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The CIAC football committee agreed Wednesday not to tinker with Thanksgiving week games, to keep the number of playoff participants at 32, and eliminate the quarterfinal round for the 2014 season.
As to what the committee will do with the playoffs this season, and the future of both Thanksgiving and the playoffs, it's complicated.
The committee agreed to several changes for the 2014 season that they'll recommend to the CIAC Board of Control. Among them were the number of minutes a team can have contact at practice, based on the recommendation of the Sports Medicine Committee.
The committee decided not to make any changes to the dates and format for the 2014 season. Teams will play up to 11 games as already scheduled, and both the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference and South-West Conference could continue to hold a league final. No team will play over 14 games. Five of eight state finalists played 15 games in 2013.
"I think the coaches on the committee really stepped up and did what was right for the kids, especially for their health and safety," CIAC Associate Executive Director Paul Hoey said. "Some tough decisions needed to be made."
Ledyard head coach Jim Buonocore, who serves on the committee, said, "With schedules already being set in many leagues throughout the state, it would be difficult to adjust and alter anything."
The committee was on the fourth year of a five-year agreement whereby eight teams qualified in four divisions. The format better ensured that unbeaten-or-one loss teams would qualify than they did under the previous six-division, four-team format.
Player safety had become a more pressing concern given recent studies about concussions and degenerative brain disease. Quarterfinal and semifinal games were played the Tuesday and Saturday after Thanksgiving because the playoffs had to be completed in two weeks. The CIAC didn't want to extend the season another week due to weather concerns, and because it would further interfere with winter sports.
"You had teams playing three games in 10 days, which is not healthy," Buonocore said.
The committee opted to wait until its February meeting to finalize a playoff format so that its membership had more time to consider its options.
"I was pleasantly surprised that we didn't touch the regular season, which was good," said New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli, who's also the coaches' chair on the CIAC football committee. "It's a shame that we have to lose the quarterfinals because we fought 10 years for that, so hopefully it's a one-year thing. I'm not exactly sure how we're going to set up the playoffs."
Mathematics dictates that the committee would likely break up its 32 teams into eight, four-team divisions.
"There are quite a few ways how you can determine seeding once you get those 32 teams," Buonocore said. "Do you (format divisions) by CIAC playoff points? Do you do it by CalPreps.com (computer rankings)? …. Do you take the first, fourth, fifth and eighth seeds and put in them in one division and two, three, six and seven in the other?"
The committee faced many obstacles when reaching an agreement. Hoey said that there wasn't enough support to either start the playoffs before Thanksgiving or eliminating the latter. The committee also didn't want to reduce the playoff field from 32. Fairfield Prep and Norwich Free Academy, the Class LL runner-ups the past two years, wouldn't have qualified under the previous six-division, four-team format. Most other CIAC sanctioned sports require a team only win 40-percent of their games to qualify for states, too.
The committee will continue to look at other options for the 2015 season and beyond, and Hoey hinted that it may involve starting the playoffs before Thanksgiving.
"There were major concerns that some really, really good teams were not getting in the playoffs (prior to adding quarterfinals)," Hoey said. "They're really going to have to look at what's going to be the better way to go. It's not what they want (losing the quarterfinals), but they know that change needed to be made (this season) and how we're doing it. And they're hopeful that they can get support down the road to do something different, and they know they're going to have to build support in order to do that.
"I told the coaches and everyone at the meeting today that if you asked administrators and athletic directors (about tinkering with Thanksgiving), the answer would be 'no' from a vast majority of schools. (The committee) needs time to build support for why it would be a better way to do it, why it would be good for kids, why it's good for the sport, and how it wouldn't negatively affect Thanksgiving.
"That's a tough one."