The PIAA recently released the bracket formats for the upcoming cycle of state championships. The biggest news for WPIAL teams is that the WPIAL Champions in every classification except for 6A will enter the State Playoffs at the semifinal level. The State semifinals occur in Week 14, which could mean the WPIAL finals for those classes would occur in Week 12 or 13. This will present an interesting choice for how the WPIAL will structure their playoff alignments.
The WPIAL regular season takes place between Week 0 (August 28) and Week 9 (October 30). This year, the WPIAL backloaded the schedule with conference games so teams will start the season with non-conference opponents then finish the season playing conference games. In the past, with the exception of a few cases, only conference games and final conference standings counted towards making the playoffs.
The WPIAL playoffs begin in Week 10. For classifications with a Week 12 Championship, this means that only 8 teams could make the playoffs. In the 2016-2017 cycle, the WPIAL came under fire for only having 8 3A teams make the playoffs and saw some very good teams miss out. For instance, in 2016 Beaver was the #1 ranked team in the state before a Week 9 loss, but the loss dropped them to 4th in their conference. The Bobcats missed the playoffs despite having a better record (7-2) than South Park (5-5) who made the playoffs. In the 2018-19 cycle, only 8 1A teams made the playoffs while 16 5A teams qualified despite the fact that there were 23 1A teams and 24 5A teams. With only 8 playoff qualifiers, the WPIAL 1A Championship was held at Heinz Field in Week 12 with the champion then receiving a bye in Week 13 and playing in the State semifinals in Week 14. For every classification other than 6A in the coming cycle with a Week 12 Championship, this would be the format.
Per Mike White’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the WPIAL has tentatively reserved Heinz Field for Week 12 and it is unavailable in Week 13. It seems likely the WPIAL will hold 3 games at Heinz (6A, along with two others). This means that two of the other classifications will have only 8 teams qualify for the playoffs and their champion will receive a bye in Week 13. There are multiple factors that could come into play with this decision. First, larger classifications that are able to hold their championship games at Heinz Field typically produce greater attendance numbers and more ticket revenue. Second, there is an equity consideration. This cycle, there are 24 1A teams, 27 2A teams, 20 3A teams, 22 4A teams, and 18 5A teams.
Who Goes to Heinz?
The Class 2A Championship has not been held at Heinz Field since the move to 6 classifications in 2016. That trend seems unlikely to change this cycle, given that there are 4 conferences. The other classifications (1A, 3A, 4A, and 5A) each have three conferences. In order to select 8 playoff teams, this would require a wild card formula to be used. One of the complicating factors is that in 3A and 4A the conferences to not have an equal number of teams. In the past an additional cross-conference game within the classification has been used to count towards the playoffs for conferences with fewer teams. However, given the WPIAL’s scheduling grids, there are not many inter-classification games in the non-conference slate. If 3A or 4A were chosen to have only 8 playoff teams, the WPIAL would have to devise a new playoff ranking system for the Wild Card teams.
The easiest solution here (if the WPIAL insists on having 3 games at Heinz Field) would seem to be having the 6A, 5A, and 1A title games at Heinz. Both 5A and 1A have an equal number of teams per conference which means every team will play the same number of conference games. While this may seem unfair to the 24 1A schools, it would be consistent with how the WPIAL approached 1A in the last cycle. This would enable the WPIAL to continue to use the same Wild Card formula they have in the past. With 18 teams, 5A has the fewest schools of any WPIAL class to enter at the State semifinals, but it is an absolutely loaded classification. Gateway reached the PIAA final last year and has won 2 of the last 3 WPIAL titles. Penn Hills won the WPIAL and PIAA title in 2018. Peters Twp is coming off their best season where they reached the WPIAL final. Penn-Trafford has lost just 2 regular season games in the last 3 years. Upper St Clair (20 years), Bethel Park (19 years), and Franklin Regional (16 years) all have lengthy playoff streaks. On top of that, two powerhouse programs are also moving into 5A. Pine-Richland appeared in the last 3 WPIAL finals in 6A and is moving down to 5A. South Fayette has a WPIAL-leading 64-game conference winning streak and is moving up from 4A. On top of those teams, Moon won a conference title last year, West Allegheny has a long history of success, and Woodland Hills just saw their 24-year playoff run come to an end.
In an ideal world, the WPIAL would not be bound by the constraints of Heinz Field’s scheduling restrictions. Given that there are only 18 teams in 5A, it would be a bit much for 16 of them to make the playoffs. That said, a 12-team playoff in 5A with the 3 conference champions and 1 second-place team receiving byes, would be the ideal setup. Of course, this would mean a Week 13 Championship Game. In fact, 12-team playoffs would make sense in 4A and 3A as well. With 27 teams in 2A, the current 16-team format still makes the most sense, with the top 4 teams from each conference qualifying for the postseason. In 1A, with 24 total teams, a 12- or 16-team playoff would make the most sense. Limiting the postseason to just 8 teams has left out some deserving teams the last few years. However, this format would mean that all 5 non-6A classes would have Week 13 Championship Games. This does not seem like the plausible scenario for the upcoming cycle, given the WPIAL’s relationship with Heinz Field.
The State Playoffs
As a final note on the State Playoff brackets, the PIAA did do the WPIAL some favors this cycle. The last two years, the WPIAL Champions in 5A and 6A were on the same half of the bracket as the District 12 Champions. The last two years the WPIAL 6A Champion has been knocked out by D12’s St Joseph’s Prep in the state semis. The WPIAL 5A champ has also faced D12’s Archbishop Wood in the semis, with Penn Hills winning in 2018 and Gateway losing in 2019. The other typical “nemesis” of WPIAL teams has been Cathedral Prep in 4A, which knocked out the WPIAL champion in 4 straight years before Thomas Jefferson beat the Ramblers last year. Cathedral Prep and Archbishop Wood were both forced to move up in classification by the “Success Formula” this cycle, which means that both Archbishop Wood and St Joe’s Prep will be in the D12 6A bracket while Cathedral Prep and Imhotep Charter (another D12 powerhouse) will be in 5A.
This cycle, both the 6A state brackets puts the D12 champion on the opposite half from the WPIAL Champion. This means a WPIAL team would not have to face St Joe’s Prep, Archbishop Wood, or Imhotep Charter until the PIAA finals. Additionally, with Cathedral Prep moving up to 5A, the D10 5A Champion is on the opposite half from the WPIAL Champion. The hardest path to the State Title will still be in 2A. While 3-time defending State Champion Southern Columbia is on the opposite half of the bracket, the WPIAL 2A Champion will have a potential semifinal against a D10 team where powerhouse Wilmington is joined by 2-time defending 1A State Champions Farrell who were forced to move up to 2A due to the Success Formula. With Farrell moving up to 2A, the path to the 1A State Final opens up for WPIAL teams. The WPIAL 3A Champions have reached the State Final in each of the last four years (with all but Central Valley winning the crown). In conclusion, the new state brackets set up very well for WPIAL teams to make deep runs into the playoffs over the next two years.