Phil Anastasia: Long way to go toward state football finals

"We're one of only four or five states that don't compete for" state public school football titles, says Delsea head coach Sal Marchese. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
"We're one of only four or five states that don't compete for" state public school football titles, says Delsea head coach Sal Marchese. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 01, 2013

Football coaches like football games.

Football players like football games.

Football fans like football games.

That's why there is seemingly so much support for the idea of state championships in public school football - more games, bigger games, better games.

But there might be 100 yards of open field between the idea of state championships and the reality of them.

On paper, it makes sense. On paper, it solves one of weirdest things about high school athletic competition in this state: The absence of state finals in the single most popular sport.

I mean, think about that for a minute. All high school athletes in New Jersey - gymnasts, tennis players, volleyball players, golfers, fencers - have the opportunity to vie for a state title except for those who compete in the sport with the most participation, fan interest, alumni support, and media coverage.

It's completely counterintuitive.

"I think we're one of only four or five states that don't compete for it," Delsea coach Sal Marchese said.

Said Penns Grove coach Kemp Carr: "There's no ifs, ands or doubts - everyone wants to know who is the best in the state in their group. It's the way to go."

But this is New Jersey. Nothing is ever simple in this state, with so many small, protective pockets of self-interest and so much resistance to change.

Most football coaches, players, and fans want state championships in public school football.

But do they want them enough to start the season before Labor Day? That would happen twice in every seven-year cycle in the latest proposal to create state finals that will be presented to NJSIAA's general membership for vote in December.

Do they want to play eight weeks without a bye to start the season?

Do they want to marginalize division races and Thanksgiving Day traditions?

Do they want nonplayoff teams to stage two consolation games?

"I like it under the right circumstances," Cherokee coach P.J. Mehigan said of state championships. "I think a formula can be put into place to create a true state champion. But you've got to make everybody happy, and right now, that's not happening."

That's that rub. When Timber Creek's Rob Hinson says state championships would be "great for New Jersey football," he's 100 percent correct.

But the devil's in the details. Most folks - especially coaches, players, and fans - want to see state finals, but many of them are uncomfortable with the particulars of the latest proposal.

Or any proposal.

This new proposal is a long shot to pass in December. There's not enough support among administrators, who cast the vote for each district, and others who worry about the disruptive effect of an altered schedule.

Proponents of the proposal will make the rounds this fall, stopping in South Jersey in October to lay out the plan and gather some feedback. Maybe the proposal will be tweaked to the majority's satisfaction before December.

But don't count on it. The rough outline likely will stay the same - an earlier start, a rush through the eight games, an expanded playoff format that suspends postseason action for a week to allow for the traditional Thanksgiving rivalries, and still finishes on the first weekend in December.

But the earlier start will scare off some folks, who will see a threat to the sanctity of summer at the Jersey Shore, and the possibility of two of the dreaded consolation games for non-qualifiers will be a major issue, too.

Marchese raises another concern: Is it wise to have Group 1 teams that might have 25-30 kids on the roster playing 14 football games?

Almost everybody believes New Jersey should have state championships for public football. It just makes too much sense - in theory.

But the problem is creating a system that works for everybody, or even for 75 percent of the voters.

I still think the best route is to keep everything the same and add two weeks to the end of the season. That way, the only teams impacted would be the ones still alive in the playoffs - and they will love that kind of disruption.

Of course, some folks will worry about weather in mid-December and others will be concerned about encroachment into basketball season (although we're talking about five South Jersey high schools that would play in state semifinals, and probably three that would make state finals).

Public-school football players should be able to compete for state championships, right?


But somehow, in this state, it's a long way from such a simple sentiment to kickoff for one of those games.

Contact Phil Anastasia

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