Region qualification in Northwestern will be based solely on district tourney success

The Class 4 Northwestern District has full basketball membership again and teams are scheduled to play each of their fellow members twice this season.

The district’s coordinators of student activities aren’t 100 percent confident that every district team will play a full double round-robin schedule though because of factors like COVID and inclement weather. So if a team wants to play in the region tournament, it will have to make sure it’s playing its best basketball in the district tournament — and it will have to hope it doesn’t have any COVID-19 issues.

Sherando coordinator of student activities Jason Barbe said the district CSAs have decided that the two teams that advance to the district tournament finals in basketball will advance to the four-team Region 4C tournament, which is scheduled to begin on Feb. 22 with the semifinal round. This policy will also be in place in the spring — only the two district tournament finalists in baseball, softball, soccer and tennis will advance to the region tournament.

 

In the first three years following the formation of the Class 4 Northwestern District in 2017-18, the regular-season champion in the double round-robin sports of volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and tennis received an automatic berth to the Region 4C tournament. So if the regular-season champions lost in the tournament prior to the championship contest, it wouldn’t hurt them as far as region qualification.

But once again in 2021-22, the team that finishes with the best regular-season record will have to make sure it gets to the district championship contest in order to move on to regionals.

It’s the same policy that was put in place for each of the aforementioned sports in 2020-21 in response to the abbreviated schedules and overall uncertainty created by COVID-19. The district regular-season records will be used for tournament seeding purposes.

In volleyball this year, the district regular-season champion did get an automatic berth into the region tournament. That went to Millbrook, which earned the top seed for the district tournament with a perfect 12-0 record and got a first round bye in the seven-team tournament as a result. (Sherando, Millbrook, James Wood, Handley, Fauquier, Kettle Run and Liberty make up the district.) The Pioneers won both of their matches in the tournament to win that as well.

Barbe said there wasn’t as much of a concern about making up volleyball games that had to be postponed, so that’s why that sport went through the process of awarding a region berth to the district regular-season champion. Volleyball is an indoor sport that takes place in the fall. Winter sports events are always at risk of being postponed or canceled because of snow and ice, and outdoor spring sports have to deal with snow at the beginning of the year and rain throughout the season.

Though there were some volleyball matches that were postponed in the fall due to COVID, ultimately, everyone played the full 12-match regular-season schedule.

“We felt pretty comfortable that the fall, we’d be able to get [all the volleyball matches] in,” Barbe said. “If we start the winter with the attempt to play everything, and then weather causes you one set of issues, and COVID causes you a second set of issues, we didn’t want an automatic regional berth to possibly be decided because someone couldn’t play all their games. In the spring, you could lose two weeks because of a snowstorm early, and then you could have a week of rain in April.

“It seems like the best situation based on past weather experiences, and now dealing with the COVID as well, this was the route we thought was best to go. Forcing teams to play four or five nights in a row because of situations that may or may not be in their own control, is not a good deal.”

Though the spring season doesn’t start until March, Barbe doesn’t anticipate changing the policy for having the two district tournament finalists advance to region tournament play. He said COVID would have to no longer be an issue for the policy to change.

“I don’t see that as a likely scenario at this point,” Barbe said.

Four coaches with district championship coaching experience were interviewed about the policy, and the responses were mixed.

Zach Harrell’s first season as Handley’s boys’ basketball head coach took place in 2020-21, when only five of the eight Class 4 Northwestern District schools competed in VHSL winter sports. (Frederick County didn’t participate. Culpeper County was in the Northwestern District in 2020-21 but is now in the Battlefield District.) Of those five schools, only the Kettle Run boys’ and girls’ basketball teams played a complete eight-game district schedule.

Handley went 6-0 in the district regular season to place first. The Judges didn’t get an automatic region berth but did get the top seed for the district tournament. Handley got the job done there, beating Kettle Run in the district semifinals to earn a region berth. Handley went 5-0 in the postseason before losing in the state championship game.

Harrell agrees with keeping that same region qualification system in place. Harrell said the bottom line is that teams need to be playing their best at the end of the regular season. If they’re not, a team has only itself to blame if it loses early in the district tournament.

“When it comes to tournament time, the teams that compete and win those games should be the teams that advance and move on,” Harrell said. “I think if you are a team and you do get a high seed, you should be expected to take care of business. It’s a long season, and we play to be playing our best basketball in February.”

Since Frederick County did not compete in the VHSL winter season last year, this is the first time in the Class 4 Northwestern District era that Pioneers coach Erick Green Sr. will be involved in a season in which the regular-season champion will not get an automatic region berth. His teams earned automatic region tournament berths for their regular-season success every year from 2017-18 to 2019-20.

Green said he’s disappointed his team won’t have a chance to do that again. He also liked that winning the regular-season title meant hosting a Region 4C semifinal game.

“If you win the district in the regular season, you should get that automatic [berth] for region,” Green said. “All the hard work that you put in during the regular season really doesn’t amount to anything when it comes to regional [qualification]. You don’t get that good seeding [for regionals]. Now you’ve got to worry about winning your district tournament for that.

“But I always tell the kids don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Just go out and win, put yourself in a good position, and you don’t have to worry about the things you can’t control.”

James Wood baseball coach Adrian Pullen would also like to see the regular-season champion rewarded with a region berth. In the first year in which he actually got to coach the team, Pullen’s Colonels had the second-best district record (8-2) and won the district tournament.

Though there is a chance that everyone might not play a full 12-game regular season this spring, Pullen said it would be a shame if a team that had the best regular-season record saw their season end because they had to forfeit a district semifinal game for COVID reasons. Though it didn’t involve the best regular-season team, the Class 4 Northwestern District did see a 2020-21 regional volleyball tournament berth decided by forfeit when Kettle Run, which tied with Handley for second in the regular-season standings, couldn’t play its district tournament semifinal match with the Judges. Kettle Run’s season ended as a result of that forfeit.

“[The current format] renders the regular season pointless, other than seeding for the [district] tournament,” Pullen said. “And what happens if you get COVID and you can’t participate in the tournament? You’re out. If you win the regular season, and that happens, you’re out of the tournament and you don’t move on. So how is that fair?

“We’ll play however it gets stacked, but I don’t like the fact you render the regular season pointless. You play [12] district games for a reason.”

Green and Pullen hope that the old region tournament qualification system returns at some point. But for now, teams will have to make the most of the system that is in place.

James Wood boys’ soccer coach Brian Sullivan, who is also now in his first year as an assistant CSA at the school, coaches a sport where the margin of error is definitely thin because of its low-scoring nature. Last spring, Sullivan’s team didn’t receive an automatic region berth despite posting a perfect 10-0 record in a district-only regular-season schedule. James Wood not only made the region tournament, but won it and advanced to the Class 4 state semifinals.

Sullivan says he understands why only the district tournament finalists are moving on, and echoed Harrell’s thoughts on the importance of playing well at the end of the regular season.

“It might be a challenge for spring sports to do that because for two years (2020 and 2021), we haven’t had a full season,” Sullivan said. “But I understand [the district policy], with COVID going around and teams maybe not playing the same amount of games and having to cancel. The [CSAs] try to do the best they can, and that’s the solution they came up with. We’ll go with it.

“While the beginning of the season is important, it’s more about development as the season goes on. For this year, the games at the end of the season are probably a little bit more important than the ones at the beginning.”

 
 

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at rnieThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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