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Minnesota playoffs: dangerous and boring

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Teams will play three games in 11 days, the third on three days’ rest

Column: RICK SOLEM

Minnesota has a lot to learn when it comes to high school football.

The state seemed to be heading in the right direction when it did a study on the safety of its high school athletes.

In that study, the Minnesota Department of Health found that, based on voluntary reports in 36 public high schools around the Twin Cities, nearly 3,000 students suffered from sports-related concussions last school year. The study also found that football and hockey players suffered the highest concussion rates.

Today, the Minnesota State High School League football playoffs begin. Six days ago the regular season ended. Four days from now, the second round will take place.

In other words, a third of high school football teams will play three games in 11 days – the last, on three days’ rest. Not even NFL teams go through that kind of punishment.

The simple fix to this matter coincides with what else Minnesota does wrong with the playoffs. That fix, removing the first round.

In Wisconsin, teams must be .500 or better in conference to guarantee a playoff spot. In Minnesota, everyone goes, and they probably head for pizza and ice cream after.

So, instead of playing pointless first-round games, which are usually rematches – sometimes less than a week ago – Minnesota should adopt a system like Wisconsin.

For example, Caledonia (8-0) is the No.2-ranked team in Class 2A. The Minnesota powerhouse that’s won state five times since 2007 will host Hayfield (1-7) – a team they defeated 53-0 on Sept. 12.

Rushford-Peterson (8-1) is another powerhouse in the state. Also a top seed, the Trojans host Kingsland (0-8) – a team it defeated 47-0 in Week 1.

Of course, those are the top seeds in the section. A better example may be taking third-seeded Mabel-Canton (5-3), which hosts No. 6 Lyle/Pacelli. On Aug. 29, those two teams played and the Cougars (2-6) won 42-18.

There’s just no end to the mismatches in the first round.

Winona High (1-7) is the fifth seed in Section 1, Class 4A. They head to fourth-seeded Red Wing (2-6). Two teams with three wins between them. Two teams that have already played each other, and it wasn’t close. The Wingers won 21-7 on Sept. 5.

If Minnesota adopted some type of playoff qualifier, these meaningless blowouts in the waiting wouldn’t have to happen.

In Wisconsin, Holmen went 8-1 this season and finished ranked 14th. It was awarded with a seventh seed, and heads to second-seeded Superior (9-0) Superior on Friday – a team that finished ranked three spots below the Vikings. But, it’s a first-round matchup that nobody is taking for granted and a lot of people are giving Holmen a chance.

In Minnesota, this doesn’t happen between teams seeded so far apart.

Does an 0-8 Glenville-Emmons – a team that’s scoring 10.3 points a game and giving up 69.8 – need a rematch against top-ranked and top-seeded Grand Meadow, which is averaging 54.1 points for and 9.5 points against?

The Superlarks won the first time 65-8, 11 days ago and they were being nice about it. Spring Grove (8-1) played G-E on Oct. 3 and won 98-30. It was 42-0 after the first quarter and 78-0 at halftime.

The problem with football is you can’t tell your players to lay off. If you do that, they’ll get hurt.

So, what’s the worst thing that can happen tonight when, say, a team like No.-3 Lewiston-Altura (5-3) hosts Winona Cotter (1-7)?

The likely outcome is that L-A wins again, like it did Sept. 12, 55-13. The worst that could happen is some of their best players get hurt, jeopardizing their potential the rest of the playoffs.

Football is a tricky sport when it comes to injuries. Players can get hurt doing something or trying to do nothing and, in a blowout, that’s likely to happen.

Maybe a Caledonia, R-P or Spring Grove player tries to pull back, because their team is up 20 points in the first quarter, and it seems too early for the coaches to pull starters. But, while they’re pulling back, their opponents, playing in their last game ever, are sacrificing it all.

Players at that age may just want that one last “great” hit – clean or not – before they take off the pads for good. Taking out the star quarterback or running back on the top-ranked team, ruining their playoff hopes, is something they’d likely be proud of.

“Remember that time I broke the quarterback’s legs with that late hit?”

It sounds grotesque, but that’s high school football to some. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve broken my leg and seen legs broken. 

Sure, players can get injured in any game, but the mentality of a team that’s won 98-30 earlier this season, isn’t going to be the same as one that knows its opponent is a formidable one.

Yes, it’s an exciting time of year. High school football playoffs provide an incredible atmosphere. But, in Minnesota, the first rounds are both dangerous and completely unnecessary. The state tried to alleviate some of this adding bye weeks this season, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of three games in 11 days and the third game on three days’ rest.

And, why would a football team want to head into its most important game of the season – a second-round game in the playoffs – on the shortest rest of the season? Where is the logic in that?

Cutting a third of the teams from the playoff picture would prevent unnecessary injuries and, by simply playing less games, prevent even more, giving players ample rest.

Adding the element of having to qualify for playoffs, also provides teams with something to play for as the regular season comes to an end.

In Wisconsin, De Soto and Cochrane-Fountain City were examples of that last Friday. Both teams won their regular-season finales to make the playoffs. De Soto reached .500 in conference with the 32-8 upset over North Crawford – then 6-2 overall – and was awarded a playoff spot for such a feat.

C-FC and Lincoln, on the other hand, both needed a win or their season was over. The Pirates punched their ticket into the bracket with a 16-12 victory, sending Lincoln home for good.

Two regular-season finales with playoff atmospheres before the playoffs. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s first round will be full of snooze fests that will be over before the first quarter ends. At least the weather should be nice.

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