAA has become concerned with the number of games with lopsided scores, especially in the first two rounds of district tournaments.
"Recently, across many of our six athletic districts, seeding procedures have placed greater chances of a high seed being automatically placed against a lower seed, and in some cases, the highest seed versus the lowest seed," Snodgrass said. "As a result, last year we had four 100-plus point differentials in the first rounds of the tournament, thus the implementation of the rule (for) this (post)season."
Scott Bardall, who serves as president of the OHSBCA, said his association did everything it could to dissuade the OHSAA from adopting the rule.
"We were approached by OHSAA leadership this past March about concerns and the possibility of a mercy rule," Bardall said. "We agreed to attack the concerns and we did that. We made the concern over scores a major discussion topic at our state directors meetings, we put articles on the issue in our monthly newsletters and we made it an issue at district meetings statewide."
The OHSAA has had a mercy rule for football since 2014. If a team is ahead by 30 points or more in the second half of a regular-season or postseason game, a running clock is kept. If the score differential drops below 30 points, the clock reverts to regular timing.
In the Central District boys tournament last season, 17 of 106 games finished with a point differential of 35 or more, including eight of 19 games in Division IV.
"There's only so much you can do," said Calo, whose team beat Franklin Heights 93-32 in the first round last year and Big Walnut 88-41 in the second. "If you have a great team and your low-on-the-roster guys are better than most players on the other team, it's tough. You can't ask them to just stall the ball. That would frustrate both teams. Mismatches aren't fun for anyone on either side, but I do think it happens more frequently in girls basketball."
In last year's Central District girls tournament, 28 of 104 contests ended with a point differential of at least 35, including eight of 17 games in Division IV.
"I'm on the fence about the rule from a coaching perspective, but I realize something needed done," said Dublin Coffman girls coach Bryan Patton, whose team beat Whetstone 102-12 in the first round of last year's Division I district tournament. "The idea isn't to embarrass an opponent, but you also have to make sure your team is ready for the following challenge. I saw our girls showing empathy on the court last season because they didn't want to be a part of games like that, either.
"You can't play your starters for one quarter because you also could get a mismatch in the second round and then you're talking about the starters having played two quarters in two or three weeks, depending on the layoff before the tournament. Last year at the end of the regular season, I ran a boot camp to make sure the girls stayed in condition for when they would have to play four quarters."
Rick McClanahan, who coached the Whetstone girls last season and is the Braves' boys coach this season, understood the situation his team faced against Coffman.
"I do see both sides," he said. "You don't want to crush any kid's spirit, so you want to see the winning coach take the foot off the pedal. Last year, we just didn't show any resistance against Coffman. They played their second team, third team and j.v. kids and it didn't matter. ... If you show no resistance, the score will get out of hand.
"But I just don't think there should be a mandated mercy rule. I do think there could be a handshake between coaches. We should be able to ask officials for a running clock. We lost to Beechcroft 105-49 (on Dec. 15) and I asked the officials to eat their whistles and let the game flow and the clock run, but they wouldn't do it. If we had a coaches' agreement, it would be beneficial in the regular season as well."
Snodgrass declined to say whether he sees the mercy rule being implemented in the regular season at some point, but said he would not be in favor of it.
"I have witnessed many (regular-season) games recently involving great disparities in scores, and while losing is not acceptable by anyone, I still see players that simply want to play," he said. "Coaching ethics is something merely impossible to legislate, but it'll be up to our board of directors. Personally, I still believe that better options exist, like scheduling. Did you know we are one of the few states that permit a varsity team to play a j.v. team?"
Newark girls coach J.R. Shumate is in favor of implementing the mercy rule in the regular season.
"I think this rule is a great way to mitigate lopsided scores when coaches can't do it," said Shumate, whose team defeated Franklin Heights 113-17 on Dec. 15 and 95-17 on Jan. 25 in OCC-Capital Division games. "But I would like to think that there also could be a coaches' agreement.
"In fact, I like the new rule so much that I'd be willing to see it employed in the regular season. You can't learn anything more in a 70-point game that you should learn in a 35-point game. I know coaches want to reward kids on the end of the bench with minutes, but they should get enough playing time with a running clock. Besides, some of them would get more out of a tough practice than a lopsided game."
Patton doesn't like the idea of a regular-season mercy rule.
"I would not be in favor of that because the younger kids can learn something and can build confidence from a game that they can't build in practices," said Patton, whose team defeated Westland 90-31 on Dec. 15 and 106-36 on Jan. 25 in OCC-Central games. "But we'll see how things play out this season. Maybe the margin will get adjusted."