Shouldn't a game be a game?

Redlands coach Scott Laverty thinks his fellow West Region teams have been at a disadvantage under the current selection criteria and welcomes "a game is a game."
Redlands athletics photo by Karlyn Scheiwe

This season, and in previous seasons, the primary criteria that determine a team's playoff selection fate are: in-region win/loss percentage; in-region head-to-head competition; in-region results against common opponents; in-region results against regionally ranked opponents; and in-region strength of schedule.

Secondary criteria are used when the primary criteria do not result in a decision, and those are out-of-region head-to-head competition; overall D-III win/loss percentage; results against common non D-III opponents; results against all D-III ranked teams; overall win/loss percentage; results against all common opponents; and overall D-III strength of schedule.

Unless a waiver is granted, all teams must play 50 percent of all countable competition in-region.

All told it’s a seemingly manageable list of five primary and seven secondary criteria. The 12 overall comparison tools could even be labeled as overly simplistic. Last year, current national selection chair Gregg Kaye expressed a willingness to add more data to the process such as records against teams with a .500 or better winning percentage and a metric that reflects the specific strength of schedule against competition outside of a team’s conference.

Inside that veil of selection criteria simplicity in the current system is what all of the primary tools have in common – the term “in-region.” In-region is not a simple, intuitive or, in many cases, rational adjective to explain. However, regional play is the backbone of the Division III championships philosophy, which for the unaware is stated thusly:

The Division III championships philosophy is to field the most competitive teams possible while minimizing missed class time; to emphasize regional competition in regular-season scheduling; and to provide representation in NCAA championship competition by allocating berths to eligible conferences, independent institutions and a limited number of at-large teams, realizing that this may be done at the expense of leaving out some championship-caliber teams.

But what does “in-region” mean? The clinical breakdown of what constitutes an in-region contest magnifies the sometimes arbitrary borders of D-III’s regional backbone.

• Definition of an in-region game

Current in-region designations mean a contest between peer institutions Calvin College and Wheaton (Ill.) College, separated by 210 miles, is not in-region. But a contest between St. Norbert College and Occidental College, 2,108 miles apart, is in-region. Those are just two implausible examples of the many that are possible. A related inequity under the current selection process is sometimes when two teams from the same region would play the same team from another region, the game could be in-region for one team but not for the other in terms of selection criteria because of the 200-mile rule.

So much for simplicity. Would you prefer the term “in-region” be removed from the language? Consider your wish granted. As many already know, starting next season Division III is making count in the primary selection criteria all competition featuring full members or between full members and institutions in their third or fourth year of transitioning to D-III. In other words, “a game is a game” and cross-country matchups will no longer be on the fringes of relevancy come selection time.

The 2014 primary selection criteria will be: D-III win/loss percentage, head-to-head competition, results against common D-III opponents, results against regionally ranked opponents, and D-III strength of schedule.

The 2014 secondary criteria will be: results against common non D-III opponents and overall win/loss percentage.

There is one catch because the regional backbone of the division is not going away anytime soon. Unless a waiver is granted, teams must play 70 percent of all countable competition in-region beginning in 2014.

However, the following thoughts and utterances will be rendered irrelevant, assuming teams meet the threshold:

“Great matchup, but the two All-America pitchers won’t face each other because it’s not in-region.”

“How many miles is it from Institution A to Institution B? Awesome/darn it.”

“It didn’t really matter that we beat the No. 1 team in the country because we’re from State A and they’re from State B.”

The list could go on for a while. The point is if two D-III teams play each other and they’re keeping score, it will carry equal weight. If a Kean vs. Cal Lutheran falls in the woods, we’re going to hear it much clearer than before.

With that major selection criteria change on the horizon, Around the Nation solicited opinions from D-III coaches about the new rule. The sentiments ranged from positive to negative with some “We’ll see” trepidation in between.

My top 5 games of the week (April 17-23):

April 19: No. 11 Wheaton (Mass.) vs. MIT WC can clinch the NEWMAC regular season with 1 win in the 3-game series; WC leads all-time series 30-8.

April 19: No. 16 Cal Lutheran vs. La Verne CLU is the SCIAC top team entering the year-end pool play; ULV is jostling for position; CLU leads all-time series 42-24-1.

April 20: No. 3 Kean vs. No. 14 Ramapo NJAC doubleheader; KU has won at least a share of 6 of the last 8 NJAC regular season titles; RC hasn't won one since 1988.

April 20: No. 1 Linfield vs. No. 19 George Fox GFU wins the NWC automatic bid with 2 wins in the 3-game series; LC has the inside track with a series win.

April 20: No. 21 Illinois Wesleyan vs. No. 22 Augustana Pivotal CCIW 3-game series; AC (2.43) has the best ERA in the CCIW; IWU (3.30) has the 2nd-best ERA in the CCIW.

A map of D-III institutions shows that going from a mandatory 50 percent in-region threshold to 70 percent will have little to no effect on many regions. The math involved is D-III baseball teams are limited to 40 countable regular season games, so a team playing its limit must complete at least 28 of their 40 in-region. Conference tournament games do not count toward the 40-game limit but they do count as in-region contests.

In some parts of the D-III universe it takes a concerted effort to even play out-of-region competition. Coaches from those dense D-III areas struck took similar stances.

“We're a team that takes two southern trips,” Castleton State head coach Ted Shipley said, “so you would think it might affect us a bit more, but we try to connect up with in-region teams on at least one of those trips. This should not be a problem for teams in our region (New England). There are plenty of schools to choose from. So I guess I would say I am in favor of it.

“I think 70 percent is the right ratio, although 75 percent would also be good as I feel most New England teams play 8-10 games on a spring trip and that's primarily where those out-of-region games come in. It may affect other regions or areas, because of the number of in-region D-III's in those areas.”

Stevenson has changed conferences and regions in the recent past. After leaving the South Region, the Mustangs’ new home is the Mid-Atlantic Region as a part of the Commonwealth Conference, which plays 21 league games in the second-most populous D-III baseball region. Stevenson coach Jason Tawney said scheduling to reach the 70 percent threshold in his area is “very easy and reasonable.” He is in favor of the new rule because it opens up the ranking and selection process.

“It's very difficult to compare team to team when regional voting comes around,” Tawney said. “Some regions are stronger than others, and some teams play a ton out of region and it's very difficult to compare them to their ‘true’ in-region opponents.”

Tawney also sees a potential downside to having each game count equally. Will warm-weather teams still welcome those from the north in February and March?

“Those could be tougher to schedule now,” Tawney said. “Teams in the South may not want to do that, and that could also affect their won/loss because they won't be able to play teams as early.

“I would think the South might be the one region that could find this new rule to be an issue.”

Penn State-Behrend coach Paul Benim also said he’s fortunate to be in the Mid-Atlantic but has concerns similar to Tawney.

“We all may need to be more careful with spring training and three-game-set weekends,” Benim said. “And that could become a variable that needs to be assessed and measured. Part of the enjoyment of spring training is the opportunity to play new teams, specifically out of region, and learn and have a diversified experience.”

Although not opposed to the rule change, Benim has questions.

“This could limit unique travel (a northern team going to California or Arizona),” Benim said. “I am not sure the current system is broken, so why mess with it ... financial savings? Balancing inadequacies for schools that take elaborate trips?”

On the surface the Central, Mideast and Midwest regions appear to be in similar situations as New York, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. Some teams like Presentation, Concordia-Moorhead, St. Scholastica and UW-Superior in the Midwest Region still have slight disadvantages in terms of isolation, but no rule change will bring Aberdeen, S.D., physically closer to the rest of the division, so Midwest independent Presentation plays nearby NAIA programs and will travel to Winnepeg in order to fill its schedule. And Presentation is likely to move back to the NAIA next season.

St. Scholastica is in Duluth, Minn., far away from the D-III density centers, but coach Corey Kemp is for the rule change. Despite its nonprime location, Kemp’s Saints have had success while playing a competitive schedule, and he is looking forward to seeing teams credited fully for beating successful programs.

“Last year we beat Keystone on our spring trip,” Kemp said. “A win against the eventual No. 1 seed at the Mid-Atlantic regional and a team that was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country contained very little value to us because they are out of our region.”  

Like many coaches not from the South or West regions, Kemp doesn’t think his scheduling will be affected with the rule change. In fact, he wouldn’t mind the threshold going higher than 70 percent.

“The Midwest region, in my opinion, is the deepest region in the country,” Kemp said. “Teams from our region will continue to play each other because there a so many talented teams in the Midwest.

“I think the percent could be higher, even if they moved it to 75-80 percent. Eight to 10 games out of your region would give you some cushion if your spring trip venue contained all teams from outside your region, and at the same time give you 30-32 to be measured against teams in your region.”

My 2013 Week 8 ballot ( rank)
Stats, musings and folly valid through April 14

1 (4). St. Thomas – Snow this week wasn't conducive to playing the sport; allowed 2 total runs in its last 3 games.

2 (1). Linfield – Went 4-0 on its trip to SCIAC country; next up is the highly anticipated NWC showdown with George Fox.

3 (8). UW-Whitewater – Won 3 of 4 against UW-Stevens Point; the game UWSP won went 19 innings and featured 572 pitches.

4 (2). Johns Hopkins – Current 19-game winning streak; last loss was March 17; outscoring opponents 206-91 on the year.

5 (18). Southern Maine – Current 14-game winning streak; batting .356; outscoring opponents 238-104 on the year.

6 (3). Kean – 16-2 in the last 18 games; has a .975 FLD%; allowed 45 total runs in the last 17 games.

7 (10). Webster – 19-1 in the last 20 games; 20-1 when allowing five runs or fewer; 2.89 ERA and 101 SB through 28 games.

8 (6). Marietta – Swept OAC doubleheader last week by a combined 28-1 score; .438 team OBP and .460 SLG.

9 (20). Ithaca – Has allowed 50 runs during current 18-game winning streak; outscoring opponents 218-97 on the year.

10 (9). Manchester – Current 10-game winning streak; 2.52 ERA; outscoring opponents 231-103 on the year.

The rest of my ballot: Cal Lutheran; Ramapo; Cortland State; Salisbury; Wheaton (Mass.); Illinois Wesleyan; Western New England; Millsaps; UW-Stevens Point; St. Scholastica; Keystone; UT-Tyler; Wartburg; Bridgewater (Va.); Trinity (Texas).

UW-Superior is located across the bridge from St. Scholastica, but Yellowjackets head coach Eddy Morgan doesn’t like the rule change as much as Kemp. In fact, Morgan simply doesn’t like the new rule.

“We try and play 70 percent or more in-region games anyway, so it is not an issue for us,” Morgan said, adding that he’d prefer the threshold set at 60 percent. “But I am not in favor of it being mandated.”

UW-Superior is in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which plays a 24-game league schedule. Morgan is not worried about the four other games necessary to fulfill the 70-percent mandate; he merely sees an underlying advantage to the new system.

“I am not in favor of ‘a game is a game’ for primary criteria,” Morgan said, “because you could easily tailor your schedule to your benefit and that could really help those in a weaker conference. With that being said, I also don't want to get penalized if I don't get my 70 percent in. I doubt that is going to be an issue for us to get 70, but you never know.”

How could it be an issue? For starters, Superior is closer to Canada than it is the rest of the WIAC and D-III universe. But a more pressing matter is the fate of an indoor venue to take the place of the Metrodome, which is set to be razed in order to make room for the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.

“If the Metrodome does not host college baseball in the future,” Morgan said, “we will have to play more games on our southern trip, which we are not always guaranteed to play in-region games.”

South Region teams run into their own set of problems under the current rules. For example, one South coach said the closest in-region nonconference opponent for his team is a seven-hour bus ride away.

Georgia has six D-III baseball programs in various stages of membership and all are set to be full division members in the next two seasons. Georgia is also trek from D-III population centers. Piedmont, in Demorest, Ga., joined a USA South Conference that has a 24-game league schedule this season, mitigating most concerns about reaching the 70-percent mandate. With those games in the bag, Piedmont coach Jim Peeples, who likes the new rule change, is putting out the welcome mat in the Peach Tree State before detailing why he prefers next year’s selection criteria.

“We would love for more teams to come through Georgia and play during spring break,” Peeples said. “The 70 percent is important because everyone's path to the postseason is tied to in-region play. Hopefully this will bring about more head-to-head competition within each region. Right now across the country there are teams from other conferences that won't play each other because they don't want the head-to-head. Having served on the committee, and head-to-head being a primary criterion, head-to-head is important, especially when you are selecting Pool B and Pool C teams.

“If Division III is going to hold to a philosophy of region play rather than picking the best 56 teams to compete in the national tournament, then yes, 70 percent is the right number.”

Hendrix, in Conway, is one of two D-III baseball programs in all of Arkansas. Hendrix joined the recently formed Southern Athletic Association, which plays a 21-game schedule. Hendrix head coach Neil Groat said the Warriors will be a member of the South Region in 2015. If forced to choose between the current primary criteria or the new rules, Groat prefers the latter.

“As the rules currently stand,” Groat said, “we would need to choose between playing games closer to our campus and games that are in-region. We are on an island as far as D-III is concerned. There is only one other D-III in our state (University of the Ozarks), and the closest D-III that is not in the SAA is four hours away (Centenary). Under the current system, we would need to choose between our closer opponents in Dallas and South Region teams in Alabama and Georgia. That could be a four- or five-hour difference in travel. It will also open up the chance to play Missouri schools that currently are non-region games.”

And then there’s the West Region, where there are three distinct clusters of conferences – Texas, Southern California, Pacific Northwest – separated by distances that necessitate plane rides. Some regions are so compact that bus rides to a conference game will take a team through a town that’s home to a team from another D-III conference. Not so much in the West.

Even with far-flung regional members, Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Ben Shipp said the new rule change will not be a hindrance for his team or others in the American Southwest Conference.

“This ruling will have a very minimal effect, if any, for the majority of schools in the West Region,” Shipp said. “We do occasionally play some schools that still come to Texas for spring break. However, most schools choose to travel to Florida instead of Texas. In 2014 we will play 33 conference games, so you can see this ruling will not affect us.”

A 33-game league schedule eliminates worries about ASC teams reaching the 70-percent threshold, but it also closes the borders around the conference and places even greater importance on the seven discretionary games.

In another major West Region cluster of teams, the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Redlands head coach Scott Laverty says bring on the new primary selection criteria, which he thinks will give the West a better chance to compete with the denser regions.

“I am strongly in favor of the change,” Laverty said. “The West Region has been at a big disadvantage under the old system. With the primary criteria for playoff consideration being in-region competition, it was much harder for us in the West to play as many in-region games as the east coast schools due to the distance between regional schools. On the east coast they could use the radius rule to add in-region games, which they could handpick to help boost their regional record. I believe it gives the east coast teams an advantage for a Pool C bids.”

In the other grouping of West programs, the Northwest Conference plays a 24-game schedule, so the 70-percent mandate for those programs is attainable as well. But it will take a commitment.

“While I understand the new rule,” Linfield head coach Scott Brosius said, “and am generally in favor of it and understand why it is being implemented, I don't think people outside the West understand what life is like for us in terms of scheduling. Where teams in the Midwest and east can find games with ease, that's not the case for us.

“The rule doesn't change how we schedule because we've made that commitment to find games, but it will put schools in the West at a hardship. We tried increasing our schedule to four-game series, with doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday, but after one season felt it was not a good experience for the student-athlete.”

Commitment can typically be measured in effort and prioritization. However, college athletics also has a large financial component. Division III is not immune to those pressures that are usually associated with scholarship divisions. While duly monitored and stressed over across the division, monetary considerations are exacerbated in remote locales like the West Region, which Brosius said “is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to national at-large berths” due to the difficulty in finding in-region nonconference games. Upping the in-region mandate could force increased fund-raising. Where that leads is up in the air.

“I currently have to fund-raise over $30,000 per year to schedule out of conference in-region games, because the nearest league to us is in SoCal, which is a flight for us,” Brosius said. “I don't know what this rule will do for others in our region in terms of scheduling, and I don't know what issue other regions face, but I hope all future rules will take into consideration the considerable differences and challenges we face out here.”

In the same geographically isolated NWC as Linfield, Whitworth head coach Dan Ramsay sees the same financial crunch looming.

“In order for us to play out of conference, in-region games we have to travel to California or Texas,” Ramsay said. “Those trips tend to be expensive, which can put some of our programs at a disadvantage when it comes to finding the funds to back our small college budgets.”

Like Brosius, Ramsay understands and likes the rule change despite some potentially negative effects in certain areas.

“I think the new rule will hold us, as well as other teams, accountable in scheduling the games that are needed in order to be recognized as a contender at the end of the year,” Ramsay said. “I think 70 percent is fine. Ask me this question in a few years and I'll let you know if funding our big trips is too much of a burden. For now though, I think it's a good number.”

Some coaches like it. Some don’t. Some are taking a wait-and-see approach. The only thing certain is that it’s happening.

Next week: Minor league preview.