Area coaches sound off on new state tournament format

By JOE MATHIS

Contributing Writer

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association Board of Control has tentatively approved major changes to the state’s baseball and softball state tournament formats.

While some of the details have not yet been confirmed by the KHSAA, they did announce that the plan would be to transition the state tournaments to feature just eight teams instead of the previous 16.

To do that, the KHSAA announced they would divide teams up into geographic pods.

The pod system is already done with Kentucky high school soccer, where regions 1-4, 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16 are grouped together. Each region winner plays another region winner in their pod in regional pod matchups that rotate every year. The winners of those regional pod games would then advance to the state tournament, trimming the field to eight.

It would also be a drastic difference for the state softball tournament: Like baseball, softball had a 16-team field where every one of Kentucky’s 16 region winners advanced to the state tournament. The main difference, though, was that softball featured a double-elimination style tournament where teams could play multiple games in one day.

The KHSAA voted in February to do away with softball’s double-elimination state tournament and then last week gave tentative approval to also enact a semi-state round for softball.

For baseball, the change puts the sport back in familiar territory.

Kentucky high school baseball previously utilized a best of three semi-state round until they eliminated it for what was the 16-team field in 2010. The new changes will not feature a best of three semi-state but will instead be single elimination from the region tournament through the state championship.

Those changes have area head coaches sounding off, like Danville baseball head coach Paul Morse.

“I’ve been a part of Kentucky high school baseball since 1984, since I was a player in seventh grade,” Morse said. “And we’re basically going back to the system that we had when I was in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. So we’re going back thirty years. If we’ve made changes and progressed baseball-wise over the past thirty years all in the case of making our sport better and now we go back to a plan we had thirty years ago? It just seems like we’re taking a huge step backwards.”

Morse’s main gripe, however, is that with a 16-team tournament field being trimmed to eight, half the number of kids will get to experience the state tournament.

“I’m sad for the other eight teams that won’t get to experience the state tournament,” Morse said.

For example, Morse’s 2006 Admirals rolled through the regular season with a 26-6 record, then dominated the district and region tournaments, outscoring their opponents 51-5.

There was only one thing that stood in their way of a berth in the state tournament: A best of three semi-state round, where they matched up with a Lexington Catholic school that Morse says boasted seven division one players, four of whom were drafted.

Morse believes that Danville team was robbed of a chance to experience the state tournament because of the semi-state round.

That was the first thing that Boyle County softball coach Brian Deem expressed concern about.

“What’s disappointing to me is, first and foremost, you just eliminated eight schools from their kids having a state tournament experience. That’s my number one concern,” Deem said, who’s Rebels have made the state softball tournament four of his seven years as head coach.

The KHSAA said multiple factors led to the decision to use the same format for both baseball and softball, with one of the key factors being gender participation equality and the need to make the two sports’ tournaments more comparable.

With that now addressed, Morse says the equality the KHSAA was seeking between baseball and softball doesn’t line up with other sports and their respective state tournament formats.

“From an equality standpoint that doesn’t seem fair to me,” Morse said. “Basketball girls and boys, they get 16 teams for a state tournament and baseball gets eight now. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

Deem, who already deals with the semi-state format while coaching the Rebels’ girls soccer team, agrees.

“I just find it hard to believe that softball and baseball, as well as soccer since this is the same format, has to have a different format than basketball,” Deem said. “The major sports in the state that aren’t classed, baseball, softball, and girls and boys soccer have to have some different format while basketball remains untouched.”

Not all coaches are ready to form an opinion yet, though.

Boyle County head baseball coach Kyle Wynn was named head coach of the Rebels in 2012, meaning the only format he’s familiar with is the one that involved all 16 teams making the state tournament. His Rebels got that state tournament experience in 2017 and 2018, when they won back-to-back 12th region titles to advance to state.

“It’s hard for me to form an opinion when I’ve yet to experience it, I guess,” Wynn said. “I do think it’s special, though. We’ve been fortunate enough to win back-to-back region titles and that reward of getting to go to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, it’s a neat atmosphere and very rewarding for the kids.”

However, the KHSAA hopes the atmosphere for the semi-state games will also be special.

In the same meeting, the KHSAA said they would determine where the semi-state games would be played so they, themselves, can ensure that the teams have a quality postseason experience at a collegiate field, or one with a comparable facility.

“If we play at a field like UK, or Northern Kentucky University, or Florence Freedom that would make it a little bit better. But not enough for me to say this is a great thing,” Morse said.

The semi-state may also help with a constricted state tournament schedule. The 16-team format featured two days of opening round games—four on the first day and four on the second, with two games in a morning session and two in an evening session.

But with no clock in baseball, there was never any guarantee when the second slate of games would begin.

That’s exactly what happened to Boyle County last season. The Rebels’ first game in the state tournament was set for 8:30 p.m. but that was contingent on the St. Xavier-Pleasure Ridge Park game ending on time. Those two teams slugged their way to a 13-7 game and Boyle couldn’t get their state game started until more than an hour after their scheduled first pitch.

Now, with only eight teams in a state tournament, the chance that games would be pushed further back into the night may decrease.

“The game before us, the PRP and St. X game was a slugfest and it did throw our game off. We were the last game and it threw us off into the late evening,” Wynn said. “That does play into it, where you’d now have a little less chance for that to happen.”

No matter what the coach’s feelings are, however, the new state tournament format is coming. And with no way to change it now, they say it’s up to them to get their teams prepared for state, regardless of whether it’s a 16-team or 8-team format.

“I just don’t feel that this is what is best for the kids but I don’t get to make these decisions. My job is to just get my kids prepared,” said Deem.

And that’s exactly how Morse feels.

“You know, it is what it is. We’re going to have to deal with it and go by it but I would be shocked if this format sticks around for very long,” Morse said. “If they were going to come up with some completely different thing that we hadn’t done for baseball anyway in the past then it might have been a little easier to follow. But going back to a format that we played by in the past and we moved on from because we knew there were better options is really frustrating.”

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