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After years of dialogue and debates, proposals and presentations, the New Jersey high school football postseason structure is finally changing.

Now, for the first time in state history, there will be true public-school football state champions crowned.

A historic proposal to create a new postseason format that allows schools to play for group championships was presented on Monday during the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association's Annual Meeting and voted on by general membership. The proposal needed a simple majority to pass and did so easily with a preliminary count of 255-3 with 10 abstentions, the NJSIAA announced Friday. The vote will not be official until any ballots postmarked by June 9 are tallied.

The new format, which will have the four sectional champions in each of the five public-school groups play down to a final group state champ, will be implemented starting with the 2022 season.

Football is the only NJSIAA-sanctioned sport that currently does not play down to group champions. That puzzling fact is because of an archaic line in Article IX of the NJSIAA Constitution that previously read "No state champions shall be declared in football." Back on Jan. 6, a proposal was introduced to eliminate that line and clear the way for public-school state championship games, and it passed emphatically by a 318-12 margin.

The next step was to create a framework that would allow for the extra playoff games while preserving Thanksgiving rivalry games and keeping the start and end dates of the season mostly consistent. The new format for a season including state championships will have Week 1 through Week 8 as the regular season with Weeks 9, 10 and 11 as the sectional playoffs and Week 12 containing the state semifinals (Central, South, North 1, North 2 champs). Thanksgiving week would follow (Week 13) and the state championship games would be played in Week 14.

Non-Public schools, which will not experience any postseason changes under the new format, will play their state championship games in Week 13 unless either team plays on Thanksgiving. In that event, their state final will be played in Week 14. There will be a 10-game-maximum for the regular season for all schools, which includes Thanksgiving games.

"The calendar and not touching Thanksgiving were the biggest things," said Marlboro athletic director Dave Ryden, who has helped spearhead the effort toward state championship games. "We needed to add one more week and, as crazy as it sounds, what helped the proposal a lot was the pandemic. People realized you didn't need a month to prepare before football started. We realized we can add to the back end by eliminating from the front end. We eliminated one scrimmage so teams will have one 10-v-10 practice scrimmage, one game scrimmage, and then go into the regular season. It makes the general start date the same for everyone and eliminates teams wanting to play earlier. And it fits in for the next seven or eight years in terms of finishing the season the first week of December."

"It was also based around not eliminating Thanksgiving games. It's just way too prestigious and special in some towns. You're not going to tell Middletown North and Middletown South or Phillipsburg and Easton that they can't play on Thanksgiving anymore."

What still needs to be reviewed by a separate committee is where the sectional finals, group semifinals, and group finals will be played. The prevailing thought is that it will follow what the other NJSIAA sports do with the sectional finals being played at the site of the higher seed, the group semifinals flipping back and forth by year, and the state championship games being played at a neutral site.

Ryden presented the proposal alongside Westwood athletic director Dan Vivino while Middletown North/South AD Rich Carroll, David Brearley AD Scott Miller, Colonia AD Ben LaSala, Lindenwold AD and West Jersey Football League president Derek Sellers, St. Peter's Prep AD Rich Hansen, River Dell AD Dennis Nelson, and Secaucus AD Charlie Voorhees have are also on the committee working to move the state toward playing down to group champions.

"When you got back to 2016-2017 when this all started, we were sitting at the NJSIAA in a leagues and conferences meeting and we were all arguing over who had the better plan," Ryden said. "We had to come together, take a deep breath and check our egos at the door. When all is said and done, the biggest thing that came out of this is it unified the state. We had a common goal and we worked together for it. We eliminated the north vs. south thing. We're not North Jersey or South Jersey, we're New Jersey. It's a benefit to all the players to get to play for a group championship like every other sport."

Prior to 1974, state sectional championships were declared by the NJSIAA without any postseason games. The NJSIAA playoff system began in 1974 and teams played down to sectional champions in 16 public school sections and four non-public sections. Beginning in 1995, the non-public playoffs changed from sectionals to group playoffs, which has since technically violated the NJSIAA's ban on state championships being awarded in football. In 2012, Group 5 was added for public schools, bringing the total number of sectional championships to 20 in addition to the four non-public state championships. There are now three non-public sections after Groups 1 and 2 were consolidated into one group in 2015.

The NJSIAA expanded the public postseason in 2018 with the addition of "Regional Championship Games", which are essentially state semifinal games. The Central Jersey winners play the South Jersey winners and the North 1 winners play the North 2 winners in each group.

In the Shore Conference, the eight-game regular season will once again include a Shore Conference postseason pod system and will be treated as a pilot year for a potential Shore Conference Tournament. This past season in 2020 there were no NJSIAA playoffs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state instead used a four-team pod structure for the postseason that was mostly played within each conference. In the Shore, it put the top four teams together in a championship pod that culminated with No. 1 Wall defeating No. 2 Donovan Catholic in an unofficial Shore Conference title game.

Ryden said the possibility of a future official Shore Conference football champion being crowned hinges on how it actually plays out on the field within the new structure, which really won't be known until the 2022 season. But the wheels are in motion to make the pod system a permanent part of the football season, which could include naming the pods after Shore Conference football legends with trophies for each pod, similar in practice to college football bowl games.

After not having divisions for the 2020 season because of the pandemic, the Shore Conference Football Committee has created eight divisions for the 2021 season. There will be five 5-team divisions and three 6-team divisions. There will be a six-game regular season made up of either four or five divisional games plus one or two non-division or non-conference games.

While there are still some details to iron out within the Shore, the statewide picture is now set. On Dec. 3, 2022, the first public-school group state championship in New Jersey history will be awarded.

"I'm proud of what we did in coming together and unifying," Ryden said. "I can't wait for that date. I hope all of us on that committee are on the field arm in arm handing out the first-ever public group championship trophy. It's been a long time coming."

 

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