By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
As far as Portales football coach Glenn Johnson is concerned, the New Mexico Activities Association’s new expanded large-school playoff format is a good thing.
Classes 3A through 5A will go from eight teams to 16 in the postseason beginning this fall, with non-automatic qualifiers getting in with at-large berths. Thus, more than three-fourths of the 62 teams in those three classes — 22 in 5A, 19 in 4A, 21 in 3A — will now make it into postseason.
That’s good news for Johnson, whose squad is lodged in arguably the toughest district in Class 3A, often with more than two of the best eight teams in the class.
“Everyone in our district has to be pleased because of the strength of our district,” said Johnson, whose team was ranked in the top five in 3A much of last season but finished fourth in District 4-3A. “There have been times in the past where we’d have potentially the best three or four teams in (the class).”
Johnson said the Rams’ schedule, which includes three Class 4A schools, should weigh in their favor in an at-large situation.
“That has to account for something,” he said.
Robert Zayas, the NMAA’s director of communications and media relations, said the NMAA membership voted for the expanded playoffs, and one of the main reasons was to make sure the best teams had a chance in postseason.
“We’ve had some cases in some really strong districts where a strong team would finish third and fourth,” he said.
In the past, the top two teams in each of four districts qualified for the playoffs in all three classes. This year, 5A and 4A will have five districts and 10 automatic qualifiers each, plus six at-large teams, while 3A will send eight automatic qualifiers and eight at-large teams.
Each district champion is guaranteed a first-round home game. Because of the expanded format, the playoffs will last four weekends instead of three, with one week lopped off the 12-week regular-season period.
Once the teams have been selected, the NMAA will seed everyone. The process could leave the organization open for criticism, Zayas acknowledged, “but with that comes more excitement” in the playoffs.
Clovis assistant coach Darren Kelley thinks the procedure will make preparation for a first-round opponent a tougher task.
“The hardest part is you won’t know until late Saturday night (of the final regular-season weekend) who you’ll meet in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s going to be one of the most challenging things.
“The only upside is you could make the playoffs and not be one of the top two teams in your district.”
Clovis is in three-team District 4-5A this year with Carlsbad and Hobbs. In the past, the district has been five teams, including two Albuquerque schools.
Kelley said that while having a smaller district could affect the Cats’ schedule at some point, especially trying to get late-season games, it hasn’t changed much this year. Clovis kept former district member Sandia while replacing Cibola with Class 4A power Artesia.