The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board approved dramatic changes to the organization’s football playoffs Tuesday.
The move, which was unanimously approved during the Board’s monthly meeting, will create an ‘Open Division’ in the sport.
The new division will begin at the end of the 2019 season, with eight teams chosen from each of the association’s three-largest divisions (4A, 5A and 6A).
The eight teams will be chosen based on a set of criteria including strength of schedule, and won’t interfere with the 16-team playoffs in the six other divisions.
AIA Executive Director David Hines said the winner of the new, eight-team tournament will be termed the state champion, with the other champions earning the title of “division champion.”
“This would end the premise that we don’t want to know who wins the state championship before we play Week 1,” Hines told The Arizona Republic.
The new division has won the praises of local coaches and athletic directors alike. Longtime Canyon del Oro coach Dustin Peace called the new championship a blessing for teams lacking the depth of perennial powers primarily from the Phoenix area.
“I’m all for it, the new playoff format creates more opportunities for more teams,” Peace said. “There will be more playoff spots open and it will be spread across multiple conferences. It also crowns the very best team. I believe it will generate more excitement for the sport. This is a great step forward.”
Teams that qualify for the Open Division playoff are not eligible to compete in their regular division’s postseason competition.
The call for the extra division comes after a year in which the state championship games in two of the three-largest AIA divisions were one-sided affairs. Scottsdale’s Saguaro (4A) and Peoria’s Centennial (5A) won title games by 26-and-53-point margins, respectively.
Ironwood Ridge Athletic Director Tony Jacobson shares Peace’s positive outlook on the development. Jacobson has seen his school build itself into one of the biggest powers in Southern Arizona over the last decade, only to run into teams from Phoenix that have better depth and talent than anyone in Southern Arizona.
He believes the Open Division could create more parity in the sport, allowing teams from across the state to find success against fairer competition.
“This new playoff format creates more opportunities for more teams. There are more playoff spots open and will be spread across multiple conferences, from 4A-to-6A,” he said. “It also crowns the very best team. I believe it will generate more excitement for the sport. This is a great step forward.”
The new division’s competitors will be determined by a computer ranking, similar to the old Bowl Championship System used for more than a decade by the NCAA.
Peace believes the new division is a strong step in the right direction, in terms of growing the sport and creating a more equitable playing field for teams not located in the talent-rich Valley of the Sun.
“The gap is only going to get bigger between the schools,” he said. “This will let more neighborhood teams play each other in the postseason, which is more exciting for everyone involved than the old system.”