BILLINGS — When the Class AA state soccer tournament wraps up next weekend in Helena, it’ll put a wrap on the state-tournament format.
Beginning next fall, Class AA will join its Class A counterparts in having home-site, single-elimination playoffs. Mark Wahl, the director of activities and athletics for Billings Public Schools, said a combination of coaches, athletic directors and the Montana High School Association determined that the tournament format was not cost effective and that it became increasingly difficult to find enough officials to work the event.
“We just felt it was time for a change,” Wahl said.
The first round of playoffs under the new format, which has been approved by the MHSA, will pit teams in the same conference against one another: the No. 8 seed will play at the No. 1 seed; No. 7 at No. 2; No. 6 at No. 3; and No. 5 at No. 4.
The winners advance to the quarterfinal round. That’s when inter-conference play begins, with No. 4 in the West and No. 1 in the East, and so on. From there the format goes to a semifinal round and a championship match, with the higher seed getting home field. If two competing teams have the same seed, for example, the No. 1 seed from each conference, home field will be determined on an annual rotating basis.
The playoffs would likely start on a Tuesday, with games following on Saturday (quarterfinals), Tuesday again (semifinals) and the next Saturday (championship).
The Eastern AA will have just seven teams next season, with Butte moving to the Western AA as Belgrade joins the East. Bozeman’s second high school is scheduled to open in the 2020-2021 school year, and then both conferences will have eight teams.
Wahl acknowledged there are some legitimate concerns about the new format, such as teams making two trips across the state in a matter of a few days. But he added the benefits, which include potentially moving playoff matches to bigger stadiums if one of the cities hosts two playoff matches, for example, outweigh the cons.
“The main idea is to promote soccer,” he said. “We just felt like the way (the new format) emphasizes the game and the possibility to promote them and maybe play them in a stadium would make the tournament a little more exciting.”