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The Carletonian

Differences in MIAC playoff formats between sports spark dialogue

Making the MIAC playoffs is the goal for most athletic teams at Carleton, and winning these small tournaments is frequently the first step in winning a national title, the ultimate objective of every team and athlete in Division III. Throughout the season, teams jostle for position, hopefully placing them firmly within the playoff picture when the season comes to an end. Interestingly, not all playoff pictures have the same size picture frame. Some sports, like soccer, have a six team playoff, whereas others, like baseball and softball, only bring the top four teams to their tournaments. Debates about these playoff formats have many layers of complexity, invoking discussions about the importance of the regular season, which playoff seeds deserve “special treatment,” and which format helps the best team receive the automatic bid to the NCAA national tournament, the prize for winning the MIAC conference title.

Junior baseball player Owen Riley speaks highly of the four team format used for baseball. “[The format] is good for the MIAC baseball season because it means that every single game in the regular season means a lot, so you can never relax and know that you’ve got a playoff spot secure. With only four spots, every game becomes a must win game. I think the format keeps every game you play really competitive.” Riley’s sentiments mirror the primary argument in favor of a more exclusive playoff. By keeping the number of teams low, regular season performance and consistency are rewarded, things that are especially important in a sport as unpredictable as baseball. Since upsets are common in the sport (Carleton’s 10th place team swept the eventual MIAC champion), a smaller playoff rewards consistency over time, giving only the most regular performers a chance at the title.

Riley also believes that the playoff structure allows high level teams to consistently win the tournament, and thus receive the automatic bid to the NCAA nationals. The automatic bid is especially important for the MIAC, as the teams in the conference often have a weak strength of schedule, making it a challenge for most MIAC baseball sides to receive at-large bids to the big dance.

“I think that four teams is probably best, because baseball is a sport where in one game anything can happen,” said Riley. “Say you have a six team playoff. You could easily have a team that comes in sixthplace who maybe finished with a .500 MIAC record end up winning the playoffs. And if you’re trying to produce the best possible team to go to the national tournament that’s probably not how you’re going to do it. Just because the team may have beat high level teams on their best day doesn’t mean they are going to be super competitive at the national tournament.”

For Riley, the four team format allows for an elite team to reach the NCAA tournament more frequently, helping to alleviate the possibility of a lesser team taking advantage of a few upsets to win the slot, perhaps preventing another team from making the tournament who is more likely to have a good performance at the higher level. Although Riley believes that the smaller playoff size works against Carleton baseball, a team typically finding themselves just below playoff contention, he still believes that it is the best format for the conference.

“If I was in charge of the MIAC as a Carleton baseball player, I’d expand it to six teams so we could have a better shot of making the playoffs next year,” said Riley. “But if I was in charge of the MIAC not playing for Carleton, I’d keep things the way they are.”

Softball player Maddie Sherwood ’19 dislikes the four team format of the softball MIAC playoffs, partially due to the domination of two powerhouse programs at St. Thomas and St. Kate’s.

“With St. Thomas and St. Kate’s being so dominant in the softball playoffs I think it’s really hard when we always know each year those two spots are going to be taken. So basically we are only vying for two spots because no matter what, St. Thomas and St. Kate’s are going to make it,” Sherwood states. For Sherwood, expanding the playoff format keeps the playoffs open to more teams, allowing for healthier competition to take place by making the playoffs a more attainable goal.

“I think in the regular season when you’re vying for a spot in the playoffs it’s really hard for teams to stay motivated, especially when you lose a game that could have gone either way,” said Sherwood. “We could be out just because of this one game. A bigger playoff makes the overall season more competitive and more enjoyable for student athletes who want to compete for those additional spots.”

The idea of motivation is especially important for teams who find themselves just outside the top four, despite good performances throughout the season. For example, Carleton softball set a record for the most wins in a season this year and finished in seventh place in the MIAC, yet they were eliminated from MIAC playoff contention with four games remaining in the season. The number of games played without playoff implications was even higher for the five teams behind Carleton in the standings, a testament to how exclusive playoff formats can decrease the top-to-bottom competitiveness of the conference. 

Sherwood elaborated on the idea of playoff-based motivation as beneficial to late season play. “I think me and my teammates always come out and we want to win and we want to do the best that we possibly can. But, especially toward the end of the season where you’re really just grinding your gears and running on adrenaline, I think having those two spots would add an extra layer of motivation for the team.” 

Sherwood also believes that softball is a sport with far less randomness and potential for upsets when compared to baseball due to smaller pitching staffs, which she believes would add legitimacy to a six team softball playoff.

“I think with softball it’s a bit different than baseball because you can rely on two pitchers your entire season, and you don’t have to rely on a huge staff. I think that the back-to-back play for the 3-6 ranked teams would not be an issue for softball at all. I don’t think it would affect softball as much as it would baseball,” said Sherwood. Since pitching staffs are smaller in softball, where two pitchers can easily carry a team through an entire season, the randomness of the playoffs decreases, making it less likely that a team could “get lucky” and win a six team playoff. 

Men’s soccer player Mark Roth ’19 believes that the six team playoff promotes striving for the top playoff slots. Since the one and two seeds both receive first-round byes, it was a goal of the Knights to get one of these two slots.

“Getting one of the top two slots was one of our goals coming into the season because we have been in the bottom four]teams the past two years, and you have to play on Tuesday ahead of the Wednesday matchup and if you have that extra day of rest it makes a huge difference, so getting that second or first seed and eventually using that to get to the championship was the goal,” said Roth. Since the lower-seeded teams have to play an extra game, the six team playoff is able to introduce more teams into the playoff fray while still giving priority to the top performers in the conference.

Prior to Roth’s first-year season, the MIAC had a four team playoff, before they switched to the current six team format, a change that aggravated some of Roth’s older peers.

“A lot of the players on the team were unhappy about this because if you weren’t in the top two it required you to play those extra games,” said Roth. “I think that a six team playoff encourages teams to play a little bit differently in the playoff games leading up to the championship because if you’re in the bottom four, you have to play to win the game but you also have to play with the knowledge that you are playing the next day. Some teams to pack it in defensively and try to take risks, and some try to get it to penalty kicks.”

Roth is also concerned by the forced game plan shift that occurs as a result of having to play on back-to-back days. He said, “I think moving to a four team playoff would increase the emphasis placed on every regular season game and might change the playoffs so that people could play to their strengths better.” Roth speaks his praise for the four team format, but he also feels that the six team playoff is able to uniquely prepare athletes for the rigor of the NCAA tournament.

“As a pro to the six team system, in the NCAA tournament, you have to play back-to-back games. Maybe that’s why they decided to move to a six team playoff to encourage that hardship and to become more familiar with it,” said Roth.

Creating an optimal playoff system requires more nuance than many outsiders would assume. The mechanics of the sport itself often dictate the ideal playoff format: while a six team format would perhaps be more ideal in a more predictable softball environment, it would be potentially harmful in baseball, considering the sport’s high level of randomness. There is also no perfect playoff system, an idea that is typified in the pros and cons of the larger soccer playoff system. All playoffs are not created equal, and Carleton hopes to see the Knights taking advantage of the subtleties of these systems in the seasons to come.  

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