State playoff football begins Friday for most classifications in South Carolina. But perennial Class AA powers Silver Bluff and Strom Thurmond won’t be on the field.
Both teams will enjoy a first-round bye in a new state tournament format in Class AA. Two brackets with 48 Class AA schools split into two divisions will see teams battle for two state championship trophies.
The Rebels and the Bulldogs won’t even compete for the same state title.
“It’s pretty unusual, that’s for sure,” Silver Bluff coach Al Lown said. “Right now it’s just different. I don’t know what to make of it.”
Class AA schools decided to join Class AAAA and A this year by moving to a postseason format that crowns two state champions.
The class has been split in half based on enrollment numbers, giving smaller schools a chance to compete for their own state title without having to knock off a larger school.
“The way it was presented to us was that it would even the playing field,” Lown said.
Class AA schools in South Carolina range in size from fewer than 600 students (Saluda, Batesburg-Leesville) to more than 900 (Swansea, Chester), according to enrollment numbers posted by the South Carolina High School League.
“People might say it’s just a few hundred students. That might not make a difference when you’ve got a few thousands kids at a school, but it matters with smaller numbers like this,” Lown said. “Those small schools are at a disadvantage.”
Silver Bluff, with a little fewer than 700 students, will compete in the Class AA Division II state playoffs, while Strom Thurmond (865) will play for a Division I title.
Similar playoff formats already exist in Class AAAA and A, where the enrollment numbers vary even more within classifications.
North Augusta High School, with fewer than 1,600 students, doesn’t have to compete for a state championship with Wando and Dorman, which have more than 3,000 students each.
Instead, the top 16 qualifiers for the Class AAAA state playoffs – as determined by a complex regular-season points system based on wins, losses, size of opponents and strength of schedule – break off to form a Division I bracket.
The remaining state playoff-bound teams play for a Division II title.
In Class A, the enrollment percentages vary more than any other classification. Ridge Spring-Monetta (266 students) will start postseason play tonight but won’t have to worry about facing fellow Class A opponent Abbeville, with more than double the enrollment.
Fox Creek (321 students) and Williston-Elko (318) will compete for a Class A Division II state championship, while fellow Region 4-A opponent Calhoun County (456) will move up to the Division I bracket.
Williston-Elko coach Dwayne Garrick said the decision to split up classes for the postseason has been a relief to smaller schools.
“There’s such a disparity in numbers that it’s only fair to the kids to do it this way,” he said. “It would be too big of a disadvantage for the smaller schools.”
Despite the numbers game, the split-class playoff system still has its critics.
The dual brackets meant 16 additional teams made the state playoffs in Class AA this year, giving postseason spots to teams that might not have earned them.
Pelion, the last team to qualify for the Division II playoffs, went 2-8 in the regular season. Batesburg-Leesville went 1-9 and will be the No. 11 seed.
Some coaches don’t like to take a week off before the playoffs, but the top eight seeds in each division received a bye this week.
Lown said Class AA tried to implement the split-class postseason last year but it was denied in a vote by the schools.
“Me? I don’t know how I feel about it yet,” he said. “I’ll tell you in a few weeks.”
This isn’t the first time Class AA has split its postseason. The format was in effect when Silver Bluff claimed a state championship in 1991.