There are three high school districts that reside completely within the borders of Steele County.
Two of them are still alive as we enter the MSHSL state football quarterfinals.
Neither has what could be considered a “favorable” opening-round matchup.
I am, of course, referring to Owatonna and Blooming Prairie. Both programs have spent the entire season ranked within the top three of their respective Associated Press polls and have yet to taste defeat. That’s 20 combined games and zero losses.
With the MSHSL electing not to utilize the format it does for almost every other sport and instead proceed with a completely unseeded state football bracket, the quarterfinal matchups are left to complete chance — or geography, depending on you want to look at it. Because of this, both the Huskies and Blossoms — winners of their respective Section 1 tournaments — will square off against the winner of Section 3 and play on a neutral field. The remaining matchups will include Section 2 vs. Section 4, Section 5 vs. Section 7 and Section 6 vs. Section 8.
The current formula often pans out just fine with few arguments. Take last season for instance when the top two teams in the final Class 5A AP poll, Owatonna and St. Thomas Academy, were perched on opposite ends of the bracket and eventually collided in the state championship round in what turned out to be a thrilling and evenly-match showdown.
This season, though, things didn’t fall into place quite as neatly.
Instead of garnering the top seed and meeting a team like, say, Mahtomedi, in the quarterfinals, the Huskies are forced into a rematch with the high-powered Cadets on Saturday in a battle between a pair of teams with a combined 19-1 record. Sure, this immediately makes for an ultra-exciting showdown in the opening round, but does it really make sense? I mean, isn’t this a little like pitting a pair of top-two seeds in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament?
I can guarantee that Owatonna and St. Thomas Academy aren’t trembling in their boots and welcome the immediate challenge, but the MSHSL simply isn’t rewarding either team’s complete body of work. Both spent the previous three months grinding through a pair of tough schedules, combined to lose just one game, largely blew past each of their opponents, remained safely ranked within the top 3 for most of the season, secured sectional championships and are now forced to instantly prepare for a state-title contender right off the bat.
In my opinion, brackets of this magnitude should always be formatted with the intention of having the top two teams meet in the championship round. For argument’s sake, if the MSHSL were to seed all eight teams, the matchups would look like this based on average position in the QRF and final AP poll position: No. 1 Owatonna (10-0) vs. No. 8 Mahtomedi (5-6); No. 4 St. Thomas Academy (9-1) vs. No. 5 Spring Lake Park (8-2); No. 3 Elk River (10-1) vs. No. 6 Moorhead (8-3); No. 2 Chaska (9-1) vs. No. 7 Coon Rapids (8-3).
In reality, only one of those matchups — Elk River vs. Moorhead — fell into place by chance. The remaining imaginary seeds would pit No. 1 Owatonna against No. 4 St. Thomas, No. 8 Mahtomedi against No. 2 Chaska and No. 7 Coon Rapids against No. 5 Spring Lake Park.
It could be much, much worse, but, again, when a state championship is up for grabs, I don’t think the League should leave anything to chance.
As for the Awesome Blossoms, they’re stuck in an equally precarious position as they will take on fellow undefeated, Springfield, in their quarterfinal matchup at J-W-P High School.
If the Class A tournament were to be reseeded using the same formula as Class 5A, the matchups would look like this: No. 1 BOLD (11-1) vs. No. 8 G-F-W (9-2); No. 4 Ada-Borup (10-0) vs. No. 5 Underwood (10-1); No. 3 Springfield (9-1) vs. No. 6 Browerville/Eagle-Valley (9-1); No. 2 Blooming Prairie (10-0) vs. No. 7 Deer River (10-1)
Like Class 5A, only one of those matchups fell into place (Underwood vs. Ada-Borup). Ostensibly, the remaining games look like this: No. 1 BOLD vs. No. 7 Deer River, No. 8 G-F-W vs. No. 6 Browerville/Eagle-Valley and No. 2 Blooming Prairie vs. No. 3 Springfield.
Before I continue, I should state that I understand the logic behind the current format. I don’t know this for a fact, but I believe the chief motivation for predetermining the state tournament matchups has to do with logistics, plain and simple. Travel is a huge expense, and rotating Section 1 vs. Section 2/Section 1 Section 3 (and so on) keeps this cost to a minimum. It’s easy to find large high school stadiums located on neutral sites between schools that are no further than two sections apart. From time to time, it may cause some grumbling — or coax a midweek column — but by the time the semifinals roll around, it often becomes a moot point.
However, I would hate for the MSHSL — and the teams, for that matter — to get burned down the road because there is nothing stopping a potential matchup between the state’s two best teams from occurring in the state quarterfinals. In 9-Man, for instance, No. 3-ranked Renville County West takes on fellow undefeated and No. 4-ranked Hancock in the opening round on Saturday at Buffalo High School. It could be argued that those are the two best teams remaining in the state and only one will have the privilege of playing at U.S. Bank Stadium.
At the very least, I think the MSHSL should consider fully-seeded field for Class 5A and Class 4A where teams aren’t as scattered as they are in the smaller divisions. Perhaps they could explore the idea of playing all quarterfinal games at a place such as the TCO Performance Center in Eagan where 89% of Class 5A teams are positioned within 85 miles of the stadium. In Class 4A, 76% of schools are within 100 miles of the complex.
Again, you won’t hear Owatonna or Blooming Prairie complaining about being forced to play a fellow powerhouse and unquestioned state-title contender in the opening round. They’ll tell you that “you have to beat everyone to win the state championship anyway,” and that’s absolutely accurate.
Let’s just see how things shake out on Saturday and go from there.