In this little corner of Massachusetts it can be tough for local high school athletic teams to find opponents not only on the same level, but sometimes at all. That said, it's time for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to take a hard look at its criteria for assigning teams to divisions and leagues because if they don't, someone is going to get badly hurt.
Right now the primary means of determining where a school falls in a division has to do with school size, not team strength and skill. Perhaps the assumption is that the size of a school's population will be reflected in its athletic teams.
In my covering high school sports for more than a decade I have found this to be not only incorrect, but also dangerous. School size doesn't necessarily translate into program size or strength. As a prime example I offer this season's football matches between Monomoy and Nantucket. Because the two schools are considered similar in size they have been placed in the same MIAA division (7), and are also both part of the Cape and Islands League.
Aligning schools based on size makes sense on paper. It doesn't when you factor in strength of players and vastly different skill levels. I'm not saying that Monomoy isn't a good team. They've proven across the last two seasons, and even before that, how competitive they can be through constantly improved records. For a new program without a long history, this deserves recognition.
But pitting them against Nantucket, a team with a very long history and players of significant size and strength, was just unfair no matter how you look at it. The incredibly lopsided scores in both outings prove that. In fact, the similar scores from each of Nantucket's games, with the exception of Mashpee, makes a strong case for the Whalers to be put into a division better matching their skill level and program strength, such as Divisions 5 and/or 6, where they'd play D-Y, Foxboro, Falmouth, Norwell, or Old Rochester.
My reasons for suggesting this are simple: one, teams develop further when they compete against opponents of the same or a slightly higher level. Two, there's a big difference in games between well-matched rivals and those who simply aren't matched at all. Well-matched rivals play exciting and competitive games that put to use all that players have learned from their coaches during the season's practices. Lopsided rivalries result in one team coming away demoralized while another gloats. I can't imagine coaches teaching that lack of sportsmanship.
But it's the third reason I feel is most important here: player safety. When higher-division teams play those at a lower level, the risk of injury to players is significant on both sides. Because there isn't a balance, the dominating team is forced (ideally) to take its starting players out of the game often at or before halftime, which means they spend at least half the game on the sidelines rather than continuing to hone their skills in game play. Conditioning falls short when players can't play.
On the non-dominating side, players are at risk of suffering actual physical harm by being overpowered by bigger, and yes, in some cases, tougher opponents. This can mean more concussions, strains, sprains, and even broken bones.
Is this really what we want for our kids? After all, these are high school athletics, not the pros. Yes, it's great to “play up” once in a while to encourage skill-building, but there's got to be a line somewhere. Shouldn't player safety matter more than what the scoreboard says?